This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood
This is for my mother,
~ ~ ~
CHAPTER 1. 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 you — jab, uppercut, jab — from 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 off — no 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 walked — Old Town, Shake and Bake, the harbor — they 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 belt — I 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 feared — heaven help Bob Backlund in the camel clutch — and 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 adversaries — the battered Tully Blanchards and shattered Andersons — he’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 warfare — masks, 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 recited—1 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 bathrooms — but only one that anybody ever wanted to use. All of us slept upstairs. My folks in a modest master. My two sisters, Kris and Kell — when 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 feet-first 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 worse — the 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.
My father was Conscious Man. He stood a solid six feet, was handsome, mostly serious, rarely angry. Weekdays, he scooted out at six and drove an hour to the Mecca, where he guarded the books and curated the history in the exalted hall of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. He was modest — brown slacks, pale yellow shirt, beige Clarks — and hair cut by his own hand.
But at night, he barbecued tofu, steamed basmati, and thought of sedition. He’d untuck his shirt and descend into the cellar, then comb through layers of ancient arcana. He collected out-of-print texts, obscure lectures, and self-published monographs by writers like J. A. Rogers, Dr. Ben, and Drusilla Dunjee Houston, great seers who returned Egypt to Africa and recorded our history, when all the world said we had none. These were words that they did not want us to see, the lost archives, secret collections, folders worn yellow by water and years. But Dad brought them back.
From the day we touched these stolen shores, he’d explain to anyone who’d listen, they infected our minds. They deployed their phrenologists, their backward Darwinists, and forged a false Knowledge to keep us down. But against this demonology, there were those who battled back. Universities scorned them. Compromised professors scoffed at their names. So they published themselves and hawked their Knowledge at street fairs, churches, and bazaars.
For their efforts, they were forgotten. Their great works languished out of print, while those they sought to save grew fat on integration and amnesia.
Dad tracked the autodidacts and relatives of the ones who’d passed. Over tea in their living rooms, he unfurled his ambition. Dad proposed restoring these lost geniuses to their esteemed chairs in the university without walls, through a publishing operation he built from saddle-stitch staplers, a table-top press, and a Commodore 64. Never had republishing been so radical. He called this basement operation Black Classic Press, and for the Coates family there was no escape. All of that house was bent by the mad dream of mass resurrection.
He covered the crib with Knowledge, until rooms overflowed with books whose titles promised militant action and the return to glory. Wonderful Ethiopians and Black Egypt and Her Negro Pharaohs. He found others like him, formed collectives, held festivals in honor of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey and the taking of arms. Brothers and sisters would drum and dance the unearthed rhythms, poets revealed words with teeth. Even the food was conscious — wheat bread and veggie burgers, cookies sweetened by fruit. Dad just played the back, peering from behind his table covered with African cloth and the awesome spread of books brought back from the dead.
This bounty drew the survivors, the ones who outlasted Hoover and COINTELPRO. They approached the tables with expectations so great that they dispensed even with English, opting for Swahili, Arabic, or Twi. All week they swept streets, worked day care, drove buses, taught piano, counseled the high school youth. You would know them by their dreads, their stoicism, the scent of sandalwood and licorice.
They would see me hustling books at these affairs with Ma or Big Bill, and go to school, because the Movement was all that they were. They’d start with the significance of Nkrumah or assail us for not carrying books by Dr. Clarke. They’d pause for libations, shout for Bunchy Carter, Nat Turner, and Aunt Grace. Then mellowed by the ancestors, they would smile. I was Coates’s boy, though they did not know which one. I was young, and unconcerned with why Denmark Vesey did not come off, how the Belgians tackled Lumumba, or the slave-king Sakura’s return.
But out on the block, the hoppers draped themselves in Starter, Diadora, and Lottoes. Then they’d roll onto corners and promptly clutch their nuts. Big Bill was there. He rolled through the streets in a brown puff leather, and captained a minor gang of Mondawmin kids. When bored, they brought the ruckus, snatching bus tickets and issuing beat downs at random. They gave no reason. They published no manifestos. This was how they got down. This was the ritual.
They spent summers hunting for girls. The jennys would catwalk through Mondawmin in stonewash with wide red hands spray-painted across their asses. They gilded their namesakes in triple bamboo earrings, and when they heard your call — hey, yo, shortie, come here — they did not look back to flip a bird. They did not crack smiles for anything. Their focus was on hair, mounds and mounds of hair, gelled, fried, french rolled, finger waved, extended into a dyed and glittered crown. They were of the moment. They took one look at West Baltimore and understood that they were the best of it. So they walked like they were all that mattered, like they had no time.
You had to be harder then. You could not bop through Park Heights like the second coming of Peanut King. Even the skating rinks demanded six deep. Lexington Terrace was hot with gonorrhea. Teen pregnancy was the fashion. Husbands were outties. Fathers were ghosts.
Here’s the cast of my last name: My father has seven kids by four women. Some of us were born to best friends. Some of us were born in the same year. My elders come first, in chronology: Kelly, Kris, William Jr. — all born of my father’s first marriage to Linda.
John was born to Patsy, Malik born to Sola.
Then me and Menelik, the children of my mother, Cheryl. This is all a mess on paper, but it was all love to me, and formed my earliest and still enduring definition of family.
Big Bill and John were both born in 1971. Dad was married and two daughters deep. He was a veteran, and must have seemed to Linda to be a stand-up ordinary guy. But he lurched radical and enlisted in that subgeneration overwhelmed by the rigid ethics of picketing elders and the creaking pace of change. He joined the Black Panther Party, rose to lead the local chapter. He lost his union job. He went to work overtime for the impending revolution. His family went on relief.
Dad missed the birth of Kris and Kell, and was away again when Linda went into labor with Big Bill. Something always seemed to happen — a phone was off the hook, one of the Panthers took a shoddy message. On the day of Bill’s birth, Dad pushed Linda’s 1966 Mustang across town to South Baltimore General. He was carrying some measure of spiritual weight. He was twenty-five, at the height of all his vigor, and out to get his share. He lived with Linda and the kids at the top of a winding road out in South Baltimore’s Cherry Hill. But he wore no rings, felt marriage was day-to-day, and was out to fulfill the general destiny of young men, and the particular one of his father.
The Panthers brought politics to match his studly quest. They lived in a commune, shared socks, and swapped beds. They were comrades, partners in the great unmaking, the fall of families, governments, economies defined by systems of profit and greed. In this new world, nothing was stamped as exclusive. Dad took to this naturally, and soon it seemed whenever a woman smiled his way, she’d already begun dividing her life into trimesters.
What Linda knew of the Panthers was that Dad had gone from honorable, hardworking vet to someone who justified food stamps and the projects. Dad arrived at the hospital the night Bill was born, and found his wife laid up and lovely in all her postpartum glow, and that made him confessional and bold. He had planned no speech, or special way, but just blurted it like bad soup: Linda, I have another child on the way. There was no good time to drop this, but there were many really bad ones and Dad had picked from this lot.
Even young, Dad had more vision than most for the big picture, but paired this with a stunning blindness for the intricacies of actual people. So he performed this ignominious feat again. That October, he came to the hospital to see Patsy and newborn John. Again he found a mother of his child laid up. Again he dropped the same load but with a twist. He had another child on the way, by Patsy’s best friend and comrade in the party.
My father knew how to hurt people without knowing how he’d hurt them. And maybe in the end this is what saved him. He was shameless in his pursuit of women. He was perpetually broke. But he never shirked when his bill came due. He hustled for his baby’s new shoes, while his frayed at the seams. Among the Conscious, he was known for the books he exhumed and breathed back. But he was known just as much for the constant presence of his brood, even as the specific makeup of the brood rotated. This is a low bar, I know. But we lived in an era of chronic welchers, where the disgrace was so broad that niggers actually bragged of running out on kids.
You could find my father at the kitchen table shaking his head at the Sunday paper, in the living room stewing over the evening news. His charges were five boys and two girls, and when he died, they would be his only words. He was called to fatherhood like a tainted preacher. The root was his own alcoholic father, who seeded so many children that Dad simply lost count. He impregnated three sisters, and so Dad had aunts doubling as stepmothers.
His father was intellectual, forced him to recite Bible verses, lectured from the morning paper. But anger and cheap wine soiled the best of him. He’d snap on a dime and fling five-year-old Dad clear across the living room. Aunt Pearl would step up and take the beating for him. When he was nine, Dad came home from school and found his life out on the sidewalk. He spent the following weeks living in a pickup truck with his father, two brothers, and Aunt Pearl. Later his father dropped him and his brother David off at his mother’s house and faded out.
Now Dad had woven his own tangle of mothers and children spanning fourteen years. His passion was sons, if only because the odds and stakes seemed so high. We held him in this weird place, somewhere between hatred and complete reverence. All our friends were fatherless, and Dad was some sort of a blessing, but he made it hard to feel that way. He was a practicing fascist, mandating books and banning religion. Once he caught Big Bill praying at the kitchen table and ordered him to stop—
You want to pray, pray to me. I put the food on this table.
Another time, in the middle of dinner, Bill pronounced that he couldn’t wait to grow up so he could move out, make his own rules. Dad stared hard—
You don’t have to wait. You can go now.
All of us knew he was flawed, but still he retained the aura of a prophet. On our life map, he drew a bright circle around twelve through eighteen. This was the abyss where, unguided, black boys were swallowed whole, only to reemerge on corners and prison tiers.
Dad was at war with this destiny. He was raising soldiers for all terrain. He preached awareness, discipline, and confidence. He went upside heads for shirking chores, for reaching across the table for the hush puppies, for knocking over a pitcher of juice. His technique was random — you might get away with a sermon on the virtues of Booker T., or a woman he left behind in Vietnam. Or you might catch the swinging black leather belt.
Once, Bill and me got to wrestling on Ma and Dad’s bed, and some of the boards in the frame snapped in two. We engineered a sloppy resetting. Dad and Ma wouldn’t be home till after we’d gone to bed. If Dad asks, Bill instructed, just tell him you don’t know what happened.
Dad woke me up first. What happened to the bed?
I shrugged. I don’t know…
He woke up Bill. What happened to the bed?
We broke it wrestling.
I glared, but only inside.
You had to make it worse by lying, Dad said.
He took us downstairs to the back door. Both of you get out. Go out back. You want to wrestle, go out in the backyard right now and wrestle.
Then he shut the door. We stared at each other for a moment, then Bill grabbed me and threw me to the ground. We tangled out there on the dirt for Dad’s benefit for who knows how long, before we realized that he probably wasn’t watching.
Ma came out later, sent us back upstairs. Dad had gone to bed.
My father scared me, but not even fear could alter the basics of nature. I brought home mediocre report cards: Is not working up to potential, Needs to apply himself, Discipline is a problem. Ma would go up to school and come back with migraines — that she passed on to us. Her eyes would go white. She’d dig nails into my arm—
I am not raising nothing niggers. Where is your head? What are you thinking, boy?
I am thinking of Sunday waffles and Morning Star. I am grieving for Lynn Min-mei, apatosaurs, Tom Landry, and Cowboy blue. I am staring three desks over and dreaming of Brenda Neil, dancing in a pink and white gown.
Dad would see me coming like some great lost cause, and clap his hands thrice—
Wake up, boy. Walk like you got business. Walk like you got somewhere to be.
I had my chances to turn this story another way. In fourth grade, Ma and Dad sent me off to apply for scholarships at private schools. I went through the rounds of class visits, noted how much better the lunch was, and then dawdled my way through the standardized tests. I was bigger than multiple choice and bubbles, so I picked answers at random and acted shocked when months later I was rejected by every school. ...
All rights belong to the author: Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.