Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Unlikely Road to Manhood' Atlantic contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates describes growing up with a father who was a member of the Black Panthers in his new memoir, The Beautiful Struggle.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Unlikely Road to Manhood'

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Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Unlikely Road to Manhood'

Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Unlikely Road to Manhood'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the things that made Ta-Nehisi Coates different from the other kids he grew up with in west Baltimore was that his father as a former Black Panther who ran a small Afrocentric publishing company called Black Classic Press, which was headquartered in their basement. Coates writes about his childhood in his memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood."

Coates is now a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic magazine. His article about Michelle Obama was published in the Atlantic in January which is when we heard part one of our interview.

You came from a very unusual home. Your father raised seven children with four mothers, and they were all, including the four women, considered your family. Would you describe the arrangement?

Mr. TE-NEHISI COATES (Contributing Editor, Blogger, Atlantic Magazine): Yeah, the first thing that I understand is it wasn't planned. That's the biggest thing it's not like - and it certainly was a situation in which it was a polygamist household.

My dad was a young man. Being a young man, not necessarily always being particularly careful, I'm quite thankful for that now, he had relationships with four different women at various points. And in each of those cases, there were kids yielded. In two of the cases, there were multiple kids. With my mother, there were two kids. The first woman he was married to, the first wife, there were three kids.

My dad hated the term stepbrother. He hated the term stepmother, stepfather, all that. We really didn't do that. He hated the term half-brother, there were no halves. We were raised to be really, really close. And basically, most of the kids lived with their mothers for the most part.

If a kid was having trouble in school, particularly the boys, we're going through a hard time. My dad has five boys. They would come and live with my dad. And my dad was, as many dads are across the country, the disciplinarian who would get the kid back on track.

They would, you know, come over on weekends so there might be different combinations of kids. It might be my sister Kelly(ph) and my sister Chris(ph) and me or it might be my brother, Big Bill(ph), as he was called at that time, my brother Malik, my brother John and Me. It could be any combination of kids.

It was a very interesting thing. I have to tell you though, I didn't consider it particularly unusual because, quite frankly, there were a lot of kids in the neighborhood who had a similar situation, except in most cases, the father was not there. And so I actually, didn't necessarily feel I was blessed, but I knew I was blessed.

GROSS: Did your father live in your home?

Mr. COATES: Yes, he did, yes. I lived with my father all my life until I was 18, at least.

GROSS: Your father had been a Black Panther. Was monogamy one of the institutions he was opposed to?

Mr. COATES: Yes, it was, very much so, and the Panthers had a sort of doctrine of free love at that point which I write about in the book. I don't know how much my dad was in his mind opposed to monogamy when he hooked up with my mother.

You know, child rearing was very important in my parent's relationship. And I think it overshadowed romantic love. It was about getting those kids together and getting them out the house and make it sure everybody became productive members of society and romantic love was really, really secondary, despite the fact that both of them had the yearnings that all human beings have.

I don't know how much it was that my dad theoretically didn't believe in monogamy at that point in time. Or that it just wasn't where he was from a romantic perspective, that he really wasn't in love for most of the marriage.

GROSS: Your father published - had a small publishing company in the basement, published books by African-American authors, Afrocentric books. Did you read those books growing up? Did they have an influence on you?

Mr. COATES: I devoured them. I devoured all of them. (laughing) And you know, it felt a way that I felt at the time, and later come back and question some of the stuff, at the same time, seeing the importance of having it out there.

At the time that I was coming up in Baltimore, crack had hit the city, and guns had just flooded everywhere. I mean I'm talking about 10, 11, 12-year-kids with guns out on the corner selling crack. It changed the temperature. It changed the volume. It changed how the city felt. It was a much more violent city during the time that I was coming up.

And the thing you have to know about me is there was no religion in our household. So there was no broader sense of what should explain where we are. And I think just as a kid searching for answers, I was looking for anything to explain what was going on, why young boys were being shot over Starter jackets with the Philadelphia 76ers written across the front. Why, you know, a kid would come to school in a pair of shoes and end up walking home in his socks because he got beat up and somebody took off his Air Jordans.

I didn't understand how it was that my world was like that and yet, you would cut(ph) on the TV and there was a completely different world, obviously, out there where people have nice lawns and, you know, kids just went to school. They didn't necessarily have to worry about any level of violence.

I took to quote, unquote "Afrocentic" books as a way to explain that to myself. It was a kind of mythology, a religion for me that explained where I was, who I was and how I ended up in that particular space.

GROSS: At the same time, you also read a lot of comic books. You say my default position - my default position was sprawled across the bed staring at the ceiling or cataloging an extensive collection of X-Factor comic books. So, how did your father react to you reading comics, in addition to your reading serious books, you know, what he would consider serious books?

Mr. COATES: My dad had a position that kids reading was a good thing, and you had to take kids where they were. You really, really did. I also write in the book about how I played Dungeons and Dragons. Now you have to - you know, knowing my dad and where he was in terms of black consciousness, having a kid, you know, play a game that is based in, you know, Tolkien and Norse mythology sounds like a weird mix. But in fact, my dad appreciated the imagination that was inherent in the game. He appreciated the sort of abstract level of reasoning. There were a number of things that young black kids were doing at that particular point in time that was not particularly healthy, and yet, here I was with my brother doing this, exploring our creativity. My dad was very, very encouraging of that.

Now, we would have a whole - a lot of conversations about race and how race played out, in those particular worlds, but he never was, you know, a sort of person that was like, I don't want you playing a white man's game or something like that, I don't want you reading a white man's book. That didn't really exist in my household. He was always very encouraging. And the other thing that you have to understand about my dad is when he was a kid, he collected comic books.

GROSS: Uh-huh(ph). OK.

Mr. COATES: So that was key, that was key, and so there was, in fact, a moment when I was young that he talks about with my mom, you know, trying to get me off of comic books and get me on to a more serious reading. He said, you know, don't do that. Don't do that. You know, the boy's reading, encourage that.

GROSS: You said that your father would tell you when you were on your bed reading that you had to go outside...

Mr. COATES: Yes.

GROSS: That you had to - he said this is your community, these are your people.

Mr. COATES: Right.

GROSS: What did that mean to you as, what I imagine, was a kind of alienated teenager or pre-teen reading X-Men comics at home?

Mr. COATES: I was very angry at him. I was very, very angry that he was sending me out. Again - and this is, you know, just to put this chronologically, this is at a period before I started reading, you know, books about African-Americans for myself as opposed to being assigned.

I didn't understand why my world was different, and moreover, I felt like I had two parents, two really smart parents. I had a mother who worked as a teacher. I had a dad who worked at Howard University. Why are we living in west Baltimore? I didn't understand that at all. I felt like if we could, you know - we were as good as anybody else. We could live in the suburbs, have nice lawns, et cetera. This is my thinking around 12 or so. Moreover, why do I have to go out and be around kids who are of a different background than me? Now here's the lesson that my dad...

GROSS: Kids who wanted to beat you up, too, I might add.

Mr. COATES: Yes, yes, yes, some of them. Some of them - I developed some great friendships, but yes, that was certainly part of it. Now, my dad's thinking was that he was raising men, as it came to me, for all seasons. He wanted people who were comfortable in the neighborhood, people who were exposed to things outside the neighborhood, people who could be comfortable in many different worlds.

You know, he had a great, great feeling that despite what was going on in the community, you could not - and I can remember my mother, in fact, saying this all the time - you could not be scared of your own people, you could not. Now, you had to be smart. You had to be safe. You had to take certain steps, but you could not develop broad, big, sort of paint brush ideas about black people.

GROSS: Did your parents live in west Baltimore, which was largely a pretty poor community, would you say - and you said the crack epidemic had really spread there. Did they live there for political reasons as opposed to economic reasons?

Mr. COATES: Yeah. I think, as a child, I interpreted it as political reason. I think it was partially political reasons, but it was, in fact, at the end of the day also economic reason. I mean, we owned our own house. It was a, you know, a good house. My dad still owns it to this day. And it wasn't particularly expensive at the time.

And I should, just to be very clear about where I was, you know, west Baltimore, like any sort of broad area that gets painted as a ghetto, was actually quite economically diverse. So, the area where we were was a pretty much a working class area. I would not call it necessarily a poor area. We had Section Eight housing and that sort of thing. But it wasn't like I was raised in the projects or something like that. It wasn't that sort of situation.

Now, you can't insulate yourself from what's going on in the broader community of west Baltimore and the city as a whole, but where I was raised, there were not a lot of fathers around, but the mothers who were there worked, and they worked hard.

GROSS: My guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates. His memoir "The Beautiful Struggle" was published in paperback last month. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic. We're talking about his memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle." It's about growing up the son of a former Black Panther who ran an Afrocentric press out of their basement.

You went to Howard University, which is an African-American college. How do you think that experience was different than had you gone to a college that wasn't a historically black college?

Mr. COATES: Oh, man. Howard University is like a New York City for black people. And so, what I mean by that is I can't think of a single place on the planet where you meet people of African descent from all walks of life. I met black people from Toronto, from Australia. I mean, black people who've been raised in Japan, black people who had been raised Buddhist. Black people who were bi-racial black people, who's, you know, who had Indian parents, you know. It was all sorts of African-Americans.

I met black people who were fifth, sixth generation, society, sort of African-Americans, upper class folks who, you know, could stretch their lineage back to fraternities and sororities. I met black people who were there, you know, looking to go off and become historians. I met black people who came there to become entrepreneurs. I met black people who came there reveling in a sort of ghetto-centric thuggism. It was all there.

And I don't know of any point in my life where I would be exposed to that diversity of African-Americans. It was a great, great object lesson for me and something that I carry with me to this day.

GROSS: So, how did that diversity of black people that you were exposed to at Howard affect your personal identity?

Mr. COATES: Right, that was your question. (laughing). I think it made me a lot more comfortable. See, you have to understand, as I came on - Ta-Nehisi was a weird name to a lot of people. OK. So, I used to get teased. People would bend my name, they would twist it, ha ha ha, make fun, you know, jone(ph) on me, joke about my name.

Howard University is the first place I came and they said, oh, what's your name? I said my name is Ta-Nehisi. They looked at me and say, oh, that's deep brother. Your name is Ta-Nehisi. They felt that, you know, I reflected some sort of consciousness. And I wasn't a guy who came to the university and changed my name. No, I had an African name when I came to the university.

Because it was so broad and so diverse, you could be black and into anything and find a group of people to surround yourself around. So, I was very much into books, studying about, you know, African history at that point in time. I had a whole collective of friends who were like that, and at the same time, we're into hip hop. We'll go to the club, do whatever that they were doing, but we're into that. It was such a broad cross section of people that you could really be into anything and find somebody black who was into it.

GROSS: Now, before you became a journalist, when you were young, your mother made you write essays whenever you got into trouble, explaining exactly what you'd done and why you'd done it.

Mr. COATES: Yes.

GROSS: Did you take those essays seriously?

Mr. COATES: I had to. And what it was was a great lesson in introspection because my mom was a teacher. And she would reread those essays, and she would tell me, you know, if I had half-stepped, if I had not done what I was supposed to, if I clearly had not thought about it, she would make me do it, again.

I didn't get it as a child, of course, but much later, I did, and much, much later, I got the tools that she was trying to impart on me, mainly being introspection. And I think from her perspective, I was raised in a household where, despite the politics, you could not go to school, fail, come home and say, it's because of the white man's system or it's because racism. No, there was none of that. You - every explanation began with I did X, Y and Z. And so there was a sense of responsibility that they were trying to impart on me at that particular time. I had to take it seriously. There was no way around it.

GROSS: We talked a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in and the impact that had on you. You're raising a son now. What kind of neighborhood are you raising him in? And did you consciously choose that neighborhood to raise a son, or did you just end up living there and having a son?

Mr. COATES: Yeah. Right. I live in Harlem. I'm in Harlem, which, again - I mean, it's tough to - people think of Harlem as a ghetto. It's very tough to describe Harlem as a ghetto because it's just so diverse. I mean, there are folks like me who are college graduates there. There are people who have been there all their lives.

You know, just the other day, I was doing some reporting. I was riding around with a gentleman who lives in actually the projects at East Harlem who was working on getting his son into an elite boarding school up in New England. We drove up there and did that. So, there are all kinds of people there. I'm a big fan of the diversity within the black community and sort of bringing that out in myself, you know, exploring that as a writer.

I do want, Sumari(ph), my son to have some sort of consciousness about what it means to be an African-American. That'll change by the time he's, you know, of an adult, and he'll have to figure some of that out for himself, but I don't want him in a situation, as I think sometimes happens with certain people, in which he perceives African-Americans as alien to him. I don't want him learning about African-Americans from watching TV. I don't even necessarily want him learning about African-American strictly from listening to music. I want it to be a lived experience.

I think Barack Obama said something really great in the campaign. I think about this always in regards to my son. He said, I'm rooted in a black community, I'm not limited by it. If I can do anything for the kid, I mean, that would really be what it was.

GROSS: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. COATES: Oh, thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates' memoir is called, "The Beautiful Struggle." He is a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic Magazine. You can download pod casts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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