Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates, _The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood_

I SO MUCH enjoyed the super-carbonated fizz of Ta-Nehisi Coates's prose in an article I read in The Nation a couple of years ago that I decided to see if he had published a book. Sure enough, he had -- this one, which came out in 2008.

A coming-of-age memoir by a male African-American writer has to make its way past some monumental precursors: Black Boy, Notes of a Native Son, Manchild in the Promised Land, to name some of the obvious ones; Daryl Pinckney's High Cotton, to name a less obvious one. The Beautiful Struggle is not quite in that class, but worth the time nonetheless.

Coates grew up in West Baltimore in an interesting situation. His father was a committed member of the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s, whose calling was maintaining a small press devoted to that cause, and who simultaneously worked on the maintenance crew at Howard University so his kids could take advantage of a tuition remission program there. Born in 1975, Coates as a child was surrounded by DuBois, drums, African mythology; the family did not observe Christmas or the Fourth of July. He grows up with constant reminders that he has to get the grades he needs to get into Howard, or, as the book always calls it, "Mecca."

Just outside the door, though, as Coates comes of age, is the crack epidemic, gangsta rap, and the flight of the black middle class to the 'burbs. It's a bit like the story of a red diaper baby born in the late 1930s, suckled on legends of the Spartacists, the Wobblies, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, coming of age in the McCarthy era.

Intriguing as these circumstances are, though, the book does not quite get its narrative arc all the way off the ground. Coates has more than his share of difficulties at school and in the neighborhood, and there is some drama at home (his father believes in corporal punishment, but not in monogamy), but the potential energy of the story tends to become diffused.

Fortunately, there's enough combustion in the prose to keep the pistons moving and the pages turning. Coates draws a bit on street vernacular, a bit on the language of comic books and sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but he has a way with a trope that is distinctly his own. To pluck an example almost at random, here is a bit on how Coates, forced to miss drum ensemble practice in order to take driver's ed, daydreamed his way through the class:

I just placed my palms on my thighs in ready position, leaned back in my wooden chair until I was five hundred years away, until I stood in the court of Mansa Musa, in a kufi and a dark robe. My djembe hung from my shoulders, and when the Lion of Mali nodded, my hands fired and called across the Sahel. The teacher would lower the lights and show films on driver safety. But I would play lead on my lap, imagining dancers who kicked and leaped through the dark like great black flamingoes.

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