Paul Coates was an enigmatic god to his sons: a Vietnam vet who rolled with the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian and new-age believer in free love, an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement dedicated to telling the true history of African civilization. Most of all, he was a wily tactician whose mission was to carry his sons across the shoals of inner-city adolescence—and through the collapsing civilization of Baltimore in the Age of Crack—and into the safe arms of Howard University, where he worked so his children could attend for free.
Among his brood of seven, his main challenges were Ta-Nehisi, spacey and sensitive and almost comically miscalibrated for his environment, and Big Bill, charismatic and all-too-ready for the challenges of the streets. The Beautiful Struggle follows their divergent paths through this turbulent period, and their father’s steadfast efforts—assisted by mothers, teachers, and a body of myths, histories, and rituals conjured from the past to meet the needs of a troubled present—to keep them whole in a world that seemed bent on their destruction.
With a remarkable ability to reimagine both the lost world of his father’s generation and the terrors and wonders of his own youth, Coates offers readers a small and beautiful epic about boys trying to become men in black America and beyond.
Praise for The Beautiful Struggle
“I grew up in a Maryland that lay years, miles and worlds away from the one whose summers and sorrows Ta-Nehisi Coates evokes in this memoir with such tenderness and science; and the greatest proof of the power of this work is the way that, reading it, I felt that time, distance and barriers of race and class meant nothing. That in telling his story he was telling my own story, for me.”—Michael Chabon, bestselling author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
“Ta-Nehisi Coates is the young James Joyce of the hip hop generation.”—Walter Mosley
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There lived a little boy who was misled . . .
When they caught us down on Charles Street, they were all that I'd heard. They did not wave banners, flash amulets or secret signs. Still, I could feel their awful name advancing out of the lore. They were remarkable. They sported the Stetsons of Hollis, but with no gold. They were shadow and rangy, like they could three-piece youjab, uppercut, jabfrom a block away. They had no eyes. They shrieked and jeered, urged themselves on, danced wildly, chanted Rock and Roll is here to stay. When Murphy Homes closed in on us, the moon ducked behind its black cloak and Fell's Point dilettantes shuffled in boots.
It was their numbers that tipped me offno one else rolled this deep. We were surrounded by six to eight, but up and down the street, packs of them took up different corners. I was spaced-out as usual, lost in the Caves of Chaos and the magic of Optimus Prime's vanishing trailer. It took time for me to get clear. Big Bill made them a block away, grew tense, but I did not understand, even after they touched my older brother with a right cross so awkward I thought it was a greeting.
I didn't catch on till his arms were pumping the wind. Bill was out. Murphy Homes turned to me.
In those days, Baltimore was factional, segmented into crews who took their names from their local civic associations. Walbrook Junction ran everything, until they met North and Pulaski, who, craven and honorless, would punk you right in front your girl.
Above them all, Murphy Homes waved the scepter. The scale of their banditry made them mythical. Wherever they walkedOld Town, Shake and Bake, the harborthey busted knees and melted faces. Across the land, the name rang out: Murphy Homes beat niggers with gas nozzles. Murphy Homes split backs and poured in salt. Murphy Homes moved with one eye, flew out on bat wings, performed dark rites atop Druid Hill.
I tried to follow Bill, but they cut me off. A goblin stepped out from the pack
Fuck, you going, bitch?
and stunned me with a straight right. About that time my Converse turned to cleats and I bolted, leaving dents and divots in the concrete. The streetlights flickered, waved as I broke ankles, blew by, and when the bandits reached to check me, I left only imagination and air. I doubled back to Lexington Market. There was no sign of Bill. I reached for a pay phone.
Dad, we got banked.
Okay, Son, find an adult. Stand next to an adult.
I'm in front of Lexington Market. I lost Bill.
Son, I'm on the way.
I had crossed a border. This was more than Dad's black leather beltI knew how that would end. But word to Tucker's Kobolds, this thing filing out across the way, lost boys with a stake in only each other, stretching down the block in packs, berserking everywhere, was awful and random. I stood near a man about Dad's age waiting at a bus stop, like age could shield me. He looked over at me unfazed and then back across the streets at the growing fray of frenzied youth.
We'd come out that night in search of the wrestlers, who were our latest sensation. They elevated bar fights to a martial art, would rush the ring, all juiced on jeers and applause, white music blaring, Van Halen hair waving in the wind, and raise their chins until their egos were eye level with God. Moves were invented, named, patented, and fearedheaven help Bob Backlund in the camel clutchand we loved that, too, the stew of language that gave a beat down style and grace, that made an eye gouge a ritual.
You could find us, noon on Saturdays, sprawled out on the living room floor, adjusting the hanger behind our secondhand color TV, until the Fabulous Freebirds, Baby Doll, and Ron Garvin emerged from the wavy lines and static. The wrestlers barnstormed the country perfecting their insane number. They were confused. They ranted with the rhythm of black preachers; wore silk robes, bikinis, and spangled belts; carried parasols; and recited poetry. Glossy mags sprung up from nothing, spread their gospel, their scowling mugs, their hollow threats and lore. They gave dressing room interviews, punctuated by jabs at the air. Whole histories were pillaged, myths bastardized, until Hercules Hernandez stepped off Olympus and the Iron Sheik delivered the Mideast to the Midwest. They held summits and negotiations, all of these ending in a rain of blows.
Other fans had their Hulksters or the golden Von Erichs. But for me only the American Dream could endure.
He waddled down the aisle, bathed in applause and fireworks. His gut poured over bikini trunks. His eyes were black histories.
The Horsemen would tie the Dream to the ropes, beat him until his hair was a mop of bloody blond. I'd cringe and pound the floor, yelling for him to get up. But Bill always rooted for villains, and cackled as Ric Flair strutted the ring, flipping his wig of platinum blond. Then the Dream would dig in, reverse figure fours, throw bionic elbows and Sonny Liston rights. In the midst of his fleeing adversariesthe battered Tully Blanchards and shattered Andersonshe'd look out at the crowd gone mad and snatch the mic like KRS
It's me, the Great. The king of the ring. Like I told you, the Dream IS professional wrestling. I have been to the mountaintop, and it will take a hell of a man to knock me off.
We had to see them. But that road went right through Dad, whose only point in life was toil. He worked seven days a week. Big Bill called him the pope, for weekly he issued sweeping edicts like he had a line to God. He outlawed eating on Thanksgiving, under pain of lecture. He disavowed air-conditioning, VCRs, and Atari. He made us cut the grass with a hand-powered mower. In the morning he'd play NPR and solicit our opinions just to contravene and debate. Once, over a series of days, he did the math on Tarzan and the Lone Ranger until, at six, I saw the dull taint of colonial power. I am sure this is what brought him comically to our side.
With two tickets to live pro wrestling, he offered a gift and a joke
Go see Kamala the Ugandan Giant. And you will understand, as I do, that that nigger is from Alabama.
At the Baltimore Arena we were in full effect. We peered down from cheap seats so high that the ring was our own gift box. There were white people everywhere, and this was the most I'd ever seen of them. They wore caps and jeans sliced into shorts; herded kids, hot dogs, and popcorn. I thought they looked dirty, and this made me racist and proud.
I'd like to tell you what immediately happened next. But I don't remember. I was open, and wanted to cheer the Birdman, resplendent in wraparound shades, a Jheri curl, and fluorescent gold-and-blue spandex. He was always oblivious to his theme music. His tune was internal, and maybe that night he dipped and glided toward the ring, flapping his arms and talking to the parakeets perched on each of his shoulders. I wanted to see the Dream, who was at the height of his feud with the Horsemen, and outnumbered, had taken to guerrilla warfaremasks, capes, ambushes, beef extended into parking lots, driveways and dream dates. But I lost it all out there, and when I dig for that night, all that emerges are the tendrils of Murphy Homes, how they dug into my brother's head. He was already a kid of the streets. But this highway robbery, this thievery of your own person, pushed him toward something else. He was touched by the desperate, and now fully comprehended the stakes.
I know that Dad and Ma saved me, pulled up in their silver Rabbit, some time after I made the call; that Dad ran off into the swarming night to find his eldest son, and for the first and only time, I was afraid for him. I know that Bill's mother, Linda, swooped down to the harbor and found Bill first, shuttled him back out to their crib in Jamestown. I know that Bill returned to Tioga days later, and when I told him how I'd dusted Murphy Homes, how I was on some Kid Flash shit, he was incredulous
Fool, they let you get away so they could chase me.
If the newspapers Dad left around the house were true, the greater world was obsessed over Challenger and the S&L scandal. But we were another country, fraying at our seams. All the old rules were crumbling around us. The statistics were dire and oft recited1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than college.
A cottage industry sprung up to consider our fate. Jawanza Kunjufu was large in those days, his book Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys promised answers and so was constantly invoked. At conferences, black boys were assembled. At schools we were herded into auditoriums. At home, mothers summoned us to dinner tables, and there they delivered the news: Our time was short.
We lived in a row house in the slope of Tioga Parkway in West Baltimore. There was a small kitchen, three bedrooms, and three bathroomsbut only one that anybody ever wanted to use. All of us slept upstairs. My folks in a modest master. My two sisters, Kris and Kellwhen back from Howard University, in an area where Dad also stored his books. There was a terrace out back, with a rotting wooden balcony. I almost died out there one day. Leaning against the crumbling wood I tumbled headlong, but caught myself on the back door roof and came lucky feetfirst to the ground.
My room was the smallest, and always checkered with scattered volumes of World Book, Childcraft, Dragonlance, and Narnia. I slept on bunk beds made from thick pine, shared the bottom with my baby brother Menelik. Big Bill, as in all things, was up top. By mere months, he was my father's first son, but he turned this minor advantage into heraldry. He began sentences with "As the oldest son . . ." and sought to turn all his younger siblings into warriors. Big Bill was seldom scared. He had a bop that moved the crowd, and preempted beef. When bored, he'd entertain himself, cracking on your busted fade, acne, or your off-brand kicks.
Bill: Ta-Nehisi, get the fuck outta here with those weak-ass N.B.A.s. Know what that shit stands for? Next time buy Adidas. And, Gary, I don't know what you laughing at in those four-stripe Cugas. Know what that means? Nigger, can u get Adidas . . .
In those days, crazy Chuckie threatened our neighborhood. When we lined up for five on five, every tackle he took personally, every block was an invite to scrap. Once he pulled a metal stake from the ground, swung it at fat Wayne until he retreated all the way into our living room. That's when Dad came out and revealed the face of This Is Not a Game. Chuckie cursed and waved the stake. Then he stalked off. That night I lay on the bottom bunk, replaying it all for Bill.
Me: Man, Chuckie is crazy.
Bill: Fuck Chuckie. If he ever step to me, I'll fuck him up.
That fall, Chuckie killed his father, got gaffled by the jakes, and disappeared into the netherworld of Boys' Village or Hickey Juvenile.
Private school Stevie lived two doors down. I'd sit outside playing with his G.I. Joes until I realized that this made me a target. Across the street was Mondawmin Mall, the fashion seat of West Baltimore, the pit of sex, beat downs, and cool. Every window glittered with leather, fur, sterling, and stickers with large red numbers and slash marks. But the price tags and fat-ass honeys made boys turn killer. One misstep onto suede Pumas, and the jihad begins. In those days cocaine was the air, and though I never saw a fiend fire up, the smoke darkened everything, turned our homey town into a bazaar of cheap ornaments bought expensively, a Gomorrah on the inner harbor. A young man's worth was the width of his blond cable-link chain. The space between two, three, then four finger rings marked footmen from cavalry, cavalry from the great gentry of this darker age. In all our dreams we cruised the avenue in black Cherokee Jeeps, then parked at the corner of Hot and Live, our system flogging eardrums, pumping "Latoya" and "Sucker MCs." Even I shared those dreams, and I was only ten.
While I was hobbled by preteen status and basic nature, Big Bill was enthralled by the lights. This was the summer of '86. KRS-One laid siege to Queensbridge. I would stand in my bedroom, throwing up my hands, reciting the words of Todd Smith"Walkin' down the street, to the hardcore beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete." Bill and my brother John spent all summer busing tables. Bill schemed on a fat rope, one that dangled from his neck like sin. Still, his money was young, and he could not stomach the months of layaway. So he returned from the mall with two mini-ziplock bags, each the size of a woman's fist, each glimmering, like him, in the light. They held massive rings, one adorned with a golden kite, another spanning two fingers, molded into a dollar sign.
He flashed them before me, and I was caught by how the glowing metal made him swell inside his own skin. He was profiling, lost in all his glory, when Dad stepped to him.
Dad: Son. They're fake. Son, you've been had.
Bill: You're bugging. This is fourteen-karat. I paid cash money.
Dad: Son, Son. Let's have them smelted down and tested. If it's ten karats or more, I will pay you for the rings. With interest.
Bill's head went reeling, the dream within reach: He saw a gold herringbone spread over his Black BVD, and when he bopped through Mondawmin, jennys would jump on his jock and soldiers would collapse or salute. In the order of Slick Rick, Bill would wear the scarlet robe. So he agreed to my father's proposition, convinced he was on the better end. We were young, drunk on ourselves, and could not know that all the alleys we took as original, he'd stepped through before. He found a place to smelt the gold, do the math. And I don't know what was worsethe negative results or Dad's rueful chuckle and sermon. Afterward, Dad went over to Mondawmin and had Bill point out the merchants. Then he walked to the glass counter, brandished the results, and spoke magic words. The magic words were "fraud," "Black community," and "State's attorney." Bill never felt the same about gold again.