Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Beautiful Struggle

“Ta-Nehisi, wake-up.”

When actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith wrote her conscious-expanding collection of advice to aspiring artists, she beckoned those who “long to be awake.”

This precise motivation was the defining feature of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (b. 1975) slow lurch into adulthood. Born Black in mid-seventies Baltimore, Coates was a victim of place and time.

The greater world was obsessed over Challenger and the S&L scandal. But we were another country, fraying at our seams. All the old rules were crumbling around us. The statistics were dire and oft recited—1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than in college.

The Beautiful Struggle is a memoir of Ta-Nehisi and his father, Bill Coates, a man of discipline, order, humility, and intellectualism. A man who relentlessly pursued consciousness of being.

My father was a Conscious man. He stood a solid six feet, was handsome, mostly serious, rarely angry. Weekdays, he scooted out at six and drove an hour to the Mecca where he guarded the books and curated the history in the exalted hall of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center…

But at night, he barbecued tofu, steamed basmati, and thought of sedition. He’d untuck his shirt and descend into the cellar, and then comb through layers of ancient arcana. He collected out-of-print texts, obscure lectures, and self-published monographs by writers like J.A. Rogers, Dr. Ben and Drusilla Dunjee Houston… These were the words they did not want us to see, the lost archives, secret collections, folders worn yellow by water and years. But Dad brought them back.

Bill Coates swept his son into consciousness.

He began in the basement of our Park Heights row house, with a tabletop offset printer and four out-of-print pamphlets brought back from the edge. It was 1978 and this was a different magic. The Panthers were a sweeping romance—the young promise of shooting and fucking your way out of Donna Reed and into Pam Grier. But when Dad went to publishing he scaled back into matrimony and left the world of mass upheaval. History would be altered, not in the swoop but with the long slow reawakening.

With a basement printing press and extraordinary drive, Bill Coates shepherded Ta-Nehisi through the “abyss where unguided Black boys were swallowed whole only to reemerge on corners and prison tiers.”1

Consciousness was Bill Coates legacy and thus Ta-Nehisi’s inheritance. The alternative was dire.

The vultures among us corrupted everything. They were not growing into something better, they were not finding their deeper selves. The Knowledge was a disease. Some took to it faster than others. But eventually we all got it… We were just like boys everywhere, dreaming of model trains, Captain Marvel, and chemistry sets. But for us there were orcs outside the door, blood in their teeth and always waiting. At some point we grew tired of crumbling under their boots and embraced the Knowledge, became like all the rest groping for manhood in the dark.

Photograph of handprint featured in Ta-Nehisi Coates "The Beautiful Struggle" in the Examined Life Library.
A hand print that says I am here, I am this. I found such evidence of existence recently. This stamp of being allows us to bear witness to a life like Coates’s. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi continues his father’s work, challenging our innate hierarchies and taxonomies. Being “from here” is better than being “from there.” That family should be definable and nameable.2 That white is better than Black.

He dismantles and reassembles our comforting knowledge of what is.

The Beautiful Struggle offers us a rich understanding of name and a counterpoint to something written by Durga Chew-Bose, which is that her name, often unpronounceable, anchors her to a homeland far apart.

Coates agrees his name sets him apart: “Ta-Nehisi was hyphenated and easily bent to the whims of anyone who knew the rudiments of dozens.” But he also appreciates its vast scope: “Seeing that handle among the books of glorious Africa, I knew why I could never be a Javonne or Pete, my name was a nation.”

A nation. What a glorious, vast—deserved—expansion of self.

Illustration of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
When I contemplate The Beautiful Struggle, the words bang on my cortex, asking me to understand.

Coates mentioned the Challenger Space Shuttle. I watched the Challenger explode. I watched it explode as someone who also knew—in the back of my mind, beyond consciousness, and beyond doubt—that I would go to college. That I wouldn’t die outside my front door. That certainty was a part of me I could never immolate.

How am I to understand otherwise? How is anyone?

There are conflicting elasticises of caring and understanding—both expand but not at the same rate. Too much of the former and you risk trivialising. Too much of the latter and you risk immunity to empathy.3

I understand Coates best through his title: The Beautiful Struggle. “Beauty is truth,” wrote John Keats. He also wrote “I feel assure I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them.”

The act of making beauty, the act of gaining truth, the act of learning Knowledge and Consciousness—that is the beauty, and that is the struggle.

The Lesson
I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live.
From Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise

After reading The Beautiful Struggle, you might want to alight on a few others who seek and share this abundance of consciousness: Rachel Carson and Emerson on our overlooked kindship with nature, Toni Morrison and Billie Holiday on real and imagined society, poets Wilfred Owen and T.S. Eliot on death and suffering, and Rilke and James Baldwin on the deepest, unknown self.

To awaken. Is there anything else?