Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi CoatesWe Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Format: eARC
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: essays, history, nonfiction, U.S. history
Pages: 367
Published by One World on October 3rd 2017
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A sweeping collection of new and selected essays on the Obama era by the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me

"We were eight years in power" was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. Now Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America's "first white president."

But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period--and the effects of the persistent, haunting shadow of our nation's old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective--the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president.

We Were Eight Years in Power features Coates's iconic essays first published in The Atlantic, including "Fear of a Black President," "The Case for Reparations," and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," along with eight fresh essays that revisit each year of the Obama administration through Coates's own experiences, observations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era. We Were Eight Years in Power is a vital account of modern America, from one of the definitive voices of this historic moment.

My Review:

I came to this book via multiple odd routes. I heard the author speak a couple of years ago, because my husband really likes his writing. While it doesn’t resonate with me quite the same way, when it does, it really, really does. Coates’ comment at the beginning of Between the World and Me regarding the social construction of whiteness in America, and how that social construct can be withheld, conferred and taken away as conditions change, spoke directly to me and my own experience as a Jew growing up in America. I was not white when I was a child. I have been through most of my adulthood. But if the neo-Nazis chanting at that Unite the Right rally last year in Charlottesville have anything to say about it, I will not be again in the future.

I was also interested in the historical resonance. I recently completed the extremely well-written (and incredibly massive) biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. The historical “eight years in power” that Coates refers to in the title of the book largely overlap the years of Grant’s administration. Grant attempted to guarantee civil rights for the newly freed slaves in the South, and broke the 19th century incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. But the resulting backlash of white supremacy swept away his achievements, and those rights that were held most dear and paid for in blood.

That the backlash in the 19th century looks all too much like the backlash after Barack Obama’s election and administration in the 21st is all too poignant. And frightening in the intensity of its fear and hate, and in the depths of its depravity and its denial that there is anything wrong that still needs to be addressed.

America was founded on and prospered because of two original sins. One was the theft of the land itself from the Native Americans who already lived here, and the generations upon generations of continuing theft, pillage, murder and suppression, all sanctioned by law.

The second original sin is chattel slavery, the kidnapping of people in Africa, their shipment to the U.S., and their continued bondage, exploitation, theft, pillage, murder and suppression, all sanctioned by law. The wealth and prosperity of this country was founded on slavery, and the suppression of the descendants of that crime continue to this day. And tomorrow.

If the arc of history does bend towards justice, it seems to operate on a geologic scale of time. What feels more real is that for every swing towards what seems like progress, there is an equal and opposing backlash that feels worse than the oppression that went before, because once there was hope, and then there isn’t.

Which sums up a lot of liberal feelings about the election of Trump, after eight years of a President who was intelligent, thoughtful, statesmanlike, progressive, an always informed if not always inspiring speaker, and scandal-free – but who just so happened to be black, which is an original sin that too many people cannot forgive. Not because he was a bad president, but because he was a good one. Not perfect, but then no human is. But good.

And in the eyes and hearts of white supremacists, his Presidency is something that must be erased or delegitimized at every turn. Because it is proof that truly anyone can hold the highest office in this land.

Unfortunately, the current occupant also proves the exact same thing. Anyone can be President. But Obama appealed to the better angels in our nature, where Trump continues to build his base among the worst elements of repression, racism, anti-semitism and suppression of any and all people who are not just like him, meaning white, male, Christian, heterosexual, and rich.

Reality Rating A: Some of the above is personal. And while it isn’t directly about the book, it also is. We Were Eight Years in Power combines essays that Coates published in The Atlantic during the course of Obama’s administration, one for each year, with a framing narrative that is his own personal story of who he was at the time, what he was trying to accomplish with his writing craft, and how he felt both about what he was writing and about the issues that he raised within it. He places himself, his research and his writing within the context of the black writers who came before him, and attempts to set himself in the context of those who will come after.

Some of the early essays are a bit dated, and occasionally it is obvious that the writer was still honing his craft. The later ones are searing in their intensity, as the author marshalls both his facts and his passion in service of stories that need to be told and things that must be said, but unfortunately seldom are.

The ending is hard to read, because we know what came after. And there is a bit of an element of what should be “preaching to the choir” but isn’t. Because I agree with the author that so much of what caused the rise of Trump is racism (along with its terrible brethren, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all the rest of the fearful hatreds of people who the perpetrators perceive as “not like them” and equate in their minds to “less human”).

But too few writers seem to be willing to call it by its name. Because until this terrible history, and the present that derives from it, is acknowledged as exactly what it is and called to account, it can never become the past, and we can never move forward.

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee ShetterlyHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, movie!
Genres: biography, computer history, history, science history, U.S. history, women's history
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 6th 2016
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Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

My Review:

Hidden Figures tells an absolutely fascinating story; a story that is all the better for being true.

Once upon a time, a computer was not a piece of machinery. Once upon a time, a computer was a human being, usually a woman, who was just about a genius in mathematics. In spite of the fact that most people believed, rather foolishly, that women weren’t capable of either higher mathematics or professional achievement, this is the story of a group of women who did both, plotting trajectories and engineering airplane designs that led from the battlefields of World War II to the moon.

Although a piece of this story was also told this year in Rise of the Rocket Girls, the struggle for achievement and recognition is even more striking in Hidden Figures. All of the hidden figures in this book were hidden twice, once by their gender, and again by their race.

Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who began their careers, or in some cases re-started their careers, within the segregated confines of West Computing at what is now NASA’s Langley Research Center in Jim Crow era Hampton Virginia during WWII.

It was a job with endless demands, huge requirements and never enough people to fill the positions. During World War II, Langley was THE place for aviation and aeronautic engineering. The space race wasn’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye, even as crazy as the NACA nuts could sometimes be. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was behind America’s superiority in the air in WW2. But to achieve that superiority required hordes of engineers and battalions of human computers to create and confirm mathematical formulas for everything from missile trajectories to drag co-efficients.

Many of those human computers were black women with degrees in mathematics and a desire to either further their careers, make an amazingly good wage for a black woman in the 1940s to support their families, or both.

They faced segregation at the workplace and in the town of Hampton. They created a place for their families and their friends, and a culture of support that made it just a little bit easier for the next black female computer or the next black male engineer to become part of what they all saw as their new home and the place where important work happened.

Hidden Figures is the story of the women who powered the Space Race. Whether by hand and mind, or by electronic computer, they imagined and created, double-checked and rechecked, the trajectories for John Glenn’s famous first flight, Neil Armstrong’s even more famous first moonwalk, and even supplied the Plan B mathematics that helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink of disaster.

Their story of mostly unsung heroism is quietly brave and bravely daring. In an era where women’s contributions to computing, especially the contributions of women of color are harassed at every turn, this is a story that shows just how much is possible if we are willing to work and fight for it.

hidden figures movie posterEscape Rating A-: There are two aspects to my comments. On the one hand, there is the story itself, which is absolutely awesome and needs to be distributed to the widest audience possible. (There’s a movie coming this winter!) This is one of those stories that, if it were not true, no one would believe it. A story of female professionals succeeding despite the odds in a male dominated profession and workplace. The story of black women thriving professionally and personally in the Jim Crow South.

In the way that Hidden Figures captures the numerous double standards that these women worked and lived under, and the way that they saw themselves both as just doing their jobs and as powerful symbols for their race and sex, there are some parallels to the histories told in both Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Defender. These women worked for their families, for their race, and for themselves and their own personal hopes and dreams.

The history of Langley, the Space Race and the opening of doors in Civil Service employment owes much to the struggles that are documented in The Defender. The doors opened because the Space Race, the ending of colonialism in much of the world, and the Civil Rights movement cast a glaring light on racism in America, and on the ways that segregation denied so many the education needed for the U.S. to compete on the world stage, while making a mockery of America’s calls for freedom and democracy elsewhere in the world.

Some things never change.

Because we see this story through the eyes of specific individuals, it is easy for the reader to empathize with both their struggles and their triumphs, whether the reader meets the characters on several axes, or none.

But as work of authorship, this story has a slow start and initially a few too many foci. There’s also quite a bit of information about aircraft engineering that may border on overload. Once the story moves from the NACA era to the NASA era, the narrative picks up steam and the points of view become more focused.

Minor quibbles aside, this is a book for anyone who is interested in the history of women in engineering and computer, the history of the ways that both race and gender impact opportunities in those fields, and the history of NASA and space flight.

Fittingly one of the stories at the end is the famous story of Martin Luther King Jr. convincing Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, not because of what she actually did onscreen, but because of what she represented. She represented the future of all the women portrayed in Hidden Figures, and their dream to reach the stars.

Review: The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli

Review: The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan MichaeliThe Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: Chicago history, history, journalism, U.S. history
Pages: 656
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on January 12th 2016
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“An extraordinary history…Deeply researched, elegantly written…a towering achievement that will not be soon forgotten.”Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review  Giving voice to the voiceless, the Chicago Defender condemned Jim Crow, catalyzed the Great Migration, and focused the electoral power of black America. Robert S. Abbott founded The Defender in 1905, smuggled hundreds of thousands of copies into the most isolated communities in the segregated South, and was dubbed a "Modern Moses," becoming one of the first black millionaires in the process. His successor wielded the newspaper’s clout to elect mayors and presidents, including Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, who would have lost in 1960 if not for The Defender’s support. Along the way, its pages were filled with columns by legends like Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King.
Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reporters who braved lynch mobs and policemen’s clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama.

My Review:

The story of The Defender is really multiple stories. It is a history of America in the 20th century, as seen through a slightly different lens than the one many of us were taught in the history books. And because of that lens, because of the audience that The Chicago Defender was built by and for, it is also the history of Black America in the 20th century. And all of that from the focal point of Chicago, where The Chicago Defender was based and from which it drew so many of its stories.

And it is also the history of the rise and fall of one newspaper, and in some ways newspapers in general, in the 20th century. The Chicago Defender began publishing in 1905, saw its own rise and the rise of the community it served, and it now survives reduced in size and influence, as so many newspapers have been reduced in size and influence.

February is Black History Month, and The Defender is a marvelous book for this month, as it tells its story from Bronzeville, that part of Chicago that became the heart of the Black community in the city.

But the story of The Chicago Defender begins earlier, at the Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition in 1893, as so many Chicago stories do. It was in the White City that a very young Robert Sengstacke Abbott met the already elder statesman Frederick Douglass, and began to conceive of the idea of a newspaper for African-Americans based in Chicago. Abbott had trained to be a newspaper man at college, and he just plain wanted to move to Chicago from his home in the rural, segregated and downright dangerous, South.

Much of the early chapters of the book are also Abbott’s story, as he begins his newspaper on the thinnest of shoe-string margins, at first not only doing all the work himself but also relying on the kindness of his landlady to house the fledgeling enterprise in her dining room.

Abbott was smart. He was lucky. And mostly, he had a dream that he diligently pursued for the rest of his life. His dream was to provide news, education, exhortation and uplift to the African-American community, not just in Chicago but around the world. His goal was to break the back of Jim Crow in the South and tacit segregation in the North. And while he did not succeed in his lifetime, he is certainly one of the giants on whose shoulders the mayoralty of Harold Washington and the presidency of Barack Obama stand.

So this is history, from the very late 1800s and the birth of the idea, to the sale of the paper from the family to an outside company in 2003 after nearly a century of ownership by the founding family. By 2003 The Defender wasn’t what it was in its heyday, but no newspaper is what it was. Even The Chicago Defender’s long-time rivals in the Chicago mainstream press, The Chicago Sun Times and The Chicago Tribune, have shrunk from their glory years.

But what fascinates about the story of The Chicago Defender is the way that it in its time, and it in its history, shine a different light on events that mainstream audiences are familiar with – from the corrupt administrations of “Big Bill” Thompson to the machine politics of Richard J. Daley to the ascendancy of Harold Washington. The Chicago Defender was one of the great sparking motivations for the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in the first half of the 20th century.

The power of the voting block mobilized by The Chicago Defender held the fate of congressional representatives, Chicago mayors and even presidents in its collective hands on Election Day. And the principals of The Chicago Defender pressed for, and eventually achieved, among other notable successes, complete integration in the U.S. Armed Forces.

This book is a captivating look at 20th century America, and a marvelous study of the power of the press to achieve greatness.

Reality Rating A-: I both enjoyed this book and was fascinated by the view of history that it illuminates. I love reading narrative history, where the story, while true, also has a beginning, middle and end, which the history of The Chicago Defender certainly does. The paper began as one man’s dream, and its history with his family ends in the 21st century as newspapers around the country struggle with finding a foothold on the future.

But The Chicago Defender still has a real voice and force in Chicago and U.S. politics. Its annual Bud Billiken Day Parade is still one of the places for up and coming politicians to see and be seen, and for sitting political leaders to get in touch with their constituents and the African American community.

The history in this book was most interesting the further away it was from the present. Reading about the early years, one can almost see the initial small staff laboring away in Mrs. Lee’s dining room, surviving those lean years on hope and her homecooked meals.

It was ironic that the parts of this history that the author witnessed as a member of the staff in the late 1990s felt like a much barer recitation of names and dates, while the early years are almost luminous.

As someone who lived in the Chicago metro area during the Harold Washington years, I remember the way that the mainstream news outlets covered his campaign and his running battle with the Chicago City Council. In reading this account of The Defender’s coverage I get a much more balanced view of that period, seeing much from sides that the mainstream newspapers chose not to cover because it interfered with their narrative.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in differing perspectives on 20th century America, or in the history of 20th century newspapers in general and the Black press in specific. And for anyone who wants to sink their teeth into a solid chunk of fascinating Chicago history.

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari BermanGive Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, politics, U.S. history
Pages: 384
on August 4th 2015
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A New York Times Notable Book of 2015A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2015A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2015An NPR Best Book of 2015Countless books have been written about the civil rights movement, but far less attention has been paid to what happened after the dramatic passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 and the turbulent forces it unleashed. Give Us the Ballot tells this story for the first time.
In this groundbreaking narrative history, Ari Berman charts both the transformation of American democracy under the VRA and the counterrevolution that has sought to limit voting rights, from 1965 to the present day. The act enfranchised millions of Americans and is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. And yet, fifty years later, we are still fighting heated battles over race, representation, and political power, with lawmakers devising new strategies to keep minorities out of the voting booth and with the Supreme Court declaring a key part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Berman brings the struggle over voting rights to life through meticulous archival research, in-depth interviews with major figures in the debate, and incisive on-the-ground reporting. In vivid prose, he takes the reader from the demonstrations of the civil rights era to the halls of Congress to the chambers of the Supreme Court. At this important moment in history, Give Us the Ballot provides new insight into one of the most vital political and civil rights issues of our time.

My Review:

Give this book to anyone who believes that the struggle for voting rights in America is over. Because the all too recent history told in this narrative shows all too clearly that it is far, far from over.

This is a difficult book to review. The history related is searing in its intensity. And it is impossible to be neutral. For those who are of the liberal persuasion, it is an indictment of man’s (and woman’s) continuing inhumanity to those who are not part of the white majority. For those who are conservative, it will read very differently. I’ll admit that my mind just won’t go wherever that it.

I wanted to take a bath when I finished, because the things that were done to suppress the African-American vote (and the Hispanic vote) were disgusting and sometimes deadly. In reading this history, it feels as if the deadly has mostly moved to other arenas, but the disgusting is still very much alive and kicking.

A voting rights case in Forsyth County, Georgia, (one county over from my house) was just settled this past week. Voting rights are still being fought for in the U.S., but the fights have moved from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the judicial system. The fight is no less bloody for that blood being time and ink instead of red.

This may be progress of a sort, but it is progress that must be constantly and rigorously defended.

And in a nutshell, that is the lesson of Give Us the Ballot. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was landmark legislation, but it also marked a beginning and not an ending. Poll taxes and literacy tests were finally over. The battleground simply moved to Voter ID laws, redistricting and “at large” elections.

The right to vote is one of the bedrock principles of the United States. This history shows that the fight to make sure that every eligible person is allowed to vote, and that their vote counts, and that their vote has effective power, never, ever ends.

Escape Rating A: This is a book where I think it will be impossible for any reader to read dispassionately. As a liberal, I frankly wanted to wash at least my hands after reading it. I found the indictment compelling and also slightly nauseating. Both that blatant attempts to suppress the votes of blacks, hispanics and students continue, but that they are all too often successful and cloaked in coded language. And frankly, I still hear “dog whistles”.

Progress has been made, but it has also been beaten back by those in power who want to retain that power. And the tools used to beat that progress back seem designed to obfuscate either the motives of the perpetrators or the consequences of their actions. Or both.

This history clearly shows, at least to this reader, that Voter ID laws, reduction in the hours of early voting, voter roll purges and other such measures are both racially motivated and completely partisan. They are designed to suppress the votes of groups that generally vote for the Democratic Party. For someone who votes liberal, it reads like an attempt to turn the clock back and prevent the changes to the population that are occurring in fact from having a proportional impact at the ballot box and in the politics of the country.

Someone with a more conservative political inclination will undoubtedly see this history differently. I doubt that anyone can be neutral on this subject. This history will certainly make you think, whatever side of the political spectrum you fall upon. Thinking about the right to vote, and about making sure to exercise that right whenever possible, is always important.

Reviewer’s Note: Give Us the Ballot was nominated for the American Library Association’s Notable Book Awards for this year. As part of the Notable Books Council, I am pleased to say that this book was on our Awards list for this year, along with other outstanding works of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Give Us the Ballot is an intensive history of an important and timely topic. It was also a perfect book to re-read and review over the Martin Luther King Day weekend.