The Beautiful Struggle Summary

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Beautiful Struggle

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The Beautiful Struggle Summary

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Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published his first memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, in 2009. The work is an ode to his father’s steadfast love and the political consciousness he inspired in Coates. Along with his journalism, Coates is best known for the best-selling, National Book Award-winning memoirBetween the World and I, a work told in a letter to his son about the realities of growing up as a black male in the US.

The Beautiful Struggle has the overarching themes of steadfast familial love, the importance of a personal moral compass, and social progress despite enormous historical obstacles.

As one of seven children, Coates grew up in 1980s West Baltimore, an area known best at the time for its violence. The community is also negatively impacted by “trickle-down economics,” the theory supported by the Reagan Administration that taxing wealthy individuals less would somehow improve the lives of less fortunate people.

At home, Coates grows up beneath the stern guidance of his father, Paul Coates. Paul is a paradox. He has fathered seven children by four different women, and all of the women and children interact as one family. Coates later recognizes this as peculiar, but growing up, this was not an unusual arrangement within his neighborhood. In fact, their family had the distinguishing quality of having a man be involved with the welfare of his children.

Though he is strict with the boys, Paul believes in free love.He starts his own publishing company in a basement to tell nonfiction stories of African civilizations (some sample titles: Black Egypt and Her Negro Pharaohs, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire). Though he served in the Vietnam War, he later joined the antithesis of an authoritarian organization: The Black Panther Party. Growing up, Paul hands Coates many books out-of-print works by militant black authors.

Coates and his older brother, Big Bill, would often roll their eyes when their father preached to them about hard work and doing their best to make it out of Baltimore. Along with his mother, Coates’ parents believed he was a talented child who would go far in the world. The Beautiful Struggle focuses on Paul’s firm dedication to protect his children while they were surrounded by the Crack Epidemic.

As they age, Coates watches his older brother seduced by the allure of drugs. Though Bill is intelligent, his surroundings encourage Big Bill to make terrible decisions: he joins a gang and buys a gun; he impregnates a teenager; his grades are abysmal.

In contrast, Coates spent most days at home playing video games, zoning out from the world. In adolescence, Coates grew to love hip-hop, a phenomenon that influenced many poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods at the time. The music, which is occasionally angry, gives him a space to understand himself, the challenges of racism, and the means to navigate through the world. It was a vital counterpoint to the white-dominated music and videos produced by channels like MTV.

As adolescents, Coates and Bill pose the greatest problem for their father. The world seems structured to ensure that young black men like wind up in prison. Coates seems too dreamy and sensitive to protect himself in this harsh environment. Yet he is also indignant at slight insults and racist attacks; he’s expelled from one high school after he assaults a teacher and starts a cafeteria fight. Meanwhile, Bill is very handsome, loud and charming, qualities that make gangs want to recruit him.

As the memoir progresses, Coates learns more about the challenging childhood his father experienced. Coates’ grandfather was addicted to alcohol and he hit and scorned his children everyday. Understandably, his father developed little respect for himself. The grandfather was borderline mad: He raped his own daughters and had so many kids that no one knew exactly how many children he helped spawn. Paul notes that some of his cousins were also his brothers and sisters.

To escape his diabolical father, Paul joins the military. This was during wartime, and Paul is sent to Vietnam. He survives and returns to the US as a veteran.

Upset with the incessant racism he experienced in the army,and that which he continues to experience as a veteran, Paul joins the Black Panthers. His military history is valued in the organization that accepts violence as a means to racial equality.

Once he married and had children, Paul leaves the Black Panthers. But he maintains some of their sentiments, especially involving anger and bitterness.

Paul educates himself to acquire a better job that will pay for his family. He also looks for employment at Howard University so all of his children can go to school with paid tuition.

Coates and Bill don’t do well in school and are often sent to detention. Despite this, their parents continue to demand that they take school seriously. Coates tests into a gifted high school, but still feels apathetic toward his studies.

Despite their ups and downs (particularly for Paul) both young men get into Howard University. Coates begins college as Bill is finishing his senior year. Talking to his brother one day, it strikes him that though they grew up impoverished and surrounded by violence, they both became college students with admirable futures ahead of them.