Monday, June 6, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Penguin-Random House / Verso Press, $NZ22:99)

            This American memoir of childhood and adolescence comes to us loaded with praise. Its opening pages reprint extracts from reviews comparing the author with James Joyce (in his Portrait of the Artist phase) and with James Baldwin, who both chronicled a boy’s painful emergence into adulthood. Is it worthy of such hype? I think it is, but reading it as a non-American, and especially as a non-African American, imposes a number of difficulties.
Born in 1975, so now in his early forties, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in the roughest part of Baltimore – black neighbourhoods filled with violent street gangs and, in his childhood, ravaged by the plague of crack cocaine. If the milieu is alien and forbidding, however, it is the argot that occasionally becomes impenetrable. Ta-Nehisi Coates reproduces the patterns of speech of his adolescence, complete with hip-hop phraseology and cant words that could be known only to people initiated into the culture.
I confess that while I always got his general drift, there were some pages where specific terms stumped me. But it wasn’t ultimately too much of a barrier, because what Coates is driving at is clear as a bell. Without preaching, without sloganeering, Coates shows how concerned parents, a strong sense of self and of one’s cultural identity, and a thirst for education can all combine to overcome really bad environments.
I’m almost embarrassed that I have written that last sentence, as it makes The Beautiful Struggle sound like the type of “inspiring” project that would be sold on Oprah’s TV show. The Beautiful Struggle is much better than that, both as literature and as social vision.
Let’s consider one of the chief paradoxes of the book. Ta-Nehisi Coates takes us from his babyhood to the age of eighteen when, after all his parents’ struggling to keep him on the right tracks, to keep him away from drugs and from the lure of street thuggery, he is at last about to go to college and get a higher education.
Ta-Nehisi clearly admires his mother Cheryl Waters, to whom this book is dedicated. As a man now in early middle age he can look back almost with amusement at the way this mother would tenaciously wear him down (sometimes by emotional blackmail; sometimes by simply waiting him out) to get him to do what she saw as best for him – such as going to a good college rather than hanging around at high-school for more good times with his mates.
But the biggest formative influence on his life is clearly his father Paul Coates, and here we get the book’s big paradox. Described one way, Paul Coates would seem a totally irresponsible father. He was a Lothario who sired seven children on four different women, only some of whom he bothered to marry. Ta-Nehisi gives us a scene of his father going to the delivery suite when his wife has just given birth, and telling her that he has a child on the way via another woman. And at the book’s ending Paul Coates is breaking up with Ta-Nehisi’s mother.
At this point, we expect some sort of condemnation of the man’s callousness and unconcern. But it turns out that, irresponsible lover or not, Paul Coates really did his best for all his children and treated his wives and lovers as part of a larger tribe, all of whom were welcome in his home and all of whose bills he struggled to pay. He was a disciplinarian, which meant the occasional whopping for Ta-Nehisi and his siblings and half-siblings. But as Ta-Nehisi grew, Paul’s preferred means of control were understatement, the odd sermon, and getting his children to understand their responsibility for their own actions. He was macho enough to teach his sons that it was better to win fights if they were going to get into them, but that it was probably best not to run with gangs and not to get into fights in the first place.  He steered his family away from firearms, drugs and alcohol by often telling them that these were the white man’s ways of controlling black communities.
Paul Coates emerges as a complex man, not as a caricature of the tough black father. And Paul’s own experience, as seen by his son, is almost as the paradigm of American black intellectual experience in the last half century. Paul’s love-life and mating habits were influenced by his father, the author’s grandfather:
My father fought his whole life, but once he’d been like me – from the street but not of it. He was indoctrinated at eight. Dad lived with his tangled family on Markoe Street in West Philadelphia. His father had kids by three sisters, so that Aunt Pearl, who Dad loved, defied classification, and his four brothers and sisters were also cousins. My grandfather was in his late forties, and winding down his reign at the satyr king of North Philly. He was profligate, and seemed to reveal new children the way others revealed ordinary vases, penny loafers and belt buckles.” (Chapter 3)
As a young Northern black in the 1960s, Paul Coates was oddly detached from the major civil rights struggles that were going on in the South. He (unreflectively) identified with mainstream (i.e. white) American patriotism and went off to the war in Vietnam:
Dad was of that era, an acolyte of that peculiar black faith that makes us patriots despite the yoke. So he worshipped JFK, got amped off old war movies, dreamed of leaping over sand hills, driving tanks, and tossing grenades. He was semi-Conscious then. He worked delivering groceries for A&P on Broad Street, a few doors down from the Uptown. Next door was the state liquor store and on the second floor a Nation of Islam mosque. He saw Malcolm in the flesh, and noted with interest the nationalists out on Columbia Avenue and their posters of noble Ethiopians, the ones who would not beg. Martin Luther King was just beginning his tour of the South. Dad had never seen a water fountain or toilet reserved by race, and could not access the Other Knowledge that called on young men to sing while barbarians swung clubs and unleashed dogs….. he fell back on his dreams of John Wayne. In the army, he handled dogs for the military police, was shipped to Vietnam with only the vaguest sense of its place in politics and history. He was the only brother in his unit….” (Chapter 3)
But, inevitably, Vietnam changed Paul Coates. When he returned from the war, he favoured a revolutionary solution for black Americans and became a Black Panther. The report card Ta-Nehisi gives of the Black Panthers is a mixed one. In the early 1970s, the black revolutionaries really did run neighbourhood programmes to feed kids and workshops for youngsters on black culture and heritage – but (quite apart from its infiltration by FBI provocateurs) the movement fell apart in bickerings between different branches, big personality clashes between the leaders, and finally degenerated into what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “gang warfare” with Panthers murdering other Panthers. Paul Coates left the movement before it disintegrated completely. His son writes:
I begin many years later, After the Fall, after the terrible dawning that the revolution had gone bacchanal, and devolved into shakedowns of drug dealers and parlor games with starlets and playboys who longed to look like danger.” (Chapter 3)
So where did Paul Coates go intellectually after this? He was always an autodidact. Without a college education, he still hunted out texts by earlier generations of African-American writers designed to make younger people proud of their African origins. (Hence the African name he gave his son.) While supporting his family with quite menial jobs, he set up an independent publishing business to reprint such texts. He had begun as the uncritical American patriot. He had been disillusioned in this and had turned to the revolutionary solution. When this had failed him, he did not abandon all he had learnt on his journey. He still believed pride in race and culture was one key to black uplift, but he did not believe it was possible to overturn society in a revolutionary way. Instead, he believed change could only come person by person, and young black people could advance only if they got higher education.
The Beautiful Struggle is Ta-Nehisi’s story, but it is through the backstory of his father that he charts this advance. Ta-Nehisi often uses the terms “Conscious” (or “Consciousness”) and “Knowledge”. “Knowledge” appears usually to mean street knowledge – being aware of where you enemies may be in your neighbourhood and who is likely to assault you or beat you up and whether it is wise to appease or fight any individual. “Knowledge” is about immediate issues of power and survival. Being “Conscious”, however, seems to mean being aware of your history and your position in American society in terms of race and social class. It comes out in one parting piece of advice Paul Coates gives to his adolescent son, when the boy has been involved in some bother at school:
Son, you’re growing into a big man. You’re going to have to be more conscious of yourself. You are not a mean kid, but because of your size you will do things that will be seen as a threat. You need to be conscious especially around white people. You are big, and you are a young black man. You need to be careful about what you do and what you say.” (Chapter 6)
Interestingly, being Conscious also has to do with knowing the finer gradations of black society – the mutual snobberies that can exist between those who think it’s tough and admirable to live on the streets, often by violence; and those who aspire to be middle class. Often, although the term is never used in this book, the former group regard the latter group as “selling out” their group identity. In his love-hate relationship with his father, Ta-Nehisi understands fully why the former revolutionary drifted into the middle class.
I have battened on this particular strand of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story. I am bound to report that of course this is only one element of the book. The Beautiful Struggle is also about the child’s involvement in comic books and pulp fiction; and the adolescent’s attraction to hip-hop and then his discovery of African-style drumming; and how he often wavered about in school, ignoring his parents’ injunctions to do his best because, like most teenagers, he thought what his parents said was so uncool; and of course it is about sex and the discovery of the opposite sex; and some particularly ropey episodes involve his elder (half-) brother and his sexual adventures and how he very nearly went right off the rails.
I am no expert on African-American memoirs, having read only a few of them in my life, but as I closed The Beautiful Struggle, I couldn’t help comparing it with earlier books, written by and about young black American men, to which I give shelf-space.
Richard Wright’s Black Boy was published way back in 1937. As a Marxist, Wright interpreted his young life in terms of social class (and an escape from South to North), implying that the way ahead for blacks was getting better breaks, a fairer welfare system, and ultimately integration into mainstream (white) society.
I also give shelf-space to James Baldwin’s (novel) Go Tell It on the Mountain (1954) and his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son (1964), both of which record elements taken from Baldwin’s adolescence and young manhood. Though a lover of European culture (he spent much of his later life in France), though a man who encouraged friendship between people of all races, Baldwin saw race rather than class as the unignorable essence of American blacks, and gradually came close to the revolutionary stance. Living a free life might have to involve violent upheaval.
For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the revolution is dead; race means pride and self-awareness; and the way ahead is education. I appreciate that this formula, stated as simply as I have stated it, could be misinterpreted to mean ignoring social issues and concentrating on the self. But that is not Coates’ agenda. He is not a social conservative. He is giving a social programme and absorbing much of his father’s mature experience. The blurb is right. He has stepped into Baldwin’s shoes and then walked ahead of him.

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