Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in a household of tough love. Living in West Baltimore in the ’80s, as a kid he was scared of his neighbors, and perhaps even more scared of his father. In Coates’ memoir ” The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood,” he tells the story of his youth, focusing on his transition from high school to college and the experiences his father taught him about becoming a man.
Coates’ story is a triumphant coming-of-age narrative. He writes fluidly and casually, befriending his audience and delivering a raw account of his experiences as a struggling black student. His father was a Black Panther, a Vietnam veteran, and Coates’ toughest critic. Coates’ recounts a violent altercation from when he was 9 years old; another boy at school took his first set of house keys and in turn he got a beating.
“He was standing in the living room, off from work, always off from work at the most awful times,” Coates writes. “House keys seem small, but to my father they embodied everything about me that could someday get me killed.”
Ultimately, Coates determines that his father “saw childhood as preparation for adulthood,” and unfortunately used violence as a toughening method. Physical and verbal assault is a recurring theme of Coates’ memoir as he recalls instances of violence involving his brother Big Bill who had more or less adopted his father’s impulses. Involved in a shooting incident on Howard University’s campus over the possible infidelity of one of his friend’s girlfriends, Bill’s rage was a problem for both himself and his family.
Growing up around violence in an impoverished neighborhood, Coates’ first-hand experiences have shaped his knowledge of socioeconomics, and is in turn able to make some fascinating and important arguments about race and the history of violence within the black community and versus the white community. His award-winning piece “The Case for Reparations,” is a tremendously thorough analytical and anecdotal timeline of the struggles of the black community, and Coates’ educates his readers beautifully. He uses his story to relate to those with similar stories, and puts them together along with historical and statistical information to produce a truly groundbreaking, narratively encyclopedic analysis.
In discussing violence in the black community, Coates interviewed an activist in the Black Panther Party named Billy Lamar Brooks Sr. Brooks. Brooks works in North Lawndale, a neighborhood in Chicago which is 92 percent black and fourty-three percent below the poverty line. North Lawndale has triple the homicide rate and twice the infant-mortality rate than Chicago as a whole.
“If you got a nice house, you live in a nice neighborhood, then you are less prone to violence, because your space is not deprived,” Brooks said to Coates.
Further, Coates’ research led him to find that “black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods.”
Coates’ writes to educate and he writes for change. In his memoir he may have written about himself, but he also had the entire black community and white community in mind. Education did not come easily to Coates, and the bad grades perpetuated as he grew more doubtful of his capabilities. His father’s harsh criticism looming over his head, the pressure drove him chaotic. He was a troublemaker, but he believed in knowledge and consciousness.
“I believed in the intellect of all of us,” he writes, “That mine was the the legacy that aligned pyramids and spotted the rings of distant planets with only the naked eye.”
Coates’ dreamy, almost artistic mind blossomed as he progressed into manhood, just as his father had hoped for. He pulled his grades up and attended Howard University, and became intensely passionate about the djembe drum. His brother, Bill, grew out of his violent impulses and settled into manhood, too. A “beautiful struggle” is quite the accurate phrase to summarize Coates’ early life, and as he works to help other black men attain beauty from their struggles, he inspires us all to persevere and fight for justice.