Paul Coates was an enigmatic god to his sons: a Vietnam vet who rolled with
the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian and new-age believer in free
love, an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement dedicated
to telling the true history of African civilization. Most of all, he was a wily
tactician whose mission was to carry his sons across the shoals of inner-city
adolescenceand through the collapsing civilization of Baltimore in the Age of
Crackand into the safe arms of Howard University, where he worked so his
children could attend for free.
Among his brood of seven, his main challenges were Ta-Nehisi, spacey and sensitive and almost comically miscalibrated for his environment, and Big Bill, charismatic and all-too-ready for the challenges of the streets. The Beautiful Struggle follows their divergent paths through this turbulent period, and their father's steadfast effortsassisted by mothers, teachers, and a body of myths, histories, and rituals conjured from the past to meet the needs of a troubled presentto keep them whole in a world that seemed bent on their destruction.
With a remarkable ability to reimagine both the lost world of his father's generation and the terrors and wonders of his own youth, Coates offers readers a small and beautiful epic about boys trying to become men in black America and beyond.
The following essay is adapted from Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The
Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood".
My older brother, Big Bill was a disciple of the Golden Yearsa kid who knew the difference between Jock Box and the original DMX, a kid who could speak on the wonder of Jazzy Jeff pulling transformers and bird-songs from black vinyl. In those days, to be a black boy was to beg your parents for a set of Technic 1200s turntables and an MPC sampler. Failing that, it meant banging on lunch tables and beat-boxing until you could rock the Sanford & Son theme song and play.
Deep in the basement of West Baltimore, Bill stood in his homeboy Marlon's basement holding the mic like a lover. They called themselves the West Side Kings, which meant Marlon cutting breakbeats and Bill reciting battle rhymes he'd scrawled in a yellow notepad. He would come home with demos, play them for hours, and rap along with himself. This went ...
Coates's description of his growing years in drug and violence-riddled West Baltimore is simultaneously ugly and beautiful – a glimpse into a city of barely controlled chaos and a portrait of a father clinging and dragging his children into safe adulthoods. The author's honesty is unflagging, revealing flaws in himself just as easily as those he observes in his father, brother, teachers and friends. His language flows from the page to the ear, producing a silent chorus of hip hop rhythms, street speak and African tribal beats in the mind. Though the book's vernacular may not be familiar to everyone – I confess to needing a dictionary for many terms and phrases – Coates's relaxed and rhythmic language creates a lasting impression. The Beautiful Struggle is a compelling blend of family memoir and social commentary, a book worthy of a wide audience.
(Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie).
Full Review (763 words).
The Black Panthers
The author's father, Paul Coates, was a member of the Black Panther Party. As Coates describes in his book, the Party's original aims concerned self-defense and social justice. Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Party in 1966. Its diverse membership, however, made cohesion difficult and produced geographically clustered varieties of the socialism, counter-culturalism and Black Nationalism for which the Party became known. The Black Panthers frequently clashed with law enforcement: FBI Counter Intelligence Programs (COINTELPRO), for example, investigated the group's alleged connections to communism and hate-related violence across the U.S. Many in the Black community felt that the police and ...
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