Spiegel & Grau/Random House
227 pages. $22.95.
This brilliant memoir reflects on the challenges faced by two African-American brothers growing up.
Ta-Nehisi Coates almost didn’t make it, despite his parents’ unswerving determination to make sure he did. During the 1980s crack epidemic in all-black West Baltimore, the dominant figure in Ta-Nehisi’s childhood was his father Paul, a Vietnam veteran, ex-Black Panther, publisher of his own Black Classics Press – and poster dad for tough love when few black kids had fathers around. Paul decreed that his seven children of four different mothers would read his African history assignments, eat natural foods and not celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. His children would succeed, or else. Ta-Nehisi must live up to his ancient Egyptian name for the mighty Nubian nation.
Ta-Nehisi’s older brother, Bill, carried a gun and instinctively understood “the Knowledge” taught by “street professors,” including “the geometry of cocking a baseball cap.” With his head in the clouds, Ta-Nehisi missed these lessons. Both brothers brushed against death on the streets. Placed in gifted classes, Ta-Nehisi couldn’t concentrate. When “the Knowledge” finally penetrated, his explosion resulted in expulsion from high school. Only by taking responsibility for himself at 18 could Ta-Nehisi reach his father’s dream for him: attending the black mecca of Howard University. Now with an eight-year-old son of his own, he writes for publications such as The Washington Post and Atlantic Monthly.
As a teen, writing hip-hop lyrics and playing African drums kept Ta-Nehisi sane. Embedded with those rhythms, this memoir becomes a prose poem revealing the truth about many black males in America: “We are the walking lowest rung, and all that stands between us and the beast … is respect. … [W]e walk like we are not long for this world.” This book should spark discussion between black youths and the adults who care about them. (212) 782-9000, http://www.spiegelandgrau.com.