Culture At Large

Reckoning with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power

Michelle Reyes

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power is a book more Christians should read.

Coates—who has been dubbed “the pre-eminent black public intellectual of his generation” by The New York Times—follows his best-selling and influential Between the World and Me with this collection of essays on the history, experiences, and identity of African-Americans. These writings—which range across politics (Malcolm X, Michelle Obama); culture (Bill Cosby, Chicago’s South Side); and history (slavery, the Civil War, mass incarceration)—strike a wonderfully balanced tone between winsome engagement and provocative critique, detailed analysis and comprehensive scope. They are some of the most informative pieces on race and racism that I’ve ever read. Taken together, they moved me to both sorrow and anger.

Consider chapter three, entitled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War?” Coates argues that the years 1860 to 1865 were but one instance of war in “the long great battle” against African-Americans in the United States. This battle, he writes, began when Africans were first brought as slaves to American shores and is still being waged today, albeit in different forms. There may no longer be the institution of slavery as it appeared in the 19th century, but Coates argues that America continues to render blacks as a “a permanent servile class and whites a mass aristocracy” through things like gentrification and mass incarceration. The most famous of the essays reproduced in this book, “The Case For Reparations,” demands recompense for this ongoing criminal history.

As a minority evangelical, I pride myself on being sensitive to issues of race, ethnicity, and culture. Yet Coates’ work forced me to confront my own ignorance. He made me realize, really for the first time, the extent to which this “long great battle” continues.

Coates’ work forced me to confront my own ignorance.

Perhaps one of the book’s most persistent, recurrent themes is the horrible imbalance between black tragedy and white apathy. We Were Eight Years in Power is as much a lesson in history as it is a plea for white men and women to care more for this history and its reverberations. This particularly applies to white evangelicals. A 2016 Barna study found that evangelicals were almost twice as likely as the general population to agree strongly that “racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present.” Evangelicals were also more than twice as likely to “strongly disagree” that people of color are socially disadvantaged because of race.

Even worse, there is a tendency within mainstream evangelicalism to downplay the voices of minorities who are calling for reform. This has certainly been my own experience. Whenever I write or speak about racial reconciliation—or when my husband, a Latino pastor who planted a multicultural church, preaches on the topic from the pulpit—we are surprised by dear Christian friends who come out to vehemently oppose us. We are dismissed as “liberals” or even called “non-believers” just for trying to get people to talk about racial injustice. People have denounced us on social media and have even ended friendships because we’ve argued that God cares for the hurting minority.

Each time this happens, we ask ourselves, “Why are white evangelicals so quick to judge and dismiss, yet slow to listen and to care?” Ecclesiastes 3 says that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Romans 12 calls us to “mourn with those who mourn.” After reading We Were Eight Years in Power, I feel that Christians could spend a bit more time weeping and mourning, for the sake of our faith and for the sake of the gospel.

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