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We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
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“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“Every Trump voter is certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow South was not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it was acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“I did not ask. Later I felt bad about this. I knew, even then, that whenever I nodded along in ignorance, I lost an opportunity, betrayed the wonder in me by privileging the appearance of knowing over the work of finding out.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“There is a notion out there that black people enjoy the Sisyphean struggle against racism. In fact, most of us live for the day when we can struggle against anything else. But having been, by that very racism, pinned into ghettoes, both metaphorical and real, our options for struggle are chosen long before we are born. And so we struggle out of fear for our children. We struggle out of fear for ourselves. We struggle to avoid our feelings, because to actually consider all that was taken, to understand that it was taken systematically, that the taking is essential to America and echoes down through the ages, could make you crazy.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the life span of the resistors, almost always fails.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“The most precious thing I had then is the most precious thing I have now—my own curiosity. That is the thing I knew, even in the classroom, they could not take from me. That is the thing that buoyed me and eventually plucked me from the sea.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“Whatever appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism. All politics are identity politics - except the politics of white people, the politics of the blood heirloom.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“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. From that perspective, it seemed possible that the success of one man really could alter history, or even end it.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past--at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge --that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“When it comes to the Civil War, all of our popular understanding, our popular history and culture, our great films, the subtext of our arguments are in defiance of its painful truths. It is not a mistake that Gone with the Wind is one of the most read works of American literature or that The Birth of a Nation is the most revered touchstone of all American film. Both emerge from a need for palliatives and painkillers, an escape from the truth of those five short years in which 750,000 American soldiers were killed, more than all American soldiers killed in all other American wars combined, in a war declared for the cause of expanding "African slavery." That war was inaugurated not reluctantly, but lustily, by men who believed property in humans to be the cornerstone of civilization, to be an edict of God, and so delivered their own children to his maw. And when that war was done, the now-defeated God lived on, honored through the human sacrifice of lynching and racist pogroms. The history breaks the myth. And so the history is ignored, and fictions are weaved into our art and politics that dress villainy in martyrdom and transform banditry into chivalry, and so strong are these fictions that their emblem, the stars and bars, darkens front porches and state capitol buildings across the land to this day.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government,” wrote Du Bois, “it was good Negro government.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“I had not been prepared for the simple charm of watching someone you love grow.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“Black people are not the descendants of kings. We are—and I say this with big pride—the progeny of slaves. If there’s any majesty in our struggle, it lies not in fairy tales but in those humble origins and the great distance we’ve traveled since. Ditto for the dreams of a separate but noble past. Cosby’s, and much of black America’s, conservative analysis flattens history and smooths over the wrinkles that have characterized black America since its inception.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“I remembered that once, as a child, I was filled with wonder, that I had marveled at tri-folded science projects, encyclopedias, and road atlases. I left much of that wonder somewhere back in Baltimore. Now I had the privilege of welcoming it back like a long-lost friend, though our reunion was laced with grief; I mourned over all the years that were lost. The mourning continues. Even today, from time to time, I find myself on beaches watching six-year-olds learn to surf, or at colleges listening to sophomores slip from English to Italian, or at cafés seeing young poets flip though "The Waste Land," or listening to the radio where economists explain economic things that I could've explored in my lost years, mourning, hoping that I and all my wonder, my long-lost friend, have not yet run out of time, though I know that we all run out of time, and some of us run out of it faster.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“The precise ancestry of a black drug dealer or cop killer is irrelevant. His blackness predicts and explains his crime. He reinforces the racist presumption. It is only when that presumption is questioned that a fine analysis of ancestry is invoked. Frederick Douglass was an ordinary nigger while working the fields. But as a famed abolitionist, it was often said that his genius must derive from his white half.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“But that is the point of white supremacy--to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (and particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“I know that “gentrification” is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“The “rising tide” theory rested on a notion of separate but equal class ladders. And so there was a class of black poor and an equivalent class of white poor, a black middle class and a white middle class, a black elite and a white elite. From this angle, the race problem was merely the result of too many blacks being found at the bottom of their ladder—too many who were poor and too few who were able to make their way to the next rung. If one could simply alter the distribution, the old problem of “race” could be solved. But any investigation into the actual details revealed that the ladders themselves were not equal—that to be a member of the “black race” in America had specific, quantifiable consequences. Not only did poor blacks tend to be much less likely to advance up their ladder, but those who did stood a much greater likelihood of tumbling back. That was because the middle-class rung of the black ladder lacked the financial stability enjoyed by the white ladder. Whites in the middle class often brought with them generational wealth—the home of a deceased parent, a modest inheritance, a gift from a favorite uncle. Blacks in the middle class often brought with them generational debt—an incarcerated father, an evicted niece, a mother forced to take in her sister’s kids. And these conditions, themselves, could not be separated out from the specific injury of racism, one that was not addressed by simply moving up a rung. Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied. From that point forward the case for reparations seemed obvious and the case against it thin. The sins of slavery did not stop with slavery. On the contrary, slavery was but the initial crime in a long tradition of crimes, of plunder even, that could be traced into the present day. And whereas a claim for reparations for slavery rested in the ancestral past, it was now clear that one could make a claim on behalf of those who were very much alive.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. Art was not sentimental. It had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie, to not be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“For that particular community, for my community, the massage has long been clear: The Civil War is a story for white people - acted out by white people, on white people's terms - in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected - as most sane people would - to decline.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“To Trump whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“One strain of African American thought holds that it is a violent black recklessness—the black gangster, the black rioter—that strikes the ultimate terror in white America. Perhaps it does, in the most individual sense. But in the collective sense, what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government. It applauds, even celebrates, Good Negro Government in the unthreatening abstract—The Cosby Show, for instance. But when it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past, that as sure as the black nationalist dreams of a sublime Africa before the white man's corruption, so did Thomas Jefferson dream of an idyllic Britain before the Normans, so do all of us dream of some other time when things were so simple. I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of greatness that never was, is tragedy.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“Power was what mattered, and what characterized the differences between black and white America was not a difference in work ethic, but a system engineered to place one on top of the other”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“In such revisions of history lay the roots of the noble Lost Cause—the belief that the South didn’t lose, so much as it was simply overwhelmed by superior numbers; that General Robert E. Lee was a contemporary King Arthur; that slavery, to be sure a benevolent institution, was never central to the South’s true designs. Historical lies aside, the Lost Cause presented to the North an attractive compromise. Having preserved the Union and saved white workers from competing with slave labor, the North could magnanimously acquiesce to such Confederate meretriciousness and the concomitant irrelevance of the country’s blacks. That interpretation served the North too, for it elided uncomfortable questions about the profits reaped by the North from Southern cotton, as well as the North’s long strategy of appeasement and compromise, stretching from the Fugitive Slave Act back to the Constitution itself.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“not just because of the black people swept away but because I know that “gentrification” is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime. To speak the word gentrification is to immediately lie. And I know, even in my anger, even as I write this, that I am no better. White people are, in some profound way, trapped; it took generations to make them white, and it will take more to unmake them.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“There's a liberal story that limited opportunities, and barriers, lead to employment problems and criminal records, but then there's another story that has to do with norms, behaviors, and oppositional culture. You can't prove the latter statistically, but it still might be true.' Holzer thinks that both arguments contain truth and that one doesn't preclude the other. Fair enough. Suffice it to say, though, that the evidence supporting structural inequality is compelling. In 2001, a researcher sent out black and white job applicants in Milwaukee, randomly assigning them a criminal record. The researcher concluded that a white man with a criminal record had about the same chance of getting a job as a black man without one. Three years later, researchers produced the same results in New York under more rigorous conditions.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

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