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
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.