Saturday, July 09, 2016

Summer Reading: The Beautiful Struggle

From front matter of The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Note D&D-esque sword and serpent!
Last week I wandered the stacks at my local Barnes and Noble looking for some more summer reading. I had come to a stalling point with a few of the titles I had begun recently, and sought to jump-start my reading. Seduced by the "Buy 2, Get the 3rd Free" signs and stickers (gets me many times), I picked up three very different titles: one I had long wanted to read (The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore), another my son recommended from his high school English class (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), and a final one by an author with whom I recognized as a comic book writer and social commentator but whose "formal" publications, beyond The Atlantic articles, I had yet to fully engage (The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates).

I started with Coates' memoir as it was the one with which I had the least familiarity, and while I could make some assumptions as to the subject matter given the title, beyond its autobiographical bent it was a mystery. Interestingly enough, the memoir's (presumably) original subtitle to The Beautiful Struggle which might have suggested an even more specific purpose is nowhere to be found on this edition of the book (I only came across it online): A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. I enjoy reading non-fiction about familial relationships between parents and children, naturally more so sons and fathers, and I was quickly drawn into Coates narrative. Beyond its incredibly accessible and sincere language, I was struck by two things which made the reading experience unique: how much Coates and I had in common relative to interests, and how little we have in common given our backgrounds.

The first observation is one that many men who were boys during the period between 1975-1985 can likely relate to: an interest in comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, and other pop-culture of the time. From the onset, Coates' story is infused with nods to his appreciation of childhood fantasy, for example when he admits, despite the conflict around him of being "spaced out as usual, lost in the caves of chaos and the magic of Optimus Prime's vanishing trailer." (4) Like all children who are given the privilege if engaging in such role-play or fantasy building, Coates and I both used these passions (and still do) to ameliorate the anxiety that comes with adolescence. While the memoir focuses on the author's relationship with his father, it is the inclusion of these seemingly ancillary interests as a means of dealing with which I connected. But, the deeper insight is equally engaging.

Coates grew up in Old Baltimore the son of a former Black Panther who felt it was among his purposes to infuse in his children, in particular his sons, with an understanding of Knowledge and Consciousness. We learn that Coates father's vehicle for educating his children was a steady diet of revolutionary practices, from a practice of not celebrating traditionally American holidays such as Christmas to the implementation of a diet that was both healthy and occasionally unique in what it excluded (for a period of time white rice) or included (tofu). Coates recognizes the dual nature of these choices on his own growth: while these made him stronger in the long run, they also made his experience unique from those in his community resulting in a sense of isolation and loneliness. His father's methodology is ultimately validated as it becomes clear that his father was playing the "long game," as both the author and the second son of the book's subtitle both experience what can only be deemed "success" by the final page of the memoir.

A few thoughts came to my teacher-brain as I concluded The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Despite growing up in a metropolitan area, I did not grow up in the culture that Coates, and a number of my students, have. I am white and he is black and this difference, and what it means socially, is key to what Coates' father seeks to impart and empower his children with. As a white teacher is a district with a growing minority component, I struggle with what impact, beyond empathy, I can hope to have on the students of color I teach. If it takes a strong, black man to imbue these understandings with black youth, there is only so far I can take them. Even beyond the advice dispensed by his father, there were others who assisted Coates, such as his high school guidance counselor who "was a black man, Conscious like my father." (199)

Secondly, it is unfortunate that books that tell this perspective (or those of  the black historians and authors reprinted by Coates' father in an effort to raise his community's levels of Knowledge and Conscious) on the black experience are not shared more in public schools. Speaking from only my own experience as a student and teacher, the majority of approved reading selections are fairly limited, consisting of very common classics such as Richard Wright's The Invisible Man (while on approved list is not widely shared with majority of students), the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In the Sun. All great literature, but none that necessarily speak from a modern place of empowerment. (It is no secret why more potentially subversive selections are not included.) As I type this, Coates' books reminds me of the need for what I learned of in an old school Public Enemy line: "mental self-defense as a fitness." Among many issues is the necessity of having fearless educators, both black and white, willing to risk some very difficult conversations, a quality rarely seen at the appropriate levels of authority in suburban schools dealing with a variety of perceived challenges (and stakeholders).

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a very engaging and provocative summer read, that like all good works, suggests more questions than it answers. More and more though, the questions are need of being both asked and responses to them carefully considered. I look forward to passing my dog-eared copy onto to interested colleagues, and recommending it to students as a potential independent read.

No comments: