Every Time I Try to Crawl Out, They Pull Me Back in!
Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Young David Broder Chronicles Edition)

Ta-Nehisi Coates Writes About the Burden His Parents Carried

Lynell George:

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of father Paul in 'Beautiful Struggle': Black Pride and Black Arts and Black Awareness provided the atmosphere in which Paul Coates -- Vietnam veteran, ex-Black Panther, autodidact and soon-to-be book publisher -- had begun to raise his young family. But... [e]ven Coates' young son Ta-Nehisi... was able to discern discrepancies... that he didn't quite have language for.

If the newspapers Dad left around the house were true, the greater world was obsessed over Challenger and the S&L scandal. But we were another country, fraying at our seams. . . . The statistics were dire and oft recited -- 1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than college," writes the younger Coates in his new memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle."

There were those, like Paul Coates and Ta-Nehisi's mother, Cheryl Waters (to whom the book is dedicated), who remained steady at the task, raising their sons (Ta-Nehisi and Menelik), fortifying the foundation, buttressing the support beams of the soul, as America's inner cities seemed to collapse from within. They were at ground zero of gang warfare, wrong-place-wrong-time street violence, the escalating crack cocaine epidemic. The most vulnerable and visible target: young black men.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, now 32, the book was a way to sketch not just time and place but an intricate support system that came into being, the other side of the story -- intact families, men who got up and went to work, young men who stayed away from drugs, black girls who didn't get pregnant, black kids who devoured books.

"Too often people tell our stories," Coates said on a recent Wednesday morning over breakfast.... "I can remember being in college being so frustrated [with the media]: 'Where is the other side?' " Ta-Nehisi Coates said. "I really wanted the full humanity of black folks to come across. That's one of the things we don't get." And so Coates set out himself to slip behind those late 1980s and early 1990s headlines, the statistics about "endangered" young black men. "A cottage industry sprung up to consider our fate," Coates writes. "At conferences, black boys were assembled. At schools we were herded into auditoriums. At home mothers summoned us to dinner tables and there they delivered the news: Our time was short."

Coates' book is many things: a tribute to his demanding, disciplinarian father... as well as an homage to the complexities of the communities that he grew up in -- in and around Baltimore as well as the metaphoric idea of "black community" itself.... The result: a lyric, hip-hop epic that meticulously evokes the period through its textures and its talismans -- headlines, break beats, back-in-the-day vernacular....

[F]ather and son did not have an easy relationship, but it wasn't without love. His father was a big man with outsize dreams for his son. He had a complicated life -- seven children from four wives -- yet he was always on the scene. Not just in name but as a constant force of accountability in young Ta-Nehisi's life.

That "beautiful struggle" is Ta-Nehisi's journey toward "consciousness," of finding his "deeper self" or "knowledge of self" in a country that had been, from slavery to Jim Crow segregation, bent on negating African Americans' sense of personhood. This "groping for manhood in the dark" was eased some by his father's basement store of literature, which grew to overtake the house, by this man who resuscitated old books by black scholars, historians, thinkers, long out of print. These books would become the backbone of his Black Classic Press....

The concern was about putting not just the discipline, but all of it, in context. "As a father, I wanted to do a job that stood the test of time," Paul Coates later reflected from his home in Baltimore, the city Ta-Nehisi grew up in. "I share the worry of most black fathers and black mothers. I wanted him to grow to manhood, and I didn't want him to end up in jail. I wanted him, and all my children, to make a contribution to their community. I wanted him to be able to stand up as a man. And whatever comes at him, to take it on."...

Now father to his own 8-year-old son, Ta-Nehisi is bent on telling stories that will broaden the view. Contemplating the future, he's still studying the past: "What I came to understand from looking at my dad was the importance of consistency and pressure. It's constant expectation. That should never flag. That should never go away."