Monday, August 24, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008)

I read most of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008) in a place I've never read a book before -- as Kindle book on my tablet in a series of airports and Airbnb apartments on our trip to Belgium last month.

I read this book as part of my Debbie Downer (only sad books) book club, and we selected it right around the time of the Baltimore uprising surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray, when we were all feeling pretty sad and overwhelmed by the spiral of police violence against African Americans (which has, you know, not really gotten much better in the past four months). At the time, Coates newest book, Between the World and Me, hadn't come out yet, and in retrospect it would (probably) have been a better choice for this book club. Not that sad things don't happen in The Beautiful Struggle, because they do, but I think the ultimate mood of the book celebrates Coates' family and childhood and its positive effect on his profession and worldview.

Coates was raised in Baltimore by his father, a former Black Panther turned librarian at Howard University who also ran his own press promoting classic African and African-American writings, and his mother, a teacher. His father had seven kids with four women, including one other boy with Coates' mother. The other half-siblings would sometimes live with Coates and his mom and dad, and sometimes live with their mothers. One older half-brother in particular, nicknamed Big Bill, was particularly close to Coates and becomes one of the fulcrums of this memoir. Their upbringing was strict, grounded in literature, history, a deep awareness of the continued effect of slavery on the lives of African-Americans, and the importance of their African heritage.

For much of his childhood, Coates lived in a rough area of Baltimore, right at the height of the crack epidemic. He understood that the streets were hard and demanded him to be hard too, although he didn't find that easy, being kind of a goofy, intellectual kid. His brother, Big Bill, on the other hand, took more naturally to that toughness, which moved him quickly out of the intellectual and Black Consciousness world of his father (and to a certain extent, Coates) and into a more common world of guns, drugs, and fights.

Both Bill and Ta-Nehisi eventually reach the age of 18, the age at which their father has told them they are on their own. And they are. Both get a full ride to Howard University (Bill because their father worked there, Ta-Nehisi [after their father left Howard to become a full-time publisher] because of the tenacity of his mother. The book ends as Ta-Nehisi begins his adult life, going on to become an established journalist, extremely excellent Twitterer, and the author of (so far) two very popular monographs.

This is a hard book to write about as a 38-year-old middle class white woman from Nebraska. I'm such a fan of Coates and so interested in reading about his experiences, but I feel like to reflect on them or even pick out anecdotes to describe the memoir is somewhere between pointless and clueless. Reading this book in Belgium made me feel even more complicated about the memoir, like I was at a three time remove from the action instead of just the two times that I usually am. Following Coates on Twitter makes the book even harder to respond to without cringing a little. What on earth would he tweet about this review?

I did like this book -- Coates has a lyrical writing style that really fits the coming of age narrative, and his adult-tinged observations on the actions of his parents and their friends strike just the right balance without being too knowing. The book is a great supplement (or antidote?) to the Baltimore of The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Street.  I feel like I'm starting to babble, and that's probably a good time to wrap things up. The bottom line is that this really is an interesting book and a very literary and enjoyable memoir. You just might not know what to say when someone asks you about it.

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