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Summary and book reviews of The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Beautiful Struggle

A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Beautiful Struggle
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2009, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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About this Book

Book Summary

An exceptional father-son story about the reality that tests us, the myths that sustain us, and the love that saves us.

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 adolescence—and through the collapsing civilization of Baltimore in the Age of Crack—and 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 efforts—assisted by mothers, teachers, and a body of myths, histories, and rituals conjured from the past to meet the needs of a troubled present—to 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 Years—a 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 ...

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Reviews

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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).

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Media Reviews
Time Out New York - Ken Foster

A former Time staff writer, Coates might have approached this material with a journalist’s instinct for research. He could have broadened his personal story into a deeper study of Baltimore in the ’80s, or the role Black Classic Press played in our cultural history. But even as he restricts his story to his optimistic father and wayward brother, Coates finds plenty of material. This is a story of chaos, flaws and tragedy. It’s also a love story, dispatched from the front lines of a family.

Entertainment Weekly - Tom Sinclair

Coates' story about surviving adolescence and getting into college may seem familiar, but his poetry-laced, high-wire prose crackles. A-

QBR - The Black Book Review

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.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A rare, lyrical family memoir that rises above banal domesticity.

Author Blurb James McBride, author of The Color of Water
A superb debut by an extraordinary young talent. Coates describes with poetic eloquence another country that is, most painfully, ours; the father who raised him is a smoldering fire whose boundless love reaches across the room; his older brother Bill is a willow tree, bent low against the wind, and young Coates a child who, without bitterness or rancor, bore witness to the flight of his own innocence.

Author Blurb Neely Tucker, author of Love in the Driest Season
A beautiful story of manhood from a beautiful American city, where emotions fall as hard as rain and can prove to be just as cleansing. But the most remarkable thing in The Beautiful Struggle is the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which lingers in the ear. A find you're not likely to forget.

Author Blurb Michael Eric Dyson, author of Know What I Mean?
A searing and soulful memoir of a black father and his sons that tells the truth about the virtues and costs of the black freedom struggle. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a sharp-eyed, quick-witted observer whose haunting eloquence and lively intelligence introduce to us one of the most brilliant writers of his generation.

Author Blurb Michael Datcher, author of Raising Fences
An intoxicating reminder of why we carry worn paperbacks in our coat pockets, fall asleep with memoirs on our chests. We want to believe in the promise that great literature can make us see ourselves anew. With his lyrical language, zoom-lens detail, and seductive storytelling, Ta-Nehisi Coates proves himself to be a promise keeper.

Reader Reviews
Marta Szabo

A Good Choice
My favorite thing about this book is the way this author works with language, he is able to describe difficult-to-describe feelings with beautiful language.

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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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