by Yasmina El Hilali
“And then he was swinging away, channeling a chi ancient as Equiano.
The power was passed down from mothers guarding their sons from the lash,
and later from the pyre, rope, fat sheriff. My father swung with the power of an army
of slaves in revolt. He swung like he was afraid like the world was closing in on him, like was trying to save my life”
In my last year of university, I was looking for a thesis topic when my professor suggested I look into the (then new) book written by the author Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me (2015). Subsequently, I stumbled upon his earlier book The Beautiful Struggle (2008) and my thesis topic was set.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an author, journalist, comic book writer (Black Panther, yes!) and educator. Both books deal with the history and lives of African Americans. In The Beautiful Struggle Coates takes us back to his childhood. In this novel, his father, Paul Coates, is a key figure. He is a man that tries to bring up his kids as well as he can and aims to prepare them for all life will throw their way. Moreover, Paul Coates has set up his own publishing company that aims to revive African literature/history through which he also educates his sons as well as he can. While at first young Ta-Nehisi isn’t very much interested in his father’s efforts, they later become the axis of his life: it is what keeps him grounded in a world he finds difficult to live in.
The novel takes us on a coming-of-age journey of a young African-American boy who desperately tries to fit into the world he grows up in, while being cautious of the world that is outside of the borders of his neighborhood and community. The reader is addressed in fast-paced vernacular, which draws them in and makes them feel like an insider. We are invited into a world in which we follow a young boy growing up and a father desperately trying to prepare him for a world that is not designed for him. Ta-Nehisi is a soft boy, growing up in a world of everything ranging from innocent fist fights to gang violence.
While we follow Ta-Nehisi struggling and falling over his own two feet, we are simultaneously invited into the world of Mansa Musa, the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many more prominent African or African-American figures through his father’s publishing company. Paul Coates opens up a world to his son: a world of successful, brave and outstanding African American key figures. In doing so, he offers his son role models and endless possibilities. While the young protagonist grows up, learns, falls down and gets up again, we, as readers, are also educated about a world we are hardly ever confronted with. This is a world in which African-Americans are not depicted and merely remembered as enslaved people, segregated from society or incarcerated: it is a universe of endless, beautiful and rich African (American) history.
Whereas the narrator’s relationship with his father is the central point of The Beautiful Struggle, it is the narrator’s relationship with his own son that is the central point of Between the World and Me. The latter is a personal letter to his son, in which he tries to prepare him for a life as an African-American male in a harsh American society. Here, the fast paced vernacular is exchanged for a straight-forward journalistic prose: it is clear Coates will not beat around the bush.
Again, Coates draws not only from his own experience, but also from his inspirations James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Coates talks of senseless deaths, the abuse of African Americans by a white society (think of gang violence, filled prisons and micro- and macro aggressions and innocent kids killed by the police), the struggle of coming to terms with his identity and the bliss of knowledge in a world that thrives on ignorance.
Between the two books, we follow one generation merging into another. One son growing up into a father facing the same struggles his own father faced while trying to raise a son. A struggle passed down from generation upon generation, bearing with it the pain of a history silently muffled away. Hushed over. Silenced. In both books we are faced with the desire to break the silence and break the chains of a struggle passed down. He vulnerably opens up about the struggle of raising a young black male in contemporary America.
This is personal. This is emotional. This is reality. This is raw human experience.
Both books opened my eyes and mind to a world I was never taught about in school and I could have easily gone not knowing about. Coates, however, effortlessly opens up a universe defined by constant struggle, key figures that have paved the way for change and a universe of hidden African history.