35. The Beautiful Struggle

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

by Ta-Nehisi Coates
started 7/28 finished 8/3

I wanted to read this book as soon as it came out in May, but wasn’t able to get to it until now. I’ve mentioned before that I used to manage 2 African-American bookstores here in Atlanta and being in those positions gave me immediate membership in…”The Concious Community”. This is a sub-culture of African-Americans that prides itself on “knowing who we really are”, i.e. our place in history before and after the Maafa. There are no specific leaders or mouthpieces (definitely not Jesse and/or Al). The Community includes members of several different spiritual practices (Nation of Islam, Rastafarians, Black Hebrew Israelites, Ifa, as well as traditional Western religions), so there is no specific place of worship. The members are primarily vegetarian, although there are meat eaters, too (but definitely no pork). There are no structured meetings, except at Kwanzaa. But there is something of a reading list: The Miseducation of the Negro, anything by J.A. Rogers, Ivan Van Sertima, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, and Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan (affectionately known as Dr. Ben) among others. Black Classic Press, started in 1978 by former Black Panther Paul Coates, was fundamental in keeping Black bookstores stocked with the knowledge and history of Africans in America. Coates would find out-of print and forgotten works by Black scholars and re-publish them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir takes place during a time when the Conscious community was really starting to flourish (due in part to the Anti-Apartheid movement and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie), but the crack epidemic is exploding as well. Using the hip-hop lyrics of the time as chapter headings, Coates relates his and his brother Big Bill’s adolescence in inner-city Baltimore as they traverse the many worlds they come across. Ta-Nehisi was more of the dreamer, while Bill was more at home with what the street had to offer. The best part of this book is the role of Paul in his son’s lives and how he steers them toward manhood with input from the family (related and created) that surrounds them.

I think this book will resonate with a lot of people – those in the Conscious community who rarely see ourselves in print; parents of African-American sons; people who came of age during the dawn of hip-hop but not necessarily in New York. Coates’ writing is lyrical and fresh and I look forward to more from him.

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