Finding The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Chicago

The Beautiful Struggle. An eloquent title for a coming-of-age memoir by someone who grew up in Baltimore during the Crack epidemic in the 1980s, an epidemic that we now know was cruelly engineered by a powerful team--the CIA and the Contras in Nicaragua--to take down urban Black America.

The original reporter who brought this information to light in 1996, Gary Webb, was discredited by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times after his investigation appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. His journalism career was ruined, and the truth about crack in America wasn't fully revealed until after Webb took his life by suicide in 2004.

A survivor of this epidemic who was raised, along with six siblings, during this time tells his personal story and the story of his family in his book The Beautiful Struggle: Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Even though Coates is well known for his most recent book Between the World and Me, as well as his writing for The Atlantic, I chose to read The Beautiful Struggle first when I spent two wonderful hours at Pilsen Community Books, a charming independent bookstore that sells new and used books and supports literacy efforts in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.

Bookseller, poet and writer Manuel Morales y Méndez was busy helping a mother with her teenage daughter, an aspiring writer, when I walked in. I browsed the many inviting books while I took in their conversation, and listened as Morales shared his book knowledge and repeatedly encouraged the young writer with reading suggestions and a transmission of his faith in her writing.

When the mother and daughter left the store, happier for their visit, I approached Morales with some of the books I wanted to buy, and our conversation flew from poetry writing to Chicano and Black poets and writers, especially since my big find and must-buy book was The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. Eventually we got around to talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates.

"Should I buy Between the World and Me or The Beautiful Struggle?" He was familiar with both books, and although I had listened to numerous interviews, talks and passages from Between the World and Me on radio shows, I answered my own question and decided to buy The Beautiful Struggle.

Morales affirmed my choice. "Everybody buys Between the World and Me, but I like your choice. You'll get to know his story before reading Between the World and Me."

It was a few days after Christmas and the streets in Pilsen were mostly quiet. I held The Beautiful Struggle in my hands and thought about this decision to dig into Coates' life first, before I read his more well-known, recent book. It felt right.

Being at the half-way point in the book, I thought it might be best to wait until I finished it to share some thoughts, but I'm feeling impatient and Coates's story is already inhabiting my world.

On page 108, Coates describes how he "took to Consciousness" by living through the violence in the streets and at the same time reading books about Black political heroes who pointed to a new direction years before. He compares what he's learning from the words of Black Panther leaders and others focused on social justice, and compares their words to the mass media music of the 1980s and real life experience:

"There were no answers in the broader body, where the best of us went out like Sammy Davis and spoke like there had never been war. I will avoid the cartoons--the hards rocks loved Billy Ocean, Luther was classic, and, indeed, I did sit in my seventh period class eyeing Arletta Holly and humming 'Lost in Emotion.' But you must remember the era. Niggers were on MTV in lipstick and curls, extolling their exotic quadroons, big-upping Fred Astaire, and speaking like the rest of us didn't exist. I'm talking S-curls and sequins, Lionel Ritchie dancing on the ceiling. I'm talking the corporate pop of Whitney, and Richard Pryor turning into the toy. Was like Parliament never happened, like James Brown had never hit. All our champions were disconnected and dishonored, handing out Image Awards, while we bled in the streets."

This beautiful struggle that Coates shares in his memoir gives the reader the feeling of being let into the writer's pre-teen bedroom by including the "Consciousness" books he read, the private thoughts he had about others, himself and his environment, and the hip-hop lyrics that influenced his early attempts at writing and breathed new life into his hungry, creative spirit.

Just like the history of the Crack epidemic of the 80s, we can't afford to forget the current war on the poor and working poor who are Black, Brown, and already being targeted under the 2017 White House Administration's mandate "Make America Great Again," which clearly means "Make America White Again."

I can't wait to finish reading the second half of this poetic, brave memoir. Read The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates for yourself and allow his story to infuse you with the courage to speak out, knowing that racism is as alive today as it ever was.


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