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by Peter Moskos

May 28, 2008

The Beautiful Struggle

Two nights ago I read Ta-Nehisi Coates The Beautiful Struggle: A father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood (Spiegel and Grau). It's about a man, a black man, growing up in Baltimore. Despite the horribly sappy title, it's neither horrible nor sappy. In fact, it's quite good and is written with a very strong 1st-person voice.

If you think "The Wire" is hard to understand at times, you'll have to read parts of Coates's book very slowly. He uses Baltimore slang like it's straight from Noah Webster's mouth. But the style of speech adds a lot to the book. And overall it's a good quick read.

I'm not a huge fan of memoirs because they often lack a point. So I tried to figure out a point to this book. It seems to me that the main problem that leads to so much bad in places like West Baltimore begins with young kids getting jumped by other kids while walking to and from school.

This made me think of Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun. I read Canada's book over 10 years ago and don't remember it that well. But I think he talks about and identifies the same problem.

At first, these aren't fights, or muggings, or even beefs. They're just kids banking other kids because they can. It's about dominance, power, respect, and just for the hell of it because it's fun.

I'm sure this in oversimplifying things somewhat. But maybe not. You get jumped. You start hanging around others for protection. Things escalate.

So my question is this: In neighborhoods like East and West Baltimore, how can we stop little gangs of little (and not so little) kids from jumping and terrorizing other little kids?

Here's an excerpt from Coates's book:
...Painfully I’d come to know that face must be held against everything, that flagrant dishonor follows you, haunting every handshake with all your niggers, disputing every advance on a jenny. Shawn was, at first, true to his better nature, and backed down and held up open hands. But I’d come too far to be gracious. I stuck my finger in his grill—

That’s right. ’Cause you a bitch-ass nigger.

—and walked out.

Nowadays, I cut on the tube and see the dumbfounded looks, when over some minor violation of name and respect, a black boy is found leaking on the street. The anchors shake their heads. The activists give their stupid speeches, praising mythical days when all disputes were handled down at Ray’s Gym. Politicians step up to the mic, claim the young have gone mad, their brains infected, and turned superpredator. Fuck you all who’ve ever spoken foolishly, who’ve opened your mouths like we don’t know what this is. We have read the books you own, the scorecards you keep—done the math and emerged prophetic. We know how we will die—with cousins in double murder suicides, in wars that are mere theory to you, convalescing in hospitals, slowly choked out by angina and cholesterol. We are the walking lowest rung, and all the stands between us and beast, between us and the local zoo, is respect, the respect you take as natural as sugar and shit. We know what we are, that we walk like we are not long for this world, that this world has never longed for us.


Louise said...

Wow, that is a powerful quote. Thanks for the recommendation.

a567and8 said...

I will buy this book immediately. This is the first time I have heard a young, black man clearly state an understanding of who and where we are in this culture. Turn it upside down, any which way, but we are still the residue of a reserve labor force that is o longer needed. That is why we are being imprisoned in record numbers. Prisons are the true growth industry of America.