The author of the bestseller Between the World and Me and recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a much-lauded African-American journalist on the Atlantic, best know for his trenchant 2014 essay making the case for reparations for black Americans.
A bona fide heir to the mantle of ‘hip-hop intellectual’ (last claimed with any credibility by Michael Eric Dyson), Coates is a rara avis, able to move with ease between Rakim, Q-Tip, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
The Beautiful Struggle, written in 2008 but only now published in the UK, is a memoir of the writer’s perilous journey from boyhood to manhood in inner-city Baltimore in the late 1980s and early 1990s — when it was ravaged by crack cocaine and gang warfare. As he navigates the maelstroms of adolescence, Coates’s journey takes him from socially gauche teenager surrounded by B-boys with hoop dreams to unexpected academic high-achiever.
At its core, The Beautiful Struggle is a moving story of education for liberation and the search for anchorage and self-knowledge in a hostile, unforgiving world — one in which the odds are still heinously stacked against young men of colour.
It is also a heartfelt and poignantly beautiful ode to his father — a Vietnam vet, former Black Panther revolutionary, autodidact, printer of arcane black tracts, old-school disciplinarian and paterfamilias (with seven children from four different women) who haunts every page of this beguiling memoir. His father is a towering and saintly presence: a lone male parent in a sea of absent dads, and an ardent bibliophile striving to impart Afrocentric knowledge and values to his son.
Empowering, perceptive and often witty, The Beautiful Struggle is also a gilded encomium to the power of books and the freedom self-knowledge can bring. We learn of Coates’s wayward school years, his elder brother Bill’s escapades, his teenage crushes, being sent to summer camps for the Afrocentric ‘conscious’ movement, his passion for djembe drumming, his penchant for hip-hop music and why it resonated with him. The memoir concludes with his acceptance, aged 18, by Howard University; remarkably, he is the fourth of his siblings to attend this bastion of black intellectual life.
Coates is particularly good on articulating the virtues of the Knowledge (black street savoir-faire which helps him survive), understanding the well-intentioned but at times painful over-romanticisation of Africa, and his awareness of the pitfalls of his ‘conscious’ upbringing — all dashikis and militant black books, although ironically it is this instillation of discipline and mental resilience which ultimately saves him from succumbing to the lure of the streets.
The memoir also functions as both a potent critique of the imprisoning paradigms of black masculinity and an evisceration of the pathologies which decimate the neighbourhood and blight his childhood: drugs, philandering, the obsession with basketball and vacuous fripperies like new trainers.
Coates’s deft use of apposite lyrics by luminaries from the golden era of hip-hop as chapter titles not only embodies the contemporary zeitgeist, but serves to underline the author’s deep respect for the genre as the soundtrack to his youth and what it has given him. In fact, the memoir at times becomes philosophical moralising on beats, rhymes and life.
While heavily rooted in the painful exigencies of the African-American urban experience, this is also a universal coming-of-age story: the tale of the redemptive power of a father’s love for his son, a grateful meditation on the stability that two loving parents can give a child, and a son’s yearning for his father’s approval and respect as he attempts to find his own path in life.
Readers initially put off by the references to long-forgotten black street styles or the litany of N-bombs and Oedipal expletives should persevere: here is an immensely gratifying tale told with warmth and intellect. The prose is muscular: laconic and at times vitriolic, elegiac but also mordantly humorous.
At a time when the Black Lives Matter debate continues to rage across America, Coates’s voice — often impassioned but always humane and eloquent — could not be more necessary. Although our countries’ respective histories are (thankfully) vastly different, Coates’s is a name the British public should get to know.