Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Being Black Back-to-Back: Ta-Nehisi Coates' Two Memoirs

Recently, I decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' first book, The Beautiful Struggle, for the first time. We've own a copy of it nearly the whole time it has been out, and I've long loved his writing at The Atlantic. But it wasn't until Between the World and Me came out that I decided to finally get down to his first book, a memoir.

In it's own way, Between the World and Me is also a memoir. It is framed as a letter to his teenaged son, and includes a lot more of politics, race, and history than his first book. But especially when reading them back to back, it is impossible to ignore how much his perspective has opened, how much his view is altered by writing about how his father related to him as a boy (Beautiful Struggle) versus relating now as a father to his son (Between the World and Me).

They aren't the same book ten years apart, of course - they serve different purposes. But when the same issues arise - especially around education, race, and living situations - his change in perspective as a father writing to son instead of son writing about his father is powerful to behold.

For example, here is a paragraph from the first book, Beautiful Struggle, in which he describes his father:

We were united by the blood of our gorgon father, who was, all at once, a North Philly refugee, retired Black Panther, Vietnam vet, rebel publisher, and progenitor of seven children by four women—some born in the same year, some born to best friends. He drew lessons from all of these lives, and from his perch, high above our small world, he dispensed his bizarre edicts. 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.
Then a passage from Between the World and Me, also about his father:
My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.
Finally, another Between the World and Me passage, this time about being a father, addressing his son:
I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Both books put the idea of "personal is political" to shame. An incredible intersection, constant and real, between personal history and political history, in the inescapable way they co-exist for blacks in America. The first book emphasizes his experience of coming into consciousness, with language that puts us there, with him, in that era, "air conditioning, VCRs, and Atari," as well as "gorgon father." Later, he is able to see both his parents through the lens of being a black parent with a black son himself: "pushing me away from secondhand answers--even the answers they themselves believed." And finally, he brings that raising of consciousness, coming through his young childhood, into early adulthood in the first book, into what he hopes for his own son's awakenings: "I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."

When people balk at someone writing more than one memoir, I always laugh. This is the kind of example which really shows us the power of revisiting (not necessarily revising) our own history, especially specific facets like race or education, more than once during our lives. Our views change, our focus changes, our voice changes.

History itself is understood in new ways by the larger context and by our own brains. Though it may be tempting to dismiss the earlier in light of the later, there's really no reason to do that. There's poetry in Coates' earlier book, and the directness of experience from his earlier life. When he writes of his earlier life in the later book, there is more distance, but it is because he is putting what he knows of his son's own experience first, rather than his own experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment