Tag Archives: america

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

hillbillyelegyI began reading this book for fun and then found that it was relevant to some of the work I’m doing so yay — a very pleasant surprise! A lot of people have chosen to read this book to understand the “hidden right” post-election cycle. I chose to read it to see how the author’s experience lined up with my own background. Despite not growing up in Appalachia, many of the situations that the author described were extremely familiar to me. I grew up in a working-class family and spent 5 years of my childhood in a rural town, population: 800. While the author categorizes his experiences as being particular to Appalachia, I would say they also extend to rural southern living conditions, including my area of Northeast Texas.

I related a lot to Vance’s description of trying to learn how to portray himself as being of a different social class than the one he was born into — like Vance, I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, becoming upwardly mobile, and I found myself struggling to fit in when ‘everything from your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.’ (p. 207)

He also spends time detailing Christianity in Appalachia and how he (at one point) and many of the churchgoing people have (either at one time or persistently) felt like persecuted minorities by ‘elite liberals’ who some believe are making the world a scary and foreign place. His commentary on Christianity and many of the contradictions present in Appalachia were revealing in that many of the residents don’t belong to a church, but vastly report high church attendance because of perceived social pressures. His own experience emphasized that the persecuted minority feelings are salient in the churches, but less so in how individuals believe and practice faith in their own homes.

Chapters 14 (particularly) and 15 were most relevant to the work that I do, but the links from the previous chapters are needed to feel the full heft of the messages in those later chapters. These chapters discuss the traumas that working-class children regularly experience because of a myriad of factors: unreliable income, inconsistent parental support, violence in the home, etc. and the massive effect they have on child outcomes and development of mental and physical health conditions later in life. I also found the writer’s description of his limited relationship with his parents for survival purposes particularly refreshing — it’s something I have also adopted for my own self-preservation purposes, but haven’t read detailed in another work so precisely.

I’ve read many similar books that attempt to describe the plight and lives of America’s working-class through studies and home observation vignettes, but I found this memoir to be the most revealing and authentic… perhaps because it was written by someone who experienced this lifestyle rather than being written by a researcher looking in and trying to understand class and lifestyle differences. While the author doesn’t push for specific policy changes, he does admit that we collectively need to strive to make things better, particularly for working-class youth while their worlds and expectations for themselves are still malleable.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeThis is a book that I instantly wish I owned multiple versions of because I feel like I need to consume it in different ways for the weight of its words to fully sink into my consciousness. I finished the audiobook version of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates a couple of weeks ago and it was MARVELOUS! The book is part memoir, part current American history and is written as a letter directly to the author’s son. Because I knew that the book followed this format, I opted to purchase the audiobook from Downpour (if you like audiobooks and you aren’t a subscriber to Downpour, you need to get on board!!) as the author was the narrator and I wanted to hear the author’s intonations and emotions as he spoke his words.

Coates is both a powerful speaker and writer. While he detailed the lessons that he was forced to learn as a black man growing up in America and contrasted them from the lessons his father had to learn and the lessons his son has already learned or will have to learn was incredibly poignant. The world has shifted significantly since his father was a child, but there is still so much room for the world and America’s culture to grow and improve. While his son currently leads a privileged life because of his father’s wealth and their family’s residence in Paris, France (all privileges Coates acknowledges), this doesn’t eliminate the ways that his son must prepare for how he will doubtlessly be seen as a young black man when he is in America. Regardless of any of his own characteristics or intentions, people will cast stereotypes upon his body and his mind and he will have to know how to evade or protect himself from them; hence, why Coates has chosen to write his son a series of lessons he has learned in his own life.

As a white woman, Between the World and Me truly illuminated the world that black parents must build and teach to their children — something that I never had to be taught by my own family. When I was a child, my innocence and piety were often assumed by strangers, but this isn’t the case for many black children who are often undeservedly assumed to be devious or guilty. One of the vignettes that stuck with me most clearly was when a white adult was extremely rude to Coates’s young son and Coates struggled to contain his anger in the face of assumptions and rights incorrectly projected onto his child. To hear this told from a parent’s perspective was heartbreaking and I admire Coates’s ability to so poignantly and clearly discuss how this affects him and his family on a micro-level, while simultaneously situating his personal experiences within historical and societal contexts. 

Between the World and Me is very of the moment (because of the renewed, necessary spotlight on racial tension and inequality in America) and also of America’s history. I believe this book will be a touchstone that people reference decades from now when trying to convey the state of race in America in the early 2000s and Coates has done a remarkable job creating a piece that will last. 

While I loved listening to this audiobook, I wish I also owned a physical version of this book so that I could highlight and come back to the most touching/provoking pieces with ease. I greatly valued hearing the author beautifully speak his story, something that most authors who aren’t trained entertainers struggle to do well. The audiobook was also quite a quick listening experience and clocked in at about 3.5 hours. My recommendation is to consume this in whatever way that it comes into your life and then consume it again and again. I’ll likely be purchasing a physical copy when I get the chance and will re-read it again in the coming years. Clearly, I profusely recommend. 

Publication date: 14 July 2015 by Spiegel & Grau. Format: Audiobook from Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.

Author/Narrator: Ta-Nehisi Coates @twitter/articles

learning to improve: how america’s schools can get better at getting better

learning-to-improveLearning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better is a book written by a group of researchers (Anthony S. Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahieu) and is the culmination, in their own words, of “learning from six years of pragmatic activity at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.” One of my supervisors gave me this book when I was put on a new project at work doing some tasks with the New York City Department of Education. Since I had never worked with or studied how central teams function within a school district and I hadn’t spent any time in New York schools, I had quite a learning curve ahead of me. (Side note to the clueless like Past Bri: central teams are basically administrators who usually work for a school district and not individual schools.)

This book helped provide me with a lot of necessary insight and served as a great introduction to understanding how districts function and the relevant language used in the field. However, the book would probably be redundant to anyone who has studied or experienced how district-level reforms impact American schools.  For a newbie like me, the best parts of this book are the pieces that felt like a deep literature review, such as the vignette that discussed the role of instructional coaches within the Los Angeles Unified School District or the concise explanation of the how the Danielson Framework evaluates educators. All of this information on how districts choose to evaluate practitioners in order to hopefully increase student learning gains was a terrific aid to me and helped me more easily navigate the terms and references related to my project at work.

While I learned quite a bit from reading this book, I could have done without all of the constant references to Networked Improvement Communities, or NICs, which is the term created by the authors for their new form of “educational [Research & Design] which joins together the discipline of improvement science with the dynamism and creative power of networks organized to solve problems.” Even though I found the frequent mention of the NICs to be monotonous, the authors’ desire to make NICs a common term is likely the reason they compiled this book in the first place. I mostly skimmed the last chapters (6 and 7) as they primarily revolved around deeper discussion of the importance of NICs and weren’t particularly relevant to me.

Overall, this book was a great read for me and my supervisor really knew what they were doing when they recommended it to me. However, I don’t think Learning to Improve is written in an accessible or interesting way for someone who doesn’t work in my field.

Publication Date: 1 March 2015 by Harvard Education Press. Format: Paperback.

Authors: Anthony S. Bryk (web), Louis M. Gomez (web), Alicia Grunow (web), and Paul G. LeMahieu (web)