A long journey ending in manhood

June 14, 2008|By GREGORY KANE

It's a safe bet Ta-Nehisi Coates' father no longer thinks he's "a disgrace to the family name."

But 16 years ago, that's exactly what Paul Coates told his fourth-oldest son. At the time, Ta-Nehisi was a junior at Polytechnic Institute. It was near the end of the school year. Ta-Nehisi struggled at the elite Baltimore school his first two years there, failing three courses when he was a freshman and three more when he was a sophomore.

Ta-Nehisi was given a reprieve - you know, the kind that Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Andres Alonso thinks schools like Poly and City College and Western aren't giving to failing students - and allowed to return. But Ta-Nehisi had to pass his junior year to remain at Poly.

He exchanged some heated words with a boy in English class one spring day. Later, Ta-Nehisi called the boy a "punk," using select language that can't be used in this column. The boy cracked Ta-Nehisi over the head with a trash can, but young Coates won the ensuing fight.

He didn't, however, win the war. A term paper he needed to pass English class got lost during the fracas. Flunking the English class flunked him out of Poly. That was when Paul Coates, Ta-Nehisi revealed in his memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, told him "Ta-Nehisi, you are a disgrace to this family's name."

Ta-Nehisi's book has received rave reviews, and it's earned every word of praise. Ta-Nehisi writes with the urgency and eloquence of a Richard Wright or a James Baldwin. I predict The Beautiful Struggle will become the Black Boy of its generation. And it's from a guy who flunked English at Poly.

Paul Coates couldn't see that far into the future back in 1992, of course. He had no idea Ta-Nehisi would write such a book. But he didn't really mean his son was a disgrace to the family name either, Coates told me Thursday night.

"What I was using was a tactic of shame," Coates said. "Telling him he was a disgrace was a part of the shaming. He was no more a disgrace than my father. He was no more a disgrace than I have been at times."

Paul Coates' father had children by three women - who were all sisters. Some of his half-brothers and half-sisters doubled as first cousins. Coates himself had seven children by four different women. If Coates thought Ta-Nehisi was going to spare him harsh criticism because he was Dad, then Coates was in for a rude awakening. Ta-Nehisi did no such thing.

But the rude awakening wasn't necessary. Coates said he and Ta-Nehisi talked about the book as his son wrote it. Coates was prepared for the criticism that was coming.

"I thought his assessments were fair," Coates said. "They were his. There's nothing you can do about that."

Much of the book details Ta-Nehisi's boyhood as he grew up on Tioga Avenue, near Mondawmin. Ta-Nehisi tells how he and his brother Damani navigated Baltimore's treacherous streets with its hoodlums, thugs and wannabe gangstas ready to make life only too miserable for young black men.

But Ta-Nehisi also devoted an entire chapter to his father and his days in the Black Panther Party. I found that to be most interesting, since it was when Coates was in the BPP that I first met him.

Coates and a contingent of Panthers were having a debate with members of the S.O.U.L. School, a black nationalist group I was rolling with circa 1969.

"You're coming out of a racist bag," Coates said of our philosophy.

We were, of course. But each group had its flaws. Ta-Nehisi wrote that the Panthers made a big one when they told his father to advise Marshall "Eddie" Conway to boycott his trial for fatally shooting one cop and wounding another. Ta-Nehisi wrote that his father regretted following those orders, and Coates confirmed that when I talked to him Thursday night.

"[Ta-Nehisi's] view on that is my view, which is a 20/20 view 20 years later," Coates said. "Our strategy was to put the government on trial, but that denied Eddie an opportunity to present a proper defense. We used the trial to present to the community the underhanded tactics the government was using. It was the Panther Party that sent me back to Baltimore with instructions that this was to be a political trial. I regret that."

You have to wonder if the Panther leaders who gave those orders have any regrets. Coates noted that Conway remains in prison while those leaders are all walking the street.

The Beautiful Struggle is part Panther memoir, part tribute to a father, part coming-of-age tale and all superb. If Ta-Nehisi Coates failed his family in 1992, he's more than made up for it with this book.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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