A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

We Were Eight Years in Power: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:

The most interesting thing about this book as a book, leaving aside the generally-excellent essays contained within, is how it traces Coates’s growth over the eight years of the Obama presidency, both as a writer and a public figure who the editors were increasingly not going to bug very much.

If I had to guess, I’d say Coates hit hour 10,000 of writing sometime in 2012–the contrast between his essays in the first and second term of Obama’s presidency is startling, both in the subject matter and the confidence with which he is able to make his point. Normal magazine-length profiles of Bill Cosby and Michelle Obama, thinkpieces about Gettysburg tours, and a review of a Malcolm X biography in the first four years give way to expansive, wide-ranging look at the nature of systemic racism in America, and how the presence of a black man in the Oval Office seemed to confirm a lot of thinking about the country’s approach to race.

It’s funny–growing up, I came to understand “systemic racism” as a palliative modifier, describing a racism that, because it was hidden and passive, was less able to inhibit and hurt. People weren’t being thrown out of restaurants, forced to use their own drinking fountains, or subject to epithets under “systemic racism,” and when they were, it ceased to be “systemic” and just became plain old racism. So it couldn’t have been as bad, right?

Coates’s essays in The Atlantic were probably the documents that most forcefully disabused me of this illusion, and made me realize that there is no useful distinction between “racism” and “systemic racism,” and certainly no dividing line that kept one from influencing the other–on the contrary, Coates uses his essays to illustrate an all-too-plausible theory of racism wherein the systemic disadvantages suffered by black people contribute to persistent racist attitudes.

Most helpful for people late to understanding like me, he is all too happy to provide citations for his assertions, to back his claims up with primary sources and statistical evidence and, most importantly, take the time to explain concepts and phenomena to readers who likely never took a Black Studies class. Coates mentions several times in the previews how, as a former college dropout, he was new to a lot of the scholarship surrounding race in America, and I think it’s his own process of learning that makes him such an effective communicator in his later essays. He’s not going to throw a bunch of terms at his audience, trusting that they’ve done their homework; instead, he’s going to take the time to define and explicate important issues that The Atlantic’s largely white readership probably needed explained. Coates laments the common saying that black people “have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” but he also lives by it, giving twice as much evidence for his points as would be expected of someone arguing the other side.

As far as the essays go, everyone will have their own opinion, though I think a lot of people would agree with me that “The Case for Reparations” is the best of the bunch. Fewer might agree that “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” is perhaps a little too expansive and ambitious, but then that highlights another good quality of Coates’s writing–the attention he pays to the interconnectedness of systems within America, the way that changes in a national prison policy can affect even the smallest details of life in ways you might not expect.

The interstitial additions to the book are interesting and insightful, and the epilogue, a ninth essay entitled “The First White President,” is a needed blast of catharsis, but the main reason to buy this book is to have the essays in print and on hand to quickly reference or re-read at leisure, particularly the last four essays. I would say that alone makes this a required purchase.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing We Were Eight Years in Power, just follow the link below:

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

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This entry was posted on 19 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , .
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