Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle

The Beautiful Struggle
Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008, Spiegel and Grau)

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in and around Baltimore. His memoir is the story of a bright but unfocused child (who, in other circumstances, would surely have been spotted as having attention deficit disorder,) learning to get along in the world on the streets. His oldest brother, Big Bill, has the Knowledge: he dresses in style, always has a few friends around for backup, carries a gun. Ta-Nehisi doesn't. He's a babe in the woods.

It's also the story of their father, Paul Coates, who wanted his children also to be Conscious of their historical place as descendants of the African diaspora. A Viet Nam veteran, he had been a member of the Black Panther party, in the days of its decline. In the late 1960s, the organization had fed breakfast to poor kids, and helped people keep their lights on, but 1972 saw it crumbling into factionalism and paranoia. The Panthers' threat of violence was genuine - he was once arrested for transporting guns - but he stepped out of the ashes to achieve a college degree, and then a masters. He took a job in the library of Howard University, commuting from Baltimore to DC. From his days in the movement and onward, his private passion was publishing and distributing forgotten treasures of African and African American history.

Having those books and pamphlets around the house was just a part of Ta-Nahisi's education. The hip-hop stylings of Public Enemy introduced a form of Consciousness that knuckle-headed teenagers could embrace. A bit later, there was a core of adults who rounded up fifteen-year-old boys and gave them a sort of paramilitary training, with calisthenics and sparring. Under their influence Ta-Nehisi got hooked on African drumming. School, as such, was a roller coaster. He was smart enough for advanced classes, but not focused enough to succeed in them.

It was actually Ta-Nehisi's mother who pushed him over the finish line into The Mecca of his father's dream, Howard University, after numerous perils and misadventures. He did eventually learn to defend himself, after a fashion, though fighting never really appealed to him. Nor did drugs, even as the crack epidemic mowed down the community around him. He was protected by his Walter Mitty innocence, and the watchful eyes of his parents, and plain good luck.

The book is both melancholy and angry about the old friends who weren't so lucky: "Their fates were maddeningly clichéd. Even the ones in whom I saw a tighter head game fell into shadow, became a statistic in the cold hands of some pundit, who looked out on our streets and rolled up his windows." Pathological as those streets may seem, or may actually be, the people who live there have a fundamental right to respect. "No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail."

Though I found it difficult in places where I didn't have enough background in what he was talking about, Coates's writing is powerful and beautiful. He knows things most of us need to know, and says things we need to hear.