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4.2: Trailblazer

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    134148
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    Memoir Trailblazer: Ta-Nehisi Coates

    clipboard_eb8a5ccd3a0e4d4845705fee27ff34511.png

    Figure \(4.2\) Author Ta-Nehisi Coates often frames current events from the perspective of his own lived experiences. (credit: “Ta Nehisi Coates 2 BBF 2010 Shankbone” by David Shankbone/ Wikicommons, CC BY 3.0)

    The Storyteller's Tools: Context and Voice

    Ta-Nehisi Coates (b. 1975) is a best-selling author, journalist, and educator. His writing explores complex issues such as race relations, urban policing, and racial identity, often focusing on his personal experiences as a person of color. Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother was a teacher, his father a librarian and founder of the Black Classic Press, which publishes and republishes significant works by and about lesser-known people of African descent. Reading the works of these authors instilled in oates a lifelong love of reading and learning and a desire to experience the world outside his neighborhood.

    Cultural Lens Icon

    Coates began his writing vocation at age 17, first exploring the genre of poetry. He studied journalism at Howard University for five years but did not graduate. However, he did write and begin earning bylines as a young writer, publishing articles in popular periodicals such as Washington Monthly, Mother Jones, and Time. In 2008, he became a national correspondent for The Atlantic, often writing articles and covering stories about national current events. Among other topics, he has written about Barack Obama (b. 1961) as the first Black president and the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin (1995–2012).

    True to the genre of personal narrative, Coates focuses his writing not only on his lived experiences but also on their meaning in the context of larger cultural and social issues, specifically examining race relations and racial equity. In 2008, Coates published his first book, the critically acclaimed memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. In it, he writes about his childhood, especially his memories of his father. A former member of the Black Panther Party (founded in 1966), Coates’s father raised him and his six siblings as a family unit in West Baltimore. Coates’s father and the children’s four mothers raised the siblings together. Though they didn’t all live together, they were a continuing and active presence in one another’s lives.

    clipboard_e5c7b3e843592dda02c9443671d188ada.png

    Figure \(4.3\) Bobby Seale (left; b. 1936) and Huey P. Newton (right; 1942–1989) founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 in response to police violence and racism. (credit: “Black and white poster of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale” by Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Public Domain)

    Coates credits his unusual upbringing with providing him both stability and early access to influential “Afrocentric” literature, which would influence his life and career. His memoir reflects the steps his father took to encourage his son’s development into adulthood, from reading all types of books to exploring the neighborhood to helping him grapple with what it means to be a Black man in America. This lived experience is central to the personal narrative he creates in The Beautiful Struggle.

    Coates’s best-known essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which proposes reparations for slavery, was published in The Atlantic in June 2014. Framing his argument around the history of slavery, Coates paints a picture detailing the connections among slavery, race, and economics, specifically focusing on the modern Chicago housing crisis and policy. “The essence of American racism is disrespect,” he proposes.

    The next year, Coates published the best seller Between the World and Me, a personal narrative written as a letter to his teenage son. In this book, recounting his own upbringing in Baltimore’s violent inner city during the crack cocaine epidemic, Coates explores the idea that the structure of American society fosters white supremacy. He reveals his wish for his son, now “growing into consciousness”: “that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” In 2019, Coates published his first novel, The Water Dancer, a work of historical fiction about a slave who helps in the Underground Railroad.

    In addition to writing, Coates is an educator. From 2012 to 2014, he was a visiting professor at MIT, and in 2014, he joined the faculty of the City University of New York as a journalist-in-residence. Coates compares writing to a refining process: by applying pressure to yourself, you develop new muscles. He calls writing “an act of physical courage” that relies on the revision process to translate thought to page: “I . . . consider the entire process about failure, and I think that’s . . . why more people don’t write.”

    Coates uses doubling in his writing. Because he is both protagonist and narrator, he sees himself as both subject and object, both character and storyteller, and at once a participant and an observer in his narration. Such doubling is often symbolic in memoirs, represented by paired events or mirroring.

    You can watch Advice on Writing (https://openstax.org/r/adviceonwriting) to learn more of Coates’s advice to writers such as yourself. You can also read some of his articles (https://openstax.org/r/articles) to study his writing style. Listen as American correspondent Martha Teichner (b. 1948), interviews Coates on CBS Sunday Morning (https://openstax.org/r/cbssundaymorning), November 5, 2017.

    Discussion Questions

    1. How might Coates’s use of personal stories influence the emotions of his readers?
    2. How might Coates use personal anecdotes and current events to create commentary on broad historical ideas? What personal events can you link to more wide-ranging ideas or issues?
    3. What is the impact of the cultural and lived experiences that Coates weaves into his personal writing? How would the impact differ if he wrote in a more academic style?
    4. Coates says his writing process is about pressure and failure. In what way is failure part of the development of narrative writing?
    5. On what turning points or important events might Coates focus in his memoir when discussing his father?

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