Books have the ability, and some would say the responsibility, to transport a reader somewhere unexpected, to educate them in a way unique to the written word. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Beautiful Struggle both transports and educates in a way that is thought-provoking and timeless, conveying hope within struggle and love even in crumbling circumstances.
Coates’s memoir is unlike others, just like the life he is detailing in his book. His reconstruction of the past is as authentic as it could be, peppered with slang and rooted in the growing popularity of hip-hop culture to keep pace with the story. The beautiful struggle Coates refers to in the title of his book is that of growing up in West Baltimore in the midst of the infamous crack epidemic that overtook the lives of other promising black men in that time. Coates was raised by a very complex father, a father of seven with four different women, making his home life a patchwork quilt of children and family. Paul Coates was a former Black Panther and founder of a black publishing company. He filled the house with books and knowledge for his children to explore, which undoubtedly fueled Ta-Nehisi’s creativity that would lead him to write such an accomplished and poetic life story, as well as influenced his views on reparations as documented in The Atlantic.
Coates details a post-civil rights movement adolescence surrounded by chaos but centered in family, specifically his father and older brother Bill, beautifully articulated in ways such as, “We were a close-knit circle, but a circle surrounded by dire wolves.” He ably accounts his differences from Bill in their life paths, displaying a lack of interest in street life with more of a knack for Dungeons and Dragons while Bill gained a reputation in their neighborhood. What they had in common was the love of their father, who was more unconventional than not, banning Christmas and Thanksgiving out of principle and raising his children with a singular goal: to prepare them for adult life.
More than anything, The Beautiful Struggle serves as a coming-of-age story that tears away the glamour and nostalgia other tales of the same nature often carry. Instead, the influence of his father brought Ta-Nehisi reverence for his family’s culture and a continued interest in being “conscious.” As a younger boy, Coates was harder to corral than some of Paul’s other children, an anomaly with his stature and education and no willingness to fight or showcase his academic potential. When Coates finally got to Howard University where his father taught in order to give his children access to higher education, he came alive and embraced his opportunities.
When most people consider the inner city of Baltimore in the 1980s and 90s, they think of drugs, gangs, violence and general chaos. The Beautiful Struggle brings another reality out of the shadows, a reality made possible by drive, strong family, education and resistance to damning temptations. Coates’s writing is magical, weaved with poetic language while he tells a very real story, making the book both effective and interesting. The book is as good a tribute to such an upbringing as one can imagine.