We Were Eight Years in Power: Introduction to a Muster Roundtable

We Were Eight Years in Power: Introduction to a Muster Roundtable

This week we are running a roundtable about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Our guest editor for the series, Greg Downs, offers his introduction here. Please follow along this week to hear from historians about how Coates’s work relates to our study of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Subsequent posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

In the winter of 2008, Civil War Era historians began sending each other Atlantic.com blogposts with subject lines like “So good” or “you won’t believe it.” By some undeserved miracle, a widely circulated magazine hosted a blog for deeply serious, if not yet fully formed, arguments about the meaning of the Civil War and of slavery. Vulnerable, punishingly curious, and fixed on some point not yet visible to us, or perhaps even to himself, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates sparred with the Civil War in near-privacy even as he materialized publicly in Atlantic essays on Bill Cosby, Michelle Obama, and Malcolm X.

When Coates unfolded his ideas about slavery and the Civil War in Atlantic in his February 2012 “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” and his September 2012 “Fear of a Black President,” many historians cheered. A few wept. In a profession increasingly anxious about impact, Coates had earned the only impact that matters: He changed the way people think. While historians—including those who purport to critique capitalism—talk about impact through market metaphors and market logic, Coates garnered something more substantial than an advance or book sales or reviews (though he garnered all that). He changed how people wrote, how they talked, how they thought. Like Rilke’s archaic torso his pieces whispered: you must change your life.

Remarkably, he took us with him as he earned the MacArthur award and the National Book Award. In his essays Coates carefully named the historical acts that excluded African Americans from equal participation in the nation’s economic, social, and political life: slavery, carceral systems, the exclusion of African Americans from the most-profitable housing markets and government subsidies. He even carried our names into the world, checking dozens of scholars in his essays.[1] Coates reminded readers that the story had already been told, and could only be told again because of the work we had done.

Yet, as Coates unveiled his remarkable 2015 Between the World and Me, the emails and texts began to carry doubts. Of course the book was brilliant. Of course in many ways he was right about the present. But what about the way he treated the past? Instead of the complex, contingent events of the Civil War’s emancipations, he offered a story of The Dream that repeated itself (in shifting, creative forms) in each scene. What had happened to his view of history?

With the publication of We Were Eight Years in Power this October, we are in position to answer that question, and here we can contribute to such dialogue by offering a roundtable discussion by talented and thoughtful historians reflecting on this volume’s significance. Along with his eight landmark Atlantic essays, Coates has published an introduction (which opens with a killing quote from Reconstruction politician Thomas Miller), an epilogue, and eight slight but unbearably poignant memoirs of his own intellectual passage. After a pessimistic young adulthood, he found himself transformed, in some ways against his own better judgment, by Barack Obama’s 2008 election. “It now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime. In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body.”[2]

Even as his own trajectory shines—beginning the book at a welfare office he ends it at a BET party at the White House—his hopes fade. Reconstruction violence, as described by Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames, introduces not a contingent event but a “familiar cycle.” Coates critiques the “common theory” that “emancipation and civil rights were redemptive” or might finish “the work of ensuring freedom for all” and help the nation escape “the ghosts of history.” Watching the Tea Party response to Obama, he saw “that theory for the illusion that it was.”[3] As he studied the Civil War he “could now see history, awful and undead, reaching out from the grave. America had a biography, and in that biography, the shackling of black people—slave and free—featured prominently.”[4]

As he introduces his 2012 essay “Fear of a Black President,” Coates gently mocks his prior faith in “an arc of cosmic justice” and replaces it with his view of “tragedy.” Although Coates spends a good deal of time talking about his tragic view, he does not always talk about it in the same way. At times he suggests the familiar scholarly claim that there is no pattern to history, a way of resisting “the happy ending.”[5] At other moments it is the presence of a recurring, perhaps inescapable, pattern of plunder and destruction, a view he associates with what he calls “black atheism” and that echoes afro-pessimism. “The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.” The “answer was exactly what black people in their hearts believe it to be.”[6]

What drives history is a white supremacy that is “a crime and a lie, but it’s also a machine that generates meaning.”[7] In Coates’s hands, white supremacy is endlessly creative and endlessly shape shifting, manufacturing “niggers” out of whatever tools are at hand. Coates is careful to note the historically distinct forms that it takes in slavery and in Jim Crow and in Chicago housing and in incarceration, just as he, now famously, invokes the novelty that Donald Trump is “America’s first white president.”[8] Yet the very creativity of white supremacy lies in its ability to endlessly recreate the past in the new tools of the present. For Coates, white supremacy is neither a slogan nor a belief, as in Barbara J. Fields’ famous phrase, but a—perhaps the—engine of history.

Coates joins almost all historians in rejecting a Whiggish sense of improvement. But at times Coates frames the alternative as pessimism, if in his hands a particularly historically detailed and complex pessimism. But many historians operate, consciously or unconsciously, on an alternative Coates occasionally but not systematically acknowledges: total uncertainty about the future, a deep skepticism forged by the many contingencies and coincidences that created the present. Coates’s unsettling mix of deep historical specificity and, at times, ahistorical temporal unity—the same song on new notes—poses serious challenges to historians. His stance surely reflects not only his own brilliance but also an understandable, broadly held, cultural anxiety about the future.

Undoubtedly scholars will be grateful to see their work treated so carefully and respectfully. Perhaps they may find themselves challenged to rethink their own skepticism of arguments about continuity. Or perhaps they will feel called to explain the roots of the profession’s general, if not universal, sense of the futility of both optimism and pessimism. And to explain why historians resist turning society into a machine, or an individual body with a psychology and a will. Why we insist on breaking it down into its many pieces. Why we resist the idea of a general psychology, especially one read through particular, contingent policies or electoral outcomes. Historical pessimism is sibling to historical optimism, born of the same sense that knowing the past makes the future also knowable.

Although the initial responses to We Were Eight Years often slide into well-grooved arguments about class and race, or Hillary and Bernie, such “debates” should not be the ultimate result of such a powerful, interesting, and perhaps in some fundamental respect wrong, book. For readers of The Journal of the Civil War Era, some of those debates will likely turn upon the role of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow in shaping the country’s racist past and present. Everywhere around us we see anxieties about present and future expressed in fights about the nineteenth century. More thoroughly perhaps than anyone else, Coates has explained to a mass audience why slavery, the war, and its aftermath matter so much. The wonder that many of us felt nearly a decade ago remains, even if weighed by other doubts. How will we respond to the questions he asks? How will we assess his impact upon cultural understanding of the period we study? The essays that will follow in this Muster roundtable over the next few days will, we hope, begin those conversations.


[1] In his new volume We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates actually apologizes to twentieth-century historian Beryl Satter—cited by name in his essay on reparations—for the sin of not citing her enough.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017), 37.

[3] Coates, 65.

[4] Coates, 69.

[5] Coates, 151.

[6] Coates, 113, 110, 222.

[7] Coates, 215.

[8] Coates, 244.

Greg Downs

Greg Downs is a Professor of History at UC Davis and an Associate Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (UNC Press, 2011) and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard, 2015) and (with Kate Masur) co-editor of The World the Civil War Made and co-author of the National Park Service National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction.

4 Replies to “We Were Eight Years in Power: Introduction to a Muster Roundtable”

  1. Can you, please, send me a link or any other content generated by your roundtable with Mr. Coates? Thank you so much. J.L.

  2. I am excited to read this series! I’m looking forward to seeing how historians treat some of Coates’ claims. As a Canadian, now American, transplant of Afro-Caribbean heritage I often perceive the African American’s self-image as being a result of their unique historical experiences. Africans and West Indians alike come to the United States and do not suffer the same types of suppression and I have theorized that it may be grounded in the self-image of the African American. Yet, then I think it may also be more generational because my mother-in-law’s generation, now in their seventies and older, are proud, hard workers who excelled and were successful and didn’t walk around with a chip on their shoulder. Did the social programs of the late fifties and sixties then, which resulted in the destruction of the African American family, create this disenfranchised generation who suffer from a victim mentality? I’m interested to see if historians can maintain impartiality and be critical of inaccuracies as related to Coates’ retelling of history. I would hate to see “white guilt” play itself out on the pages, in place of true analysis. Can’t wait!!!

    1. I am also a Canadian who originally came from the Caribbean, Haiti to be more precise. However, contrary to some beliefs, my ancestors did not come to America: they were kidnaped, dragged out of their homes and forced to work on plantations owened by white ownwers in America. I would be very happy if Mr. Coates and the other historians could open the horizon somewhat and show some similarities between the plight of the Haitian people today, resulting in part from the fight of our ancestors to achieve freedom, and the fight of our African American brothers and sisters. It would be very insightful to show how flexible and adaptable racism and its ideologies have proven themselves to be since they began to bring the group of our ancestors to America – to Hispaniola, to be more precise – 11 years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

  3. Thank you for distilling this down to a consumable platform what will surely be many multi-threaded discussions that will be spun up in response to Coates’ Herculean effort to capture two different 8 year periods in two different, yet related contexts.

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