Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the one hand, we’ve seen this type of memoir before: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Malcolm X, and others. And, yes, Coates belongs in that company. He talks about what it was like to grow up in a fiercely proud African-American household, and he describes his own coming of age in a society that fears him for his color and his potential.

On the other hand, we need this type of memoir in every generation. Each shares not just a story, but an implicit story behind the story, the growth of our narrator into someone who has “overcome” and developed a new voice for an old situation.

Coates’s voice is new in part because he has absorbed the rhythms and choppiness of hip-hop. If we hear jazz in Baldwin and some of the others, we hear a new, staccato sense here. Coates has a capacity for quick-change, for appreciating detail one moment and then taking off on a philosophical tangent. Or he’ll talk about a personal experience at length and then put it into the context of something larger. His world moves quickly, and he’s in a hurry to tell about it.

This isn’t a hip-hop memoir, though. Instead, it’s the story of the evolution of his capacity for sustained thinking, for connecting the disparate parts of his life. We get the outline of the story pretty quickly: he’s a kid who, under his father’s philosophy and in the wake of his older brother’s street-tough swagger, will find a way to make sense of what feel like conflicting impulses.

The details filling out that story come more slowly because they culminate not in a particularly great accomplishment (although his eventual success as a student is real) but in the capacity to tell the story. The happy ending is the voice itself, the speaker who grabs our attention from the very beginning. Coates is his own success, someone who presents himself here as prepared to give voice to the conflicts of his generation and the one(s) that follows.

And it really is a remarkable voice. I wrote down several of my favorite quotes just to get a feel in my own fingers for his distinctive tone:

Of some of the kids from his childhood, “They took one look around West Baltimore and knew they were the best it had to offer.”

“The [Black] Panthers’ faith exceeded their resolve.”

“Among the Conscious, a man was only worth his most recent read.”

And, after discovering a fresh wave of hip-hop musicians, “Slowly I came to see I was not the only one who was afraid.”

I’ve heard terrific things about Between the World and Me, and it’s high on my list for what to read next. If Coates is exercising the voice that’s born in this book in the ways I understand he is, then it really must be the masterpiece so many say.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment