Beyond the nerd herdTa-Nehisi Coates charts a Beautiful Struggle
By D. Scot Miller (For SF Bay Guardian)
Wednesday July 9, 2008
REVIEW Amid impoverished rural segregation, my parents were part of the first bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. While my father studied Frantz Fanon and tae kwan do in Okinawa, my mother went on to be a probation officer in Los Angeles during the Watts riots. I was born in a riot-torn Washington, DC, around the time my father helped take over the administration offices of Howard University. I'm a Black Movement baby, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my number.
Coates' The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel and Grau, 240 pages, $22.95) is a memoir about growing up in Baltimore through the Black Power 1970s and crack power '80s as one of the seven children of Paul Coates, owner and founder of Black Classic Press.
Judging from recent books such as Junot Diaz's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to Shawn Taylor's Big Black Penis, the black nerd has become the locus of pomo literary style. And why not? Who, besides me, didn't love Urkel? Coates begins his tale as a sensitive black nerd — Beautiful Struggle even has a Dungeon and Dragons–esque map of Old Baltimore on the inside front cover. Swords, dragons, and Monotype Corsiva font chart intersections like Garrison and Liberty, where, as the author relates, "the Orcs cold-played me for my scullie." Ultimately Coates moves beyond the nerd trend, instead playing the vulnerable, reluctant warrior with grace and wit.
Initially unwilling to fight, Coates is sucker-punched, jacked, and tormented on the mean streets. To navigate Baltimore's threats and perils means acquiring what he calls "The Knowledge": street smarts and savvy that is "the sum experience of our ways from the time Plymouth Rock landed on us." This knowledge is built upon the realization that "death was jammed in us all, hell-bent on finding a way out," and that a man shouldn't measure his "life in years but in style."
In Beautiful Struggle, Coates contrasts his older brother Bill and father Paul. Bill is a popular player in a decaying neighborhood, struggling to make it to the outside world. Paul is a former Black Panther and full-time revolutionary attempting to raise seven kids to attend the mecca of Howard University, where he's a janitor, rogue black historian, and would-be publisher.
Watching Bill embrace hip-hop, smoke blunts, chase dimepieces, and pack a biscuit, Coates becomes versed in The Knowledge. He sets it against his father Paul's "Knowledge of Self," as drawn from Kwanzaa, Nkrumah, and the consciousness of being more god than man and more man than animal. In attempting to find a balance between these tropes, Coates invokes the words and experiences of J.A. Rodgers, Rakim, George Jackson, Ishmael Reed, and KRS-ONE with uncanny ease. He embodies both the hope and the bane of the Black Power movement, and his flashbacks capture its tender and toughening moments.
It is this tension that gives The Beautiful Struggle its potency. Coates charts the seemingly boundless optimism of his father's generation and the rising cynicism of his and brother's. He does so with a compassionate, poetic voice that is rooted in a no-bullshit grasp of his personal history and of American history over the past 60 years. To read this book is to catch a glimpse of the profound legacy and letdown of a generation raised to rebel but forced instead to fight disappointment, imprisonment, and despair. As Coates puts it, "The Knowledge Rule 2080: From maggots to men, the world is a corner bully. Better you knuckle up and go for yours than have to bow your head and tuck your chain."