With The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, I claim completion of the Ta-Nehisi Coates canon. (Not counting his work on Black Panther graphic novels.) Now I want to go back and re-read some of his later books with the perspective I just gained. First on my list would be his memoir and letter to his son, Between the World and Me. It feels like that’d be the full circle to this book.
In Struggle, Coates writes eloquently about his maturation process from goofy black kid to inquiring teen to activist-curious young man. All through the lens of West Baltimore and a father connected to the politics and realities of being Black in America. And yes, it is a struggle for Coates to find the spot where he fits between his siblings and parents.
The Coates family is a nonconformist one, driven primarily by the father. Which isn’t to say the family’s mothers aren’t strong women all on their own merit. But Paul Coates influences every moment of this story. His background as a Vietnam vet, Black Panther, on-and-off vegan, micro press publisher colors the decisions he makes for Ta-Nehisi and his siblings.
But the kids have to individuate, becoming their own people. First the older siblings, including Bill, who’s a mentor and role model for his younger brother. Until he’s not. And as Ta-Nehisi find his way among his peers, his brother’s choices are both cautionary tale and motivator.
I loved watching the author discuss his evolution from kid to young adult, with the perspective of learning about the historic and current of Black people. Having a father who also printed activist and lost historic works certainly created a unique environment.
On the other hand, plenty of this book is typical coming-of-age stuff. Finding your way in the schoolyard, among changing school environments, and in different neighborhoods is never easy. And Coates clues us in to how all that happened for him.
Additionally, I read this with the prism of my recent parallel read, The Nickel Boys. In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. One fiction, based in fact. The other, a memoir. But both fundamentally about black boys growing into teens and then young men. Together they covered acres of ground, in terms of both experience and eras.
I recommend The Beautiful Struggle as a coming-of-age memoir based in the Black, urban experience of the 1980s. It’s well told, heartfelt, and full of honest awakenings.
Pair with The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead or Coates’ later memoir, Between the World and Me. Alternately, pair with Another Brooklyn or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson for the parallel female perspective.