Well, another gig I had lined up crashed and burned. For a brief shining moment I was the book reviewer for a magazine to be called Prettyboy — kind of a Maxim for girls, supposedly. Didn’t quite get off the ground though, leaving me with a bunch of reviews and nowhere to publish them. But there’s always the blog. So, here’s the first of several random book reviews that I’ll be posting over the next couple weeks; this one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir,”The Beautiful Struggle.”
The American memoir is a fairly simple formula. Clearly identify your colorful ethnic heritage (Chinese, Jewish, Irish…even Appalachian will do.) Milk said heritage for all it is worth. Discuss your simultaneous love of and resentment of said heritage. Milk your ambivalence for all it is worth. Feel deeply. Stir well, then appear on Terri Gross.
In The Beautiful Struggle (a deeply felt title if ever there was one) Ta-Nehisi Coates has followed the formula down to the ground. Coates grew up in Baltimore, the son of a Black Panther who ran his own Afrocentric press. Heritage, consciousness, and a fetishization of his own family’s exotic difference form the core of the story. Young Ta-Nehisi hated his oddity — his name, his family’s refusal to celebrate the Fourth of July, the ban on eating most kinds of meat. Yet at the same time that difference, that heritage, is his salvation — both in the narrative, since consciousness saves him from the street, and in the bookstore, where the ethnic accent is what he’s got to sell. Why are we reading this, after all, if not to learn about this unique subculture, where young men play the djembe drum and drop ebonics like the scatterings of Yiddish in a Philip Roth novel? It’s all about being torn between two worlds and reconciling with the father you leave behind and selling your nearest and dearest to a public that smacks its lips over each new flavor of nostalgia.
And yet, contradictorily, there’s something heartening about seeing this kind of book — a basic, tiresome, clichéd memoir — being written by a black man. Because, at least for the past hundred years or so, African-Americans have been pretty much the only Americans who could write memoirs that didn’t suck. Richard Wright and James Baldwin and Malcolm X wrote about their pasts with a bitterness that made it very hard to turn memory into all-purpose, non-denominational spice for a happy ethnic buffet. When they served you up their difference, it was, at least partially, in the hope that you’d choke on it, as they had been forced to do repeatedly, and for years.
The U.S. hasn’t become color-blind or anything; we’re still an awfully segregated nation, black President and all. But reading this book, I felt a little like blogger Andrew Sullivan said he did when, after going to hear Obama give a disappointing economics speech, he came home, sat down, and realized with something of a shock that a black candidate for President had just bored him for several hours on tax policy. The goal of integration is, in some sense, to become mundane. Why, after all, should African-American writers be burdened with writing all our decent memoirs, anyway? Why shouldn’t they be able to shamelessly exploit their ancestors just like every other two-bit poetaster? If the Holocaust can be a guarantor of sensitive seriousness and triumphant book tours, why not the crack epidemic in inner-city Baltimore?
Admittedly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir isn’t that bad. Occasionally he sets down his literary pretensions long enough to fire a zinger worthy of his very entertaining blog. I think my favorite is his quip about how frat boys ruined Bob Marley “like they do everything they touch. You can’t write as dreadfully as Art Spiegelman all in a day, I guess. Perhaps next generation, though. I have a dream.