Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Beautiful Struggle Under the Long Shadow

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not William Shakespeare, but I wish I'd had a concordance while reading his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. I can't tell you how many words there are in his book that I didn't know. A lot of them, though; mostly nouns, but some verbs as well, and I assume they come from hip-hop culture and the particular cultural milieu of his life.

It's a meaningful bit of exclusion, telling a mainstream (white, older) reader that this is not her territory. Be prepared to learn.

Coates (whom I'll refer to as TNC from now on) grew up in Baltimore in the years known to anyone who's watched The Wire. The book opens in the early 1980s when he was a young child. His parents had been very active in the Black Panthers, and ran a small publishing company out of their house, promoting titles that advanced what Coates calls "the Consciousness." They were friends with Assata Shakur and her nephew Tupac, who wasn't famous at that point yet, of course.

TNC was a bumbler of a boy, not smooth like his older brother. Though obviously intelligent, he barely made it out of school, and probably only went to college because his father had some kind of job at Howard University, which entitled his children to free tuition.
[In high school], I knew I was humiliating everyone I loved…. They watched me absorb books about my own, and further, about foreign places and geographies. They knew I'd taught my [younger] brother Menelik the theory of the big bang. They believed I was a curious boy. And yet whenever someone threatened to put a grade on it, I fell asleep and lost interest.
As far as school went, the only time it contributed to his growth was in a makeshift gifted program one teacher created while he was in elementary school:
…twice a day, Ms. Rhone pulled five or six and took us to a room with a fountain, brown tables, and walls painted sea blue. We tended a hermit crab and came to understand that all animals, even us, had a habitat. All our homework was weird and open-ended. We made dioramas that moved and told stories, and concocted creatures of papier-mâché.

We fielded a team for the Olympics of the Mind. When we practiced, Ms. Rhone played Danse Macabre, and the strings jabbed like many shards of ice. Then she'd ask us to meditate on the color blue, and go around the room awarding points to whoever's answers were most surreal. We competed over at the local liberal university and lost to a group of white kids, who looked like they did this thing in their sleep. (pages 95 and 96)
But that soon ended:
I fantasized about taking them on again, but that would not happen. At the end of the year my parents removed me from these special classes, because I was screwing up in the part of school that mattered. From point forward no part of any school mattered to me again. (page 96)
One of the things that saved TNC was his introduction to African drumming while he was a teenager:
There was a boy playing [the djembe drum]. In his hands the drum sounded like a gun, if guns were made to be music….

The djun-djun held a steady rhythm, and the boy on the djembe would follow until the spirit got the best of him and he was off on his own solo…. The drum had a sharp, piercing sound, and followed the heartbeat of the djun-djun. It was like watching a great MC rhyme wordlessly, scatting almost, pulling new patterns and rhythms from the air. My breathing quickened whenever the drumming began. I would bob and nod unconsciously. My hands would move involuntarily….

I don't know, still don't know, if I believed in possession. Still, when the djembe called, I knew I had felt wild ecstatic energies coursing through me over which I lacked control. The thought of touching that sort of power, that direct current to the Motherland, sent me reeling. And as we drove home that Sunday night, through the Virginia dark land, I thought only of djembes. I had only drumming running through my head. (pages 148-150)
Just after I finished The Beautiful Struggle, I dove into the nonfiction book The Long Shadow, which is a longitudinal study of children in the Baltimore school system who were approximately the same age as TNC. Following 800 students from first grade in 1982 through age 28 in 2004, researchers from Johns Hopkins University's sociology department looked at kids from low-income and middle- to upper-income areas and schools. They looked at black and white kids in both classes as well, and boys and girls.

Their findings reveal what they call the Long Shadow: The fact that starting with the impediment of the "wrong" race and gender has life-long effects. Among the low-income kids, the ones who come out ahead are the white men (and the white women who sometimes marry them), even though -- catch this -- the white guys have higher rates of drug use and criminal activity.

After reading The Long Shadow, I knew that TNC could have been one of those black boys who lost out to the white boys if it weren't for his parents' commitment to college. As the Hopkins researchers found, parental expectations of children when they started 1st grade were predictive of how they would end up in life. The Coates family's plan for their kids -- by positioning a parent working for a prestigious institution of higher learning, not to mention putting them into summer programs -- was key to their children's success.

TNC's family wasn't even poor; both of his parents had jobs. They just lived in the midst of an impoverished neighborhood, and it still dragged at the kids, particularly the boys. He said recently on an interview show that when he was growing up, he had to assign a third of his brain power to just surviving on the street.

As he described a lot of the other black boys he knew in the neighborhood,
Mostly they all were the products of single parents, and in this tragic category -- black boys, with no particular criminal inclinations but whose very lack of direction put them in the crosshairs of the world. (page 115)
I imagine since he left Baltimore that he's had to assign a significant part of his brain to managing the racist crap society and institutions throw at him.

How are either of those things good for anyone? How can privileged people think that if they suddenly were transformed into a poor, black kid in an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood, they would win despite it all, that they would be a real pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success story? A writer for Forbes said exactly that a few years ago (and got the response he so clearly deserved).

Before anyone thinks s/he would be one of the successful ones, read TNC's memoir and The Long Shadow, and then tell me what you could have done differently than the people who have lived these lives.

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