Wednesday, January 26, 2011

T. Coates's Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 1

So here we go.

A few of the folks in our black studies crew are reading or have read Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.

He began as a journalist publishing articles with various newspapers and magazines. In 2008, he published this memoir, and shortly after that, he began blogging on weekdays over at The Atlantic Monthly's site.

I've followed Coates's blog closely for two years now, and I'm convinced his one of our most important public thinkers. Or better yet, I've found quite a bit of value of following Coates (and his league of commenters) thinking about a range of ideas in public as he does (as they do).

Here, we plan to discuss a chapter or two of the book each Wednesday up through March. If you've read the book, please join us. We'll try to keep the questions fairly open, so even if you have interest in some of the subjects, feel free to jump in.

We have a long-term goal of introducing Coates's books to a group of first-year black men college students in the fall of 2011. So this discussion will serve as a public space for us to work out ideas about aspects of the book that we really want those new students to consider.

For now, let's look at the opening of the book and chapter one. The book actually opens with a map of the sections of Baltimore where Coates grew up. I'm going to collect my thoughts, but I'm curious: how does the site of a map, this map, at the beginning of the book affect or situate readers?

Coates begins the book with a dramatic scene of violence. That scene foreshadows a number of other similar scenes. The presence of violence in the lives of young men, and in particular young black men, and the damage, anxiety, and fear it causes is definitely a subject we'll have to discuss in more in-depth. What other topic or idea, briefly addressed in the first chapter, might we stay on the lookout to address in more detail throughout and later with future readers?

• March 16: TNC, The Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 8
• March 9: TNC, The Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 7
• March 2: TNC, The Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 6 
• February 23: TNC, The Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 5
• February 16: TNC, the Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 4
• February 9: TNC, the Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 3
• February 2: TNC, the Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 2
• January 26: T. Coates's Beautiful Struggle, Chp. 1


Symmetry said...

The Title, Cover, & Table of Contents: My intial thoughts on the title were "wow, I have a poem that I perform entitled "Beautiful Struggle!" The book cover bears the Pan-African/Black Liberation Flag colors (red, black, green); black pride and influence by Garvey; and that there would be a story unfolding amid unity and dis-unity. The flower growing through "black" concrete (yellow a representation for "light") seems to represent the beauty that is able to show through and endure. Next, the map of Baltimore shows that place and movement/migration was going to be a critical factor in Coates' life experiences as a child, child-man (adolescent), and in manhood. Special emphasis is also given to the sword and dragon. For me, this is symbolic of this urban setting as a battlefield or labyrinth. Coates also refers to it as an “abyss” (that is made up of gangs associated by blocks, projects, and housing units). Also, in connection to Ch. 6 entitled the “Haunted Druid Hill” (by black folks mostly), the dragon was also the emblem of the ‘90s R&B group “Dru Hill” also from Baltimore, Maryland - Druid Hill is an “urban park” in northwest Baltimore and most “urban” parks tend to house the most crimes (i.e. in north St. Louis Fairgrounds Park and O’Fallon Park have been prone to crime- murders and drug activities). This urban landscape is mapped like a blueprint. Notice the location of MLK Blvd. near the border? This map also traces urban movement historically and shows the rise of the black ghetto (with increase in crimes, teen pregnancies, stds, and single parent households w/o fathers). Ch. 13 entitled “The cradle, my first home” is on the outskirts – could represent his first physical home and his family's progression “out of the hood.” The Coates Clan or family tree – his father was a busy man, who to me had his own battles with manhood...I will elaborate in a separate post.

Symmetry said...

I forgot to mention on my first comment that the yellow flower in my opinion also payed homage to Tupac Shakur's poetry and writings on the album "The Rose That Grew from Concrete (2000)."

Ok, after reading ch. 1, I found Coates' writing very poetic and melodic. I was bobbing my head and then when he pulled that line to LL's "I can't live without my radio,"- I had visuals. One of my favorite lines was on p. 5 when he described the wrestler's eyes "his eyes were black histories." I'm still internalizing that...

His writing also makes you search for these references, if you are not familiar, to understand the nature of what shaped his childhood environment and his father's parenting.

The most significant example was p. 6 "Kamala the Ugandan Giant," when his dad says "go see Kamala the Ugandan Giant. And you will understand, as I do, that that (n-word) is from Alabama." Ok, I hope that you googled Kamala like I did to understand the context of "dad's" language because "Kamala" was born James Harris in Senatobia, Mississippi and grew up in Coldwater, MS.

If you see the photos of him you will notice 1 in particular where he dons this cheetah (animal) print skirt and painted face and chest with these primitive symbols. For wrestlers this is called a "gimmick" used as a "distinguishing" trait or "performing" what I took not only from the book, but also from the picture is "cooning."

Notice that Coates mentioned that they were in an arena surrounded by a predominately white audience that made him both racist and proud - that's a major moment of self-realization and race consciousness at 10 (or whatever his age at the time)... this played into the sterotyped dichotomy of "the African as savage" and "the Black Male" as savage in America.

Page 7 “we were another country, fraying at the seams…1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than college” that moment alone marks a pivotal moment in the black community, especially for young black males that were rapidly becoming a part of the prison industrial complex. This phrase illustrates that on a national level there were things taking place, but for a young black boy growing up in the ghetto there existed a separate set of conflicts and battles.

H. Rambsy said...

Symmetry, wonderful points about the cover. The color reference to the Pan African flag. Yes, good catch. The flower reminding us of TuPac's book. (By the way, wait for it, a young Tupac shows up, briefly, in chapter 4.)

And snap, I hadn't even made the Dru Hill-Druid Hill-Baltimore connections. Thanks for that.

Keep the comments coming.

H. Rambsy said...

Symmetry, yep, Coates has you searching back to figure things out...ha...things we can google.

I became really fascinated by the father too. I mean directing the son to pay close attention to Kamala to understand his not-so-exciting origins. And more importantly, the father's suggestion that there's anti-black racism out there in the world.

So often the historical autobiographical books we read don't feature young people who's black parents are already "conscious."

But Paul Coates, Sr., well, that dude was a Black Panther. And more, a serious "street scholar," long before that term was really circulating like that.

Symmetry said...

On Manhood: I was reading a book for my grad history seminar called "Manhood In America" by Michael S. Kimmel, which explores the history of masculinity and the self-made man through the ideologies and social dynamics that have shaped the lives and experiences of white, middle class men in America. It was interesting, although he decided to exclude factors of race and class, which in my opinion are critical. Yet, I still feel like some of his arguments could apply to the black male on manhood and masculinity.

1. Kimmel argues that [manhood] essentially has no history and that it means different things to different people at different times (which means manhood is socially, culturally, economically, and politically constructed).

2. Kimmel argues that manhood is "less about the drive for domination, but more about the fear of others dominating us, having power or control over us," my question was simply "who" are these "others"?

3. Kimmel argues that the fear that men feel when they “are not powerful, strong, rich, or successful enough” that they either try to control those fears by projecting them onto others or by escaping.

4. Kimmel maintains that men define their masculinity in relation to other men, not that women are excluded from that relationship, but their effect is marginal. In fact, Kimmel states that “femininity, separate from actual women, can become a negative pole against which men define themselves.

In connection to our reading, T. Coates' father (Bill, Sr.) is the "self-made" black man as father, common law/husband, entrepreneur (Black Classic Press), educator and community leader. He fulfills all these roles. We see his quest for manhood evolve as he tries not to "be" his father - overly religious (extensive Bible reading), alcoholic, and father to several illegitimate children. Bill Sr. was not interested in marriage, evidenced by perhaps filling a void with an "inherent need" for different women - fathering 7 children with 4 women.

P. 17, at the bottom begins "The Panthers brought politics to match his studly quest." Joining the Black Panther Party offered Bill Sr. black male "comraderie" - where they not only shared living quarters, but also the same views on politics and views about not letting the "white man and government" dominate them as black men, but also the communities in which they lived.

Perhaps Bill, Sr. doesn't live up to the ideal "man" however, he doesn't "drop out of the struggle," or in Kimmel's words "escape" his responsibilities as a man like many fathers who bailed out on their families by leaving due to unemployment, drug addiction, or prison, etc.

Dometi said...

FIrst, just want to say that the comments are GREAT. There were so many things that I did not notice. Dope!

Like Symmetry mentioned, the first thing I noticed was the rhyme and rhythm of the words. It felt like I was reading a poem or a rap verse. Check pg. 3 for instance: It says, " Converse turned to cleats/and I bolted, leaving dents and divots in the concrete."

I saw a lot of small lines like these that let me know that Coates was definitely into Hip Hop. The title "The Beautiful Struggle," resonated with me too. It was also the name of one of Talib Kweli's albums. The family tree is titled "the coates clan" (paying homage to The Wu Tang Clan). Not to mention the title of Chapter 1 quoting Slick Rick's line from "Children Story." It looks like every chapter title quotes a lyric.

As far as ideas for new students...
I got excited thinking about how young black men would enjoy this book. Unfortunately, though, most of the men who will start college in 2011 will be too young to recognize these lyrics. This got me thinking... Coates used rhythm to tell a violent story just as Slick Rick did (or most rappers back in the day). Few rappers do that today in the same context. The stories are still violent but rappers today approach it differently than they used to.

Not sure how this would be done exactly but it would be really interesting to encourage the students to connect the chapters to elements of Hip Hop. For example, looking at how Ch. 1 directly relates to Slick Rick's Children Story. There are obvious connections of course, but I'd love to analyze the more subtle ones.

H. Rambsy said...

Yes, yes Symmetry thanks for the points about masculinity, which relate well to the issues discussed in the book by M. Kimmel. Really helpful observations. You have me taking notes.

@ Dometi. Yeah, the hip hop connections are definitely weaved throughout, and like you, it had me thinking about what rap was then vs. now.

Every chapter or almost every chapter of Coates's book has an excerpt from raps with the opening.
By the fall, we might have to footnote where the songs are coming from to help the young'ins out.

Vince Manuel said...

I must say that the way Coates's show us the chaotic impact of a father bringing his own child through the pain and terror of the reckless streets reminds me of my Father.

Anyway, the title "Beautiful Struggle" is very ironic in a sense that struggles are not really beautiful, yet they are needed to create things that are classified as "beautiful". The imagery he brings though his lines, for example he compares the voices of the street to certain types of physical forces like punches, jabs uppercuts. We can those voices not only were suppose to be heard, but to be known with a designated strength and power. Growing up in East Saint Louis back when I was younger, the streets were mean and every corner had their specific name or code to be distinguished by. Walbrook Junction, Old Town, Shake and Bake etc. get evidence of those gangs that enslaved the streets of Baltimore.

I need to dig more and analyze some more of the terms myself, but from just the first chapter i vision something impeccable about the father-son relationship in this piece.

Black writer will always be feared in my eyes. A black man with a grounded mindset is not only considered smart, but dangerous. We posses a knowledge beyond what society thinks we should. We create rather than destroy, yet also we understand and analyze the outside world from the angle of our eyes, the eyes of people around us, and most important those who were before us. I think the keyword when thinking about a "Black Writer" in general is the word Mind. That determines the thought process of not only what you write, but the creative appearance towards the readers.

Anybody can write a poem, book, story etc, but it takes a person with a logical thought process to expand and fuse life into a extravagant piece of art

Symmetry said...

@Vince and @Pongo I really enjoyed your responses. The perspective from intelligent black males will be a "guiding light" to the "youngins" coming in the fall and I agree with Prof. H, we definitely will have to pull the rap lines to help them out!

Just Cindy said...

The musicality of his writing jumps out at me immediately! Yep, it absolutely reads like poetry. I kept hearing people say that, and once I read the first few pages, I instantly understood why. One of my favorite parts is, "Learning against the crumbling wood I tumbled headlong, but caught myself on the back door roof and came lucky feet first to the ground." This sentence is jam-packed with rich sounds of assonance and consonance that make the sentence pop and sound lyrical. I like that Coates is proving that the memoir genre can flexible and unique in the way it tells the speaker's story. At points, the writing sounds like one nice, long song that becomes ear candy because of its prosaic elements (prosody).
...But on another note: family.

I was blown away with his family structure (or should I say composition?). If Coates hadn't included the family tree at the beginning I would have been so lost. Big ups to the author for realizing it was necessary.

Something else that made me pause and consider Coates' family composition was how 'laxed in tone he was about his siblings and him having different mothers. He said something to the effect that that was just his family and he was okay with it. That's the way things were (bottom of 16-17).

I guess such a complex structure is normal to those involved if the parent makes sure their kids know from an early age who their siblings are.

Even still, I have an internal conflict as I type this because while dad was there for his kids, which Coates made clear, dad also "shameless in his pursuit of women" (pg.19). Well, that's evidenced by this complex family structure.

I know that story of "the great dad but horrible husband" all too well. I see it around me all the time, so it's nothing new, but still it unsettles me. I'm just torn. I love that dad was there for his kids and allowed them to know each other from childhood. I hate that he had no concept of how to commit to and treat woman.

Dad is fascinating and admirable (because he's well read and socially conscious), but ticks me off at the same time! But that's the kind of character (and story) that engages me as a reader and keeps me hooked. I guess that's the kind of character that reflects just how human and conflicted we all can be.


H. Rambsy said...

@ Cindy, thanks for your comments. I'm going to think more too about what you're saying related to your responses to the dad.

There seems to b quite a bit going on with those relationships, and most likely Coates had to leave a lot out given the choices and numerous deletions one must necessarily make when telling aspects of a life story.

We'll want to give some thought to what you're saying and frame it into a question or several questions that we will pose to the guys who'll eventually read the book. What can we ask them that will get them to thinking more about the dad and the women, whom we hear less about in the narrative?

Also, I'm curious what you, Symmetry, Vince, and Dometi think about Coates's book for first-year undergraduate women? And, what contemporary autobiographies or memoirs by black women should we be considering?

Just Cindy said...

Let me think more about this book being used for first year black females and about what books would be good for them.