A Conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates author of The Beautiful Struggle
The Beautiful Struggle is a memoir with three central characters: you, your
brother, Big Bill, and your father, Paul Coates, a Vietnam vet and Black
Panther. What was it like to write your first book when the people you were
describing are still so close to you?
Not as hard as you might imagine. My people have always been open about these sorts of things, though I must say I didn't know how open until I started interviewing and writing. I think two things are at work here. 1) People just love to talkI know this from my magazine writing. As crazy as it sounds, most people want to tell you their story, and they want it to be recorded. I often regret that I didn't know this when I was single! Moving on. 2) My brother and father know they have their issues, but they also know that most people have issues. They understand that when you read The Beautiful Struggle, whatever rawness, whatever dirt that's there, you'll see in yourself. To err is human, as the old cliché goes, and I think those points at which we all err in the book are the very things that will draw people in. Even if they haven't walked the same road, I think they'll see themselves in the essential human drama of it all.
Your book vividly conjures urban America twenty years ago, a time when the fracturing of families, the implosion of the inner city, and the sudden emergence of crack cocaine combined to create what felt like a catastrophic threat to the survival of young black men as a group. How did your dadand the larger communityrespond to that threat?
With pressure, constant, constant pressure. I came up at a time when black folks just wanted better. People always talk about white flight, but what was more significant to me was black flightI'm talking about all those folks from the Civil Rights generation who saw the door open and bolted for better neighborhoods and bigger lawns. They weren't wrongeverybody's got the right to want better. But my folks strongly believed that you couldn't buy or move yourself to better, that better was within you.
In practice, this meant attention to the quality of schooling I was getting, but even more attention to me. They made sure my butt was in the chair, and I was doing my work. In the short-term it did virtually no goodas a student, I was gonna be who I was gonna be. But in the long-term, in the grand-sweep of making men, it paid off tremendously. Today, whenever I set out to do anythingeven now writing thismy mother and father are in my head, urging me to do better, to work longer and harder.
They also recognized that they couldn't do it alone. So what you see in The Beautiful Struggle is them enlisting all sorts of folks in the community to support and push me and my many siblings. I'm not one of these people who believe the black community has gone to seed. Wherever I go, from West Baltimore to Central Harlem, I never have trouble finding a nucleus of black folks who are deeply concerned about the future of their children.
Your dad's iconoclastic publishing company, Black Classics Press, celebrates its 30-year anniversary in 2008. Can you tell us how you've been influenced by the books your dad has published over the years?
These books taught me critical thinking. People always talk about how "black culture" is anti-intellectual, but I think being black is actually quite a mental workout. Many of my father's titles came out of the black nationalist/proto-Afrocentric tradition which tried to establish that Africa was more than the natives running around on Tarzan. At the time I took most of what I was reading as gospel truth. As I grew older, not so much. But what I always carried with me from those books was the importance of questioning the world as it was presented. What drew me in to them was the idea that most people were telling me the world was one way, and these authors were saying, "No it's not. Think for yourself. Don't let them define you." That was a huge lesson for me, and it taught me to be a critical consumer of media.
Your own son is now seven years old, and like all parents, you're faced with the challenge of protecting him while also exposing him to life's most important lessons. Since you've become a father, has your understanding of your own father changed? Does your dad's unusual parenting style seem more sympathetic to you? What can parents learn from this story?
Yes, I understand my father completely now. In fact, I call for advice all the time. As for sympathy, I never thought his parenting style was crazy or particularly harsh. When we came up, everyone was spanked, and most folks wanted the best for their kids. As for other parents, as I said above, I think the most important thing is constant pressure. Parents have to apply it, and they've got to surround their kids with other adults who will reinforce those efforts.
In addition to writing The Beautiful Struggle, you also write for a variety of national newspapers and magazines. In May, you'll publish a controversial story on Bill Cosby for the Atlantic Monthly. What issues are you interested in writing about next?
I'm really fascinated by gentrification. I'm also interested in the theory that black culture is what's plaguing black folks. This idea get bandied about every generation. I just want to know why it refuses to die.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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