The Beautiful Struggle

Ta’Nehisi Coates wrote this powerful and moving story of growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, and called it The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood. It was his first work and it was beautifully written. It is also the first book I have read by him, but it will definitely not be my last. What an impressive talent and powerful voice!

This synopsis of the book from the Publisher is a little long, but I couldn’t describe better the focus of this book:

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.

My experiences were almost the opposite of Mr. Coates’s experiences, but I identified with much of what he described of his growing up years. He idolized his older brother, Bill; his family focus was on the goal of getting that college education. The interactions he described between family members, and the stories of friends and neighborhood, touched me and brought back memories of my own brothers during our growing up years. That he could touch my own memories, and those of so many of his readers from such different backgrounds and life experiences, is a tribute to the depth of his writing.

Family life and interactions are the universals that he wrote about, but what was not part of my own privileged life was the daily racism and struggles just to survive growing up black in this country. Those stories were profoundly moving and educating for me. There is no “distance” for a reader of Mr. Coates. He makes you feel deeply and identify closely, and that is a transforming experience.

His description of  his family:

Here’s the cast of my last name: My father has seven kids by four women. Some of us were born to best friends. Some of us were born in the same year. My elders come first, in chronology: Kelly, Kris, William Jr.—all born of my father’s first marriage to Linda. John was born to Patsy, Malik born to Sola. Then me and Menelik, the children of my mother, Cheryl. This is all a mess on paper, but it was all love to me, and formed my earliest and still enduring definition of family.

An insightful description of his Father:

To be Conscious Man was more than just the digestion of obscure books that happen to favor your side. It was a feeling, an ingrained sense that something major in our lives had gone wrong. My father was haunted. He was bad at conjuring small talk, he watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot.

An interesting reference to his Mother in the context of his own growing awareness of the unfairness of the world:

I paid little heed to great injustice, despite my mother showing me blueprints of slave ships and children’s books tracking the revolution of Dessalines and Toussaint. Still, I could spot even small injustices when they shadowed me personally. I knew that to be afraid while on the way to school was deeply wrong.

A philosophical thought on Life:

“I did not know then that this is what life is—just when you master the geometry of one world, it slips away, and suddenly again, you’re swarmed by strange shapes and impossible angles.”


I was very moved by his experiences and found this book haunting my thoughts long after I finished it.

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