In this beautifully written memoir, Ta-Nehisi Coates creates poetry on the page about growing up in and around Baltimore, the son of William Paul Coates, a former Black Panther but now a more scholarly activist and “Conscious Man.” Though present in all his children’s lives, the senior Coates had seven kids by four women and that creates a complicated extended family for Coates. He describes a childhood that is a mix of pop culture, “woke” politics, and neighborhood tensions and one that has Coates negotiating a number of moves between city and suburb.
To try to describe this narrative in some sort of orderly or chronological fashion feels wrong because Coates moves back and forth in time and creates webs of description that made me “feel” what he was talking about even as I did not always understand the details. [I thought a lot about the “explanatory comma” discussed by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Maraji on the podcast, Code Switch, because I know there were many references that flew right over my middle-aged white lady head in this text and I think that’s okay. No explanatory comma needed. That’s why God invented Google.] If you’re looking for a straightforward memoir, this is not the book for you. Reading this text feels like reading a long extended poem—you have to be fully present as a reader to follow along and not get lost—but focused attention yields insights and emotions that I am still mulling over.
Coates is initially uninterested in his father’s politics, a worldview that separates Coates and his siblings from many mainstream U.S. holidays and from meat. However, through the hip-hop artists he loves, Coates begins to explore the texts and ideas of the movement and becomes his father’s son. This is a memoir of growing up black and male in a specific time and place, of knowledge and Knowledge, of music, of neighborhoods, and of trying to make one’s way safely toward a future that is not guaranteed.
It was interesting to read this memoir with the words and ideas of Between the World and Me still echoing through my head; Coates is an author I will follow anywhere because I know I will both learn and be made uncomfortable by the journey.