The first book by one of America’s greatest public intellectuals. The Beautiful Struggle is a coming of age memoir, set in Baltimore and focusing primarily on Coates relationship with his fascinating, complicated father.
If you’re interested in what Coates has to say, (and you should be) then you should be interested in his father: a former black panther, with seven kids by numerous women, who runs a important black publishing house, while also working at Howard university and all the while protecting his kids from the ravages of Baltimore in the 1980s.
He’s a fascinating, challenging guy – an intellectual unafraid to get his hands dirty. A fiercely protective father who punishes his children violently. Coates relationship with him mirrors my own with my father – full of admiration, love, profound confrontation, mirroring some behaviors, while violently rejecting others.
In some ways this is the memoir of many fathers and sons. In other ways, it stands alone.
Coates and I are exact contemporaries. His cultural references are mine. Same comics, same hip hop acts, same wrestlers. Yet (and I realize this is obvious) race is a chasm that profoundly separates our experiences. I and many other men fought horribly with our father’s growing up. And there are scores of memoirs out there charting those relationships. But I wasn’t surrounded by the crack epidemic, or the confusion of being an inner city Black kid moved to the burbs. I did not have to worry about police violence, or gun violence in my neighborhood. I fought in school, but it wasn’t as weighted with life and death consequences as it was in Coates’s world.
It’s a fascinating, challenging book that gives real insight into both a time and place, and the formative years of an important thinker. But the writing can also be a bit much. Coates clearly spent hours and hour on each sentence and sometimes it comes across as too polished, too perfect. The turns of phrase can bea little too alliterative, or clever. But complaining that a writer spent too much time polishing a work is kind of a bullshit criticism. This is well worth reading.