Before Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award, was named a MacArthur Genius, and had a New-York-Times-Bestselling Book, he was a father, and he was a son.
In The Beautiful Struggle, he details growing up in Baltimore during the “Age of Crack” and his father’s fight to raise his seven children. In Between the World and Me, Mr. Coates writes a letter to his son explaining the nuances of growing up black in America.
Pain and hope are how I describe the books, because despite the perils that surrounded Mr. Coates’ upbringing—he has soared. Here are five lessons I learned from reading his books:
1) Black Fathers Fear
“My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger…I would hear it in his voice ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’”
In the aftermath of a tragedy, we often hear from mothers. But fathers fear just as deeply. Mr. Coates shares how he, like his father, is afraid when his fifteen-year old son leaves him, that he will be taken.
2) Black Fathers Love Wounded
“Your mother had to teach me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night…and it is because I am wounded.”
It is hard for a black father to show love, when his entire being has been dedicated to survival. This made me think about my dad…perhaps he was harsh because he too had been wounded.
3) Vanquish Fear
“From maggots to men, the world is a corner bully. Better you knuckle up and go for yours than have to bow your head and tuck your chain.”
Mr. Coates shares an incident where he lost his house keys as a kid. His father, as a child, didn’t bring home his father’s newspaper. Both incidents happened as a result of bullying and both ended in violence.
It took me a while to understand why a father could be so hard? But the reality is that: we live in a cold world that will not console or protect our children. In their own way, the Coates men were teaching their sons to vanquish fear.
4) Knowledge is Armor
“Perhaps I too might wield the same old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Nanny, Cudjoe, Malcolm X, and speak—no act—as though my body were my own.”
Knowledge of our ancestors and our history is armor against internalizing inferiority
5) The Law Does Not Protect
“The law does not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you.”
American history is rife with stories of the destruction of our people: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and countless others. It is easy to forget this history when a black family moves into the White House.
Yes, we have made progress. But we still have not attained Dr. King’s Dream.
After the Mike Brown verdict, Mr. Coates didn’t try to comfort his son. His advice to his son is: “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Why I Read These Books
I read Mr. Coates books because I’m desperately trying to understand the chaos that surrounds me. I read his books because my husband and I want to raise a family, and at some point we’re going to have to sit down and talk to our children about what it means to be black in America.
I read these books, because I am tired of the headlines, hashtags, and hurt that comes with almost every news cycle. And I read because I don’t want to be afraid anymore.
The Search for Comfort
If you too are trying to understand and teach your children black consciousness, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a valid voice for our plight.
But if you are looking for comfort, the ultimate authority on the plight of the oppressed is the Good Lord. John 16:33 reminds us that:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
And that is where I find comfort. Because Jesus is in between me, the world, and all the trouble.
BMWK parents: How do you teach your children about what it means to be black in America?