Book review: The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehsi Coates

February 18, 2016
Verso, £9.99

The American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to prominence in 2014 with a trenchant essay advocating reparations for slavery.

Between the World And Me, an impassioned polemic on racial politics and state violence, was published to widespread critical acclaim last year and became a New York Times bestseller. Coates has been called the unofficial spokesperson of the Black Lives Matter campaign; Toni Morrison has even likened him to James Baldwin. A new edition of his lesser-known first book (published in the United States in 2008) brings his memoir to a British readership for the first time.

The Beautiful Struggle recounts Coates’s upbringing in 1980s Baltimore, charting his journey from a wayward, vaguely solipsistic fledgling to the threshold of maturity. This was the era of the crack cocaine boom, and the landscape of Coates’s childhood is strewn with violence—after-school muggings, playground machismo and heavy-handed policing. Under the tutelage of an eccentric, overbearing father—a former Black Panther turned publisher of black history marginalia—he is saved, by the skin of his teeth, from the life of dead-end delinquency to which many of his peers succumbed.

Told in a dreamy, lyric register redolent of a voiceover in a movie flashback, The Beautiful Struggle is both a touching portrait of filial affection and a paean to the redemptive power of culture: the young Coates found direction and purpose in his father’s books; in learning to play the djembe drum; and in the socially conscious, controlled aggression of a hip-hop scene that was yet to be bastardised by the nihilism of gangster rap.