Lessons from Dad

Times Staff Writer

IT WAS brief. It was beautiful: that moment just after the smoke cleared and the air felt charged with possibility. Black people organized, overcame and began to bask in the promise, started constructing 3-D dreams out of what had been abstract potential. Black Pride and Black Arts and Black Awareness provided the atmosphere in which Paul Coates -- Vietnam veteran, ex-Black Panther, autodidact and soon-to-be book publisher -- had begun to raise his young family.

But something unsettling loomed on the horizon: A couple of decades after the landscape-altering legislation, speeches, protests and lives lost in the name of civil rights, the delicate new world had begun to splinter. Even Coates’ young son Ta-Nehisi (who was given an Egyptian name for ancient Nubia) was able to discern discrepancies on either side of the race divide that he didn’t quite have language for.

“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. . . . The statistics were dire and oft recited -- 1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than college,” writes the younger Coates in his new memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle.”

There were those, like Paul Coates and Ta-Nehisi’s mother, Cheryl Waters (to whom the book is dedicated), who remained steady at the task, raising their sons (Ta-Nehisi and Menelik), fortifying the foundation, buttressing the support beams of the soul, as America’s inner cities seemed to collapse from within. They were at ground zero of gang warfare, wrong-place-wrong-time street violence, the escalating crack cocaine epidemic. The most vulnerable and visible target: young black men.


For Ta-Nehisi Coates, now 32, the book was a way to sketch not just time and place but an intricate support system that came into being, the other side of the story -- intact families, men who got up and went to work, young men who stayed away from drugs, black girls who didn’t get pregnant, black kids who devoured books.

“Too often people tell our stories,” Coates said on a recent Wednesday morning over breakfast downtown at the Pacific Dining Car. He’d arrived early. His notes and cellphone were spread before him, his nose three-quarters deep in a book he’d bought the night before -- Paula Giddings’ biography of Ida B. Wells (“Fantastic!”). He is well over 6 feet tall, soft-spoken and quick to his feet, extending a hand. He lives in Harlem now but was in L.A. with his father for a reading at Eso Won Books in Leimert Park and some interviews -- a test run for a father and son tour they’ve scheduled to begin in the fall. Between interviews, Paul Coates was off to get a quick haircut before their “Tavis Smiley” taping but mostly to allow Ta-Nehisi some alone time to reflect and talk about his book.

“I can remember being in college being so frustrated [with the media]: ‘Where is the other side?’ ” Ta-Nehisi Coates said. “I really wanted the full humanity of black folks to come across. That’s one of the things we don’t get.”

Behind lines

And so Coates set out himself to slip behind those late 1980s and early 1990s headlines, the statistics about “endangered” young black men. “A cottage industry sprung up to consider our fate,” Coates writes. “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.”

Coates’ book is many things: a tribute to his demanding, disciplinarian father (a steely, larger-than-life figure who in the pages of the book is as blunt as he is an enigma) as well as an homage to the complexities of the communities that he grew up in -- in and around Baltimore as well as the metaphoric idea of “black community” itself -- and to the various definitions of family, of love, of “support system.”

Coates, now a journalist -- he has written for the Village Voice and the Atlantic Monthly and was on staff at Time magazine -- reconstructs that land of the past in a voice both reportorial and poetic. The result: a lyric, hip-hop epic that meticulously evokes the period through its textures and its talismans -- headlines, break beats, back-in-the-day vernacular.

“I really believe that hip-hop is the literature of my generation,” said Coates. “The greatest hip-hop, for the most part, is memoir anyway, so that was the initial impulse.”

In a certain way, hip-hop saved him. It gave voice to his disquiet, and it built a bridge between his father’s lessons and the gantlet he ran on the streets. It did all of that while becoming “the lingua franca of our time,” as Coates puts it.

Giving voice

The notion of a book had long been thudding around inside, and it gave him a chance to reach back into his wide store of influence, from the writings of the Black Arts Movement, to the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.

“I wanted it to have some rhythm. . . . I wanted a particular voice. I did not just want to type out the story. I almost wanted to approach it like an actor,” he said. That voice, said Coates, “was the biggest fight about the book my dad and I had.” His concern was that “I might cut off people. That it might be too closed . . . that I might be throwing them into something, and they might be put off by it.”

Considering the revelations within, this quarrel seems small -- particularly in comparison with the fierce battles of will between father and son that Coates so vividly evokes.

Ta-Nehisi struggled with his load. Much of it was internal. Consequently, father and son did not have an easy relationship, but it wasn’t without love. His father was a big man with outsize dreams for his son. He had a complicated life -- seven children from four wives -- yet he was always on the scene. Not just in name but as a constant force of accountability in young Ta-Nehisi’s life.

That “beautiful struggle” is Ta-Nehisi’s journey toward “consciousness,” of finding his “deeper self” or “knowledge of self” in a country that had been, from slavery to Jim Crow segregation, bent on negating African Americans’ sense of personhood. This “groping for manhood in the dark” was eased some by his father’s basement store of literature, which grew to overtake the house, by this man who resuscitated old books by black scholars, historians, thinkers, long out of print.

These books would become the backbone of his Black Classic Press -- a publishing concern dedicated to literature that explained or shaped the black diaspora. They were evidence to stand up to the detractors, they were the people, the young Coates observed, “who recorded history when the world said we had none.”

An open book

Paul Coates was an old-school disciplinarian who didn’t spare the rod. There was too much at stake and there would be far worse punishment in the world. “Before I started writing,” Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “I told [my parents], ‘Look, if I’m going to do this you have to understand that it’s going to be all out.’ They said fine.”

He knew what people might amplify, that they “would look at my dad and say ‘seven kids by four women.’ . . . But he was always so public about that. He’s just not ashamed of anything.” Actually, Coates said, “he was much more concerned about the presentation of the spankings.”

The concern was about putting not just the discipline, but all of it, in context. “As a father, I wanted to do a job that stood the test of time,” Paul Coates later reflected from his home in Baltimore, the city Ta-Nehisi grew up in. “I share the worry of most black fathers and black mothers. I wanted him to grow to manhood, and I didn’t want him to end up in jail. I wanted him, and all my children, to make a contribution to their community. I wanted him to be able to stand up as a man. And whatever comes at him, to take it on.”

What overshadows all is his father’s presence, his omnipresence -- the profile and teachings of a man who had a strong hand in the rearing of his progeny, both his intimate circle and the extended family of African Americans traversing an uncertain landscape. His guiding principle was simple: “I’m not here to be your friend. My job is to get you through. To make you conscious of the world around you. To teach lessons that can carry over.”

Now, as a journalist navigating the world, telling stories, Ta-Nehesi’s reach is wide. It’s not lost on him that he is now on the other side: part of the machine that, when it came to black young men, often circumscribed both public dialogue and private dreams.

Now father to his own 8-year-old son, Ta-Nehisi is bent on telling stories that will broaden the view. Contemplating the future, he’s still studying the past: “What I came to understand from looking at my dad was the importance of consistency and pressure. It’s constant expectation. That should never flag. That should never go away.”