I first read Ta-Nehisi Coates whilst researching my dissertation. He wrote a fantastic article on the problematic casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina, which can be found here. You cannot read this article and not recognise that this is one of most intelligent, articulate writers of our time. So, of course, I went out and bought his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle.
This small and perfectly formed epic follows the lives of boys on the journey to manhood in black America and beyond in 1980s Baltimore, a city on the verge of chaos. These youngsters needed to learn fast, and Ta-Nehisi’s father, Paul, was a fine teacher: a Vietnam vet who rolled with the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian, and an autodidactic who launched a publishing company in his basement. The Beautiful Struggle is a moving father-and-son story about the reality that tests us, and the love that saves us.
Coates’ memoir immediately brought to mind a seminal work by one of my favourite authors: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin. Despite the time and setting difference, Coates and Baldwin share similar themes and a similarly beautiful writing style. They both bring to light the side of America that is always present yet so often ignored, the side where racism and, in consequence, classism, thrives and oppresses. It is so easy for those of us who are privileged because of our race, class, location, etc, to turn a blind eye to the lives of people like Coates and those he grew up with in an effort to assuage the guilt our privilege gives us or to simply pretend that oppression does not exist since we do not have to deal with it. This is selfish and unjust; we must educate ourselves on all sorts of cultures, classes and lifestyles, particularly those that we, directly or indirectly, brought into being. The recollections that Coates chronicles in his memoir are not only excellently written, they reveal the all too often ignored lives of poor black Americans. Moreover, he does not shy away from condemnation or celebration in his depiction of life in the impoverished side of Baltimore.
I think that Coates’ father’s emphasis on education is particularly valuable when considering this book. Education brings understanding, whether it is the understanding of your own people’s history, as the young Coates discovers, or the understanding of a lifestyle that is completely alien to you, as privileged readers may find. The lesson is: do not shy away from learning about something that makes you feel uncomfortable, guilty or confused. It is because something produces these feelings that it is important to grapple with it, to yearn to comprehend it. In a time when the political world appears to have gone mad, it is more important than ever that we strive to understand, respect and appreciate those who are different to us and the way that they live their lives. If you are not a black American living in a city such as Baltimore, New York or Chicago, then I suggest that you start with Coates’ exceptional memoir.