The color of one's skin is irrelevant. We're all the same.
America is striated with cultures, but they are, in the end, combined in the
"melting pot." I have always believed, without hesitation or effort, that these
statements and the ideas behind them are true. Blissful innocence? Perhaps. Is
there anything wrong with these ideas? Maybe not. But are they realistic - are
they possible amidst the intricacy of human families and their individual and
collective histories and cultures? After reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir,
The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood,
I can not be sure that my own breezy confidence in the sameness of us all was
not in some part a poor substitute for a more rational understanding of our
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to reveal that I am white, female and fairly unexposed to the large urban centers of our country. Though I prefer to stay hidden behind my writing, I find it difficult to discuss this title outside of its connection to me, the individual reader, for the book is all about personal and collective identity. As I turned the pages of Coates's narrative, I could not help but interpret this tale of a tenuous and risky childhood, filled with posturing and calculating, daydreaming and confusion, against my own childhood days. While I bicycled safely alone through my small town neighborhood, Coates was strategizing survival tactics for getting to and from school. While I felt secure and proud to learn about my forefathers arriving in the "New World" seeking freedom and open land, Coates was grappling with slave names and the weight of oppression. Where only laziness or a lack of ability might have stood in my way on the road to academic achievement, Coates faced a multitude of challenges thwarting his scholastic progress, including the base fear of being marked as weak, thereby opening the door to abuse and loss of respect. Though I grew up less than two hours from Coates's Baltimore, our worlds look nothing alike. And to me, that is the value of memoir: the chance to see through someone else's eyes. This book affords that rare opportunity.
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.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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