And so the new time came upon us with the death of the Grand Incredible and the conversion of KRS to the sentinel pose of Malik Shabazz. That year, all our boomboxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy. Before then, the music was escapist and fun some beats and the dozens, fat chains and gilded belt-buckles. But Chuck D pulled us back into the real. Here in Baltimore, brothers would put on the Enemy and recoil. We had never heard anything so gratingdrums crashed into whistles, sirens blared off-beat. But the cacophony was addictive and everywhere.
His style was baffling, but within it we beheld a recovered collective memory. The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out each other's eyes. We were alleven meso angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. Dad tried to explain The Fall, but he was an elder and full with his own agenda. Chuck was one of us, and once we got it, we understood that he spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of our time. He took us back to '66, showed us Hoover and his array of phone taps, the grafted, with their drugs and guns like blankets for Indians. We fell, blinded, corrupted, consumed by Reagnomics, baseheads and black on black. But now was the hour of '88. Now was the time to reverse our debased years, to take over, grab our guns again and be men.
By then I had met the great lion, Afeni Shakur, most famous of the Panther 21. She'd moved to Baltimore some years earlier, and among the Conscious she was legend. Afeni was an old comrade of my father's, but when the Panthers went to war with each other, they came down on different sides. They had comrades who'd killed their comrades, but still, all through another decade the human touch pulled them back together.
I had heard the tales, and measured against the everyday sameness of my father, Afeni was large. But what struck me was that the legend was humanthat she smiled when she saw me, cooked spaghetti, and found my baby brother amusing. Her son and daughter spent time among us. Bill and Tupac traded lyrics. I took Sekiywa to see Snow White. But even then their clan was glamorous, and of that final faction that held out a Marxist hope of the empire's ruin.
Here is how it all came together: Bill, Sekyiwa, all of us, we knew who we were, in the rote manner of knowing where two streets intersect. But anything more than that, a feeling for why any kid would grab a black beret, guns and law books, was only partially there. I was slowly coming to a dawning, and then one afternoon Sekyiwa and me sat on my bedroom floor pumping "Rebel Without A Pause"Hard, my calling card/Recorded and ordered, supporter of Chesimard
Sekiywa looked up, "That's my aunt." Rather her aunt's slave name. But Sekyiwa only partially understood how the name Chesimard had come to Chuck D. The next day I went to my father for the story. The story was all of two sentences, and then Dad, reaching up to his bookshelf for the Knowledge Of Self. On the cover, her face was off-center. She wore an Afro, and glanced over her shoulder. On the cover was her nameAssata Shakur. I'd started down this path a few months earlier, burrowing through African Glory, a book my father republished. But now I truly became a seeker. This was not my father's story and then it was, for there, inside the tale of one Panther, was the story of them all. The cowboy impulse took me first, the thought that I, for all my awkward hands and crazy-glued glasses, was rebel blood, and that thought filled me with a stupid, childish pride. But all of us need myths. And here out West, where we all had lost religion, had taken to barbarian law, what would be our magic? What would be our sacred words?
This essay is adapted from Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, copyright Ta-Nehisi Coates 2008. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Spiegel & Grau.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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