Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer I’ve followed for some time but who I am thoroughly intimidated to write about. He is superlatively intelligent when it comes to the violent racism of American history, a history I am glimpsing and uncovering more and more every day. I will never, can never, know a fraction of what Coates knows, but I swear I will read everything he writes from now on.
The Beautiful Struggle is a beautiful book. (Shit, see? I can barely write this.) It’s a memoir about young black male adolescence as much as it is a tribute to Coates’ father, a former Black Panther who raised his large family to be always questioning what they saw around them and operated a press of exclusively black-authored titles out of his basement. Paul Coates ran a tight ship; with varying degrees of severity, he impressed upon his children—especially his sons—the awareness they needed to navigate a neighborhood, a city, a country, a world that didn’t (still doesn’t) value their lives. Coates received this knowledge awkwardly at best. He professes to have been ill-equipped for street life, too quick to smile and laugh with his friends instead of looking over his shoulder and too interested in the fantasy world of comics to study his father’s enormous library of Black Consciousness. In 1980’s West Baltimore (think the first failure of trickle-down economics. Think the ravages of crack and gang violence.), Coates was “groping for manhood in the dark” just like his brothers, neighbors, and classmates.
The book begins in childhood and ends as Coates steps foot on the campus of Howard University, the Mecca, his hard-won prize after years of one step forward, two steps back with regard to school. He was one of those kids who probably often heard “You’re so smart, you just need to apply yourself more” and “You aren’t living up to your full potential.” How could anyone concentrate on fractions and participles if they’re worried about being jumped after school?
I expected, when reading this book, to see a world very different from the one I experienced growing up, but I was surprised how much I related to Coates’ interiority. I spent adolescence wrapped in books, and music was an enormous part of my life. When Coates mentioned his family’s relationship with Afeni Shakur and said his brother Bill “traded lyrics” with Tupac, I was immediately 14 again, hiding a scratched-up copy of Me Against the World from my mother, galaxies away, in my small but comfortable green and white childhood room with brass day bed, from the lived experiences of gangsta rappers and still somehow identifying with all that righteous anger. Mine was a domestic oppression, a childhood of emotional abuse, of hearing daily how I’d never be shit, of using three pillows to try in vain to block out my mother’s screaming at whoever was on the receiving end that day, of scrawling bad poetry in journals I’d lock in a wooden box because audience? No way. I was just a kid, just a girl, just a stupid girl-kid. I envied the brazen knife-words those rappers threw, even though I didn’t fully understand them.
I am in no way comparing my “struggle,” such as it was, to Coates’. There is no viable comparison between my privilege and his challenges to exist, let alone thrive, within a racist system. I’m saying, my adolescent feelings of not fitting in, never being good enough, being poorer than and isolated from most of my peers, and being afraid in my own home primed me for wanting to understand those whose lives are so different from mine. Music, specifically hip hop (but also, of course, my beloved grunge) in the mid-90s, facilitated my first search for common ground, whether it was trading my second copy of a Soundgarden disc for someone’s homemade rap mix on the bus or trying to understand what the fuck Bone Thugs were saying through my headphones. Music was vital to Coates, and as he movingly shared his 13-year-old infatuation with Chuck D, PE, and KRS One, I remembered mine with Tupac Shakur. When Coates recalled coming to writing, spending hours alone in his room with pen and pad, and noted “even though I was alone, I felt bigger,” I hyper-related. Socially awkward but fun-loving, bookish and comfortable only alone in a childhood bedroom with jams, and afraid of your parents (if not too the whole big bad unfair world)? Then your adolescent self will relate to Coates on some level, too.
A notable, admirable part of this book is the language itself. Coates is not so much provocative as poetic. When he tells of being tongue-tied around a pretty neighbor girl, it is with lyric melodrama: “Straight up the steps I’d flop on the bed and fall through sheets, box springs, and floors. Fall through green and gold leaves, until I arrived in a world where the rules were reworked. Terra floated across an ocean of pastel, until she stood before me, her lips parted with wanting.” Epic treatment for the most relatable of pre-teen angsty feels.
Besides a reverence for adolescence, Coates manages to accomplish portrayal of predominantly black spaces without preaching, however justified, against stereotypes. As Rich Benjamin wrote, in his review of this book for The Guardian, “The Beautiful Struggle might take place in Baltimore, but it is not The Wire.” In the most basic sense, Coates achieves a bridge between a childhood like mine and a childhood like his by showing his as unremarkable. Though so different from what I knew, I accept his narrative without question because of the ease and authenticity with which he delivers it, not sensationalized or glorified, always grounded in visceral detail, so strong and honest in voice. Afraid to walk home from school un-flanked by at least eight buddies? Afraid less of the guy who stole your hat than of your father’s belt when he finds out you didn’t retrieve that hat and your own dignity? Afraid even in sleep of the many entities who would see damage done to a black body, just because? That’s just another day, in Coates’ childhood. That’s just the way it is, sampled Tupac. That’s the Knowledge with a capital K. Now you know.
So what did I learn from reading The Beautiful Struggle? That I needed immediately to revisit Between the World and Me, written seven years later and to greater acclaim. The experience of reading both in close succession created a mental diptych: a tribute to a father nestled in a narrative of formative experience, then a passing on of that Knowledge to a son, another young black male who must find a way through systemic oppression perpetrated by the “Dreamers,” “those who must believe they are white.”
I learned that I have so much more to learn.
I learned that, besides being brilliant (which is clear when you read any of his Atlantic articles, Cornel West be damned), Coates has a distinctive and necessary and beautiful voice. I was fortunate enough to hear that voice, to see him read to a packed house and overflow room at the 2017 AWP conference in D.C. I’m glad I could imagine his voice in my head during some of the more tense or lyrical passages of his memoir.
I’m glad for his memoir. All writing is, to me, the beautification of struggle. Whatever struggle. Whatever “beautiful” means to you, or could mean, if you look closely at the world around you.