Monday, October 3, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Coming of Age on the Mean Streets of West Baltimore

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in July 2008)

In his moving memoir “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood”(Spiegel & Grau, $23), the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts his experience growing up as a dreamy African-American kid during the crack wars in 1980s West Baltimore.

Coates’ father Paul was a Black Panther who had seven children from four different women. Paul worked a full-time job at Howard University while running a small, money-losing press to promote forgotten African-American literature, instilling his children with pride and respect for their culture. A hard disciplinarian, Paul Coates’ goal was to guide his sons to safety through the treacherous streets of inner-city Baltimore, which were flooded with drugs and guns. Through his riveting prose, Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicles his odyssey of learning to be tough while still pursuing intellectual and spiritual growth in his quest to become a man.

Coates, 32, was educated at Howard University and was a staff writer at Time and the Village Voice. He spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe in Manhattan.

Q. You speak of your father and his colleagues as “Conscious” men, men with the “Knowledge.” What do you mean by this?

A. In my father’s community, they said you were “Conscious” if you knew your link to the community, if you knew things like who Malcolm X was, if you celebrated Kwanzaa, though my father didn’t. If you were not aware of these things, you were not fully alive.

Q. In a time when fathers were abandoning their kids, your father struggled to provide for seven children. What kind of father was he?

A. I think my father would not want to take credit for doing what you are supposed to do. Where he went beyond the call was he was great at challenging people. He was a great intellectual mentor and great at teaching his kids to look at the world.

Q. Your father was also a tough guy, who sometimes beat his sons to discipline them. How do you view this 20 years later?

A. My dad was of his time. I don’t know any kid then who didn’t get beatings. This idea of that being abusive is new. You have to understand, that African-Americans did not become citizens of this country until the mid-1960s. We were immigrants from a country within a country. My father once asked me how many times did I think he spanked me. ‘Til I was about 12, I’d say it was once a year. It is very hard to judge my father.

Parents from my dad’s generation accepted the level of violence in their lives, but it became a curse in the 1980s. It was pervasive. You could get your kid out of town, but often violence would follow you. My parents stayed (in West Baltimore) because they were committed to their community.

Q. You went from being a dreamy preteen to being a street-smart teenager. How did this happen?

A. It was about becoming bilingual and I think that was what my parents wanted. I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. The world that was in my head was very much in sync with a lot of the nerds around the country, but there were no chat rooms then. You learn the difference between people who are always talking about beating people up and the person who will knock you out. You learn the rules, all the little things. How many kids are standing around and why are they milling around? You learn not to be an easy target.

Q. How did you develop your book’s distinct cadence?

A. I greatly believe that hip hop is the literature of our time. I’ve always marveled at how rappers use language and I wanted to think like a rapper. The rapper Nas’ line “Poetry that’s a part of me/Retardedly bop,” that really influenced me. I heard that line and I thought it was so dense. It’s a description of the self and how you move down the street. Beautiful words come from the heart , from the people and from the ground up. One of the things I was trying to address in the book is the universal rhythm in all of our lives. I wanted to write a “Beowulf,” for the book to be a kind of saga, and to have an epic feel to it. At the same time I wanted to show the beauty of the language.

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