Fuck what you have heard or what you have seen in your son. He may lie about homework and laugh when the teacher calls home. He may curse his teacher, propose arson for the whole public system. But inside is the same sense that was in me. None of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up.
Ta-Nehisi Coates became famous for his second book, Between the World and Me, a letter about being a black man in America that he wrote to his son. This is his first book, a memoir about becoming a black man in America and under the tutelage of his own father. In it, he is bracingly honest about his father, himself and his family in prose that is never less than compelling and beautiful.
A map of Baltimore with various sites and neighborhoods marked and a Coates family tree with Ta-Nehisi’s grandparents, parents, his father’s three other wives and his 7 siblings and half siblings precede the text. It is as if Coates is locating this story as much in the specific and the particular as possible, even while he is constantly reaching for the universal. He captures the angst and pain of middle school, the challenges of figuring out adulthood, the struggles that occur between teens and parents, with insights that virtually anyone over 20 can relate to without every watering down his account of a very specific set of family, gender and race issues that are specific to black men and ultimately to Ta-Nehisi alone.
While it is clear his father is his hero, Coates is clear about that hero’s behavior, his style of discipline and his failings as a family man. William Coates was a dedicated member of the Black Panther party and the relationship between his politics and his ideas of parenthood are discussed in detail. Ta-Nehisi’s own politics are clear, and he gives his father much of the credit for teaching him to see the world through a radical lens. Coates is equally clear about his decision to see women and children differently than his father did.
Some of the later chapters feel like an advertisement for Howard University and a primarily black gifted and talented high school Ta-Nehisi briefly attended. These serve to narrate his growing intellectual strength and independence, but also make a case for how poorly served blacks have been by ordinary, supposedly integrated, public schools. It is clear that much of his education comes from his father – a dedicated, self-educated scholar of African and African American history and culture.
This is not a full-length autobiography. Coates was only 33 when he wrote it. It covers his teen years – opening with a frightening gang incident when Ta-Nehisi was 12 and closing as he enters Howard six years later. It shows off his intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of pop-culture, hip-hop in particular and probably will have a valuable air of nostalgia for a reader younger than me. Even here, Coates touches the universal because I was able to insert songs and movies from my own era where I did not recognize his references.
I did not grow up in the world Coates is describing here, and I am certain that much of this went over my head. But I found myself wishing I had read it at 12 myself – to prepare for the gauntlet that is male adolescence - and reread it when each of my boys was 12. There is much valuable wisdom here about what we do to boys in the name of manhood.