“He was a slave still, and all around him black people heaved under the invisible yoke”—Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Baldwin, Wright, and Malcolm were the first signs that led him onto another path, one he followed until enveloped by a forest of black books… where others saw America in lovely columns, marvels of engineering, and refined democrats, Dad saw only masks concealing the heralds of woe. He was a slave still, and all around him black people heaved under the invisible yoke.” Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Beautiful Struggle is an extraordinary memoir from Ta-Nehisi Coates - one of the the most important new voices in the US race debate and the author of New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading.”
What follows is an exclusive extract from his memoir (out this month), in which he recalls his father's journey of political discovery; recognising his own experiences in the writing of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X, through to joining the ranks of the Black Panthers in Baltimore in the 1970s.
- Image from The Atlantic “White Privilege” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My father was not a violent man. He went organic in the ’70s, before Whole Foods became fashion, and kept a vegetable garden in our small backyard. I never saw him argue in public. I never saw him hit anyone but his kids. He kept one gun in the house. It was a relic—a broken rifle from his Panther days, stowed at the bottom of our coat closet beneath old jackets and desert boots. He loved foreign movies, and would make a weekly hajj to the artsy Charles Theater downtown for a taste of Truffaut. But his aspect deflected the shuck and jive, and he believed in man’s inescapable lower nature.
In Richard Wright, Dad found a literature of himself. He’d read Manchild in the Promised Land and Another Country, but from Wright he learned that there was an entire shadow canon, a tradition of writers who grabbed the pen, not out of leisure but to break the chain. He bubbled on the edge of Consciousness. The night they gunned Malcolm X down, Dad and a few black soldiers were headed into town to carouse and drink. The message came over the radio, but the rest of the car kept talking.
Quiet, Dad told them. Did you hear what they just said? Malcolm is dead. There were a few looks of shallow concern and then the conversation picked up, like only a strong wind had interrupted the flow.
Now he began to come to. When on leave, he stopped at book stands in search of anything referencing his own. He read Malcolm’s memoir, and again saw some of his own struggle, and now began to feel things he’d, like us all, long repressed—the subtle, prodding sense that he was seen as less. He went back to Baldwin, who posed the great paradox that would haunt him to the end: Who among us would integrate into a burning house?
He was discharged in 1967 and married Linda, in love, but mostly because he knew nothing else. It was wrong from the moment they left the courthouse. Afterward, they gathered with Dad’s family to talk, laugh, and drink. Half- way through the day Linda left the small party, and said she was just stepping out to visit her mother. But she never came back, and Dad spent that evening at Ms. Verla’s house pleading for his new wife’s return. She did, but they argued regularly. They’d take turns leaving and coming, and during periods of intermittent warmth, children would appear.
By the time the second child arrived, my big sister Kris, six years my senior, he was in bloom. You know one way or the other we all get touched. A Jersey housewife strolls through the supermarket and, suddenly caught by the sheen of an apple, decides to give abortions in small- town Kansas. A washed-up middling exec, who’s thrown his life away to the bottle, hears organs, finds the Word. In the midst of a Hawthorne lecture, a drug-addled sophomore is taken by dreams of the Peace Corps. All the truly living, at least once, are born again.
Since childhood, Dad had read constantly but without direction or edge. Baldwin, Wright, and Malcolm were the first signs that led him onto another path, one he followed until enveloped by a forest of black books. He lived in a busy house, but in stolen moments alone he considered the world around him, the quaking from war, riots, and assassinations, and saw in this new Knowledge a way of drawing a line.
When the years of slumber passed, and he emerged fully Conscious, everything was skewed. Was like the whole world needed a shot of V8. Where others saw America in lovely columns, marvels of engineering, and refined democrats, Dad saw only masks concealing the heralds of woe. He was a slave still, and all around him black people heaved under the invisible yoke. He could not talk like before. Everything felt corrupted, until he found himself sitting at cookouts, wondering how, in the world of Medgar Evers, a man could sidle up, crack a beer, and spend hours essaying on Earl Weaver and the Oriole way.
Dad was working for United Airlines, unloading luggage and maintaining the cabin after passengers deplaned. In downtime, he brought back his father’s old ritual and fell into the newspapers left behind from distant cities and states. He only barely knew California, but it was in a story from that other country that Dad found his muse. His muse carried a gun.
Television remembers that era for the blown churches, Mississippi savages, and sharecroppers gone philosophical. All those great stories are Southern and built on Christ. But Dad wasn’t from those parts. He hailed from the black metropolis, walked with the great black masses, down on the Markoe Streets of the world, where we had all been down so long. He stood with those who had come to believe that our condition, the worst of this country’s condition—poor, dis- eased, illiterate, crippled, dumb—was not just a tumor to be burrowed out but proof that this whole body was a tumor, that America was not a victim of great rot but rot itself. Dad found Gandhi absurd. Much more native to Dad were these fab headlines touting the exploits of the brothers and sisters from Oakland who did not dance, who preached righteous self-defense and Fanon.
Word to Kohn Brown, my father was overcome. It was the spring of 1969. He began checking the schedule for planes coming from the West Coast. On board, after cleaning, he now searched for California papers, then searched through those papers for any updates on the machinations and movements of the Panther Party. He finally discovered the local Panthers after a night of cocktails with a girl who was not Linda but claimed to be down and, as proof, that very night, pointed Dad to the local office.
The next day, he arrived at the branch cocked and ready to serve. But the Panthers were in the throes of Hoover’s scripted paranoia. Everyone was a presumed agent. Members were purged. This was not a game. Alleged in- formants were found decomposing in the woods of Leakin Park. When Dad walked in, dripping revolutionary fervor, they held back. They wanted to know how he found them. They did not recognize the girl who pointed him their way.
He was assigned to a weekly political education class— a sort of vetting that weeded out the agents and crazies who did not so much believe in dialectical materialism and great leaps forward as in the sheen of guns and shooting at cops. It was supposed to be about more than that, which suited Dad’s bearing and penchant for books more than guns. He would listen to the autodidacts break down capitalism and the means of production. He would listen to them turn around the great conflicts many ways, and he would say nothing; until one day he saw a clear through line, then they could not shut him up. They could not turn him away.
There were no berets and powder-blue shirts. Often there weren’t even guns. Dad began as the Panther who wasn’t. He was designated a “community worker”—a tag ranking him slightly above hanger-on and giving him sleeping rights at the collective’s HQ. He would rise at five a.m., head over to the Martin de Porres Center, talk with the radical Catholics, and then head to the kitchen. The revolution was centered around pancakes, bacon, and grits; and by seven a.m., a stream of poor black kids would move through for their daily free meal. In the afternoons, he studied with his comrades. At night he worked at the airport. Somewhere in between he was a father.
This creaky arrangement held until he was busted for moving guns. He lost his job. The newspapers published his name and address. He called Linda, and she just hung up the phone. The dead connection broke his bonds to the mortal plane. He saw himself now freed from this world and all its trappings, which would soon be nil anyway. He went to work full-time for the uprising, and found his place among the great change that was burning through the city.
Dad rose through the ranks that had been thinned by arrests, underground escapes, and stupidity. He was the Maryland defense captain, head of the Baltimore branch. But he planned no insurrections and avoided the grand suicidal gesture that seduced others of his age. Instead, Dad mostly thought of survival. For sure, there was the threat of cops kicking down doors, infiltration by agents and operatives. But these were secondary. Dad was responsible for a commune, and when he woke in the morning he thought not of guns but of oil, electricity, water, rent, and groceries. He turned to Brother Reginald Howard, his minister of distribution and right-hand man who worked down at Bethlehem Steel.
Howard, Dad would say, we don’t have any money.
Formally, Howard’s charge was the delivery and flow of Panther newspapers, the funds from which were the lifeblood of any Panther chapter. He was a hustler in the righteous sense, the type who sold Panther newspapers at that plant between shifts. Dad would send him out into the street and Howard would speak with local grocers, high- lighting all the kids the Panthers had fed, all the free shoes they’d handed out, and the mothers they’d tested for sickle cell.
Then there was the plight of the community. They would start to roll in early, drawn by the luster of the party or referred by some overwhelmed city agency, and all of them needed help. Someone got harassed by white people in East Baltimore. A husband arrested and couldn’t afford a lawyer. Someone else had been evicted and sat out.
And then there was the struggle of managing the soldiers of the impending guerrilla war. Dad was not in the company of flower power. It took all kinds, bourgeois college students, teenage mothers, plumbers, and professors. But the beloved and honored foot soldiers hailed from the back end of the world. They were risen armies of the dead—cutthroats, rapists, brigands, and murderers—who in other lives feasted on their own people’s toil. Now they’d gone Conscious and trained their guns on the System. But the reformation varied in scope. Some were as real as Malcolm straight out the joint, while others were just looking for new ways to launder their dirt.
Back in Washington, Hoover was wild and aflame. Later it all came out—reams of FBI files where agents fomented beef, trumped up charges, and coaxed the van- guard to suicidal acts. The Panthers needed only their eyes to understand. Across the country, police armed with blue- prints and intelligence above their grade kicked in doors at perfect hours. They murdered Fred Hampton. Bound and gagged Bobby Seale. Eldridge was out. Attica and the Jackson brothers were on the way.
In Baltimore it went like anywhere else, and among the matters my father inherited in his new role were the numerous cases of shackled Panthers. He focused on Eddie Conway, indicted for the murder of a policeman. He was pinned by the slimmest of evidence—a jailhouse snitch and an officer who claimed to have seen his face for a few seconds in the dead of night. But the Panther leaders were only half concerned with the particulars. The romance of the movement, the theology of revolution tomorrow, made them see not one man in the balance but a symbol of the grander war.
The leadership sent orders to Dad. Conway was to boycott the trial and expose this rotting system of justice, from the pigs to the preening judge, for the bane that it was. They placed their faith in the jury, convinced that they, too, would see the sin of it all. But the Panthers’ faith exceeded their resolve, and all the talk drove them to delusion. Brothers out west promised big-shot lawyers—Charles Garry and William Kunstler. Instead, Conway got a public defender who spent all of an hour with him before the trial. In the end Conway—Brother Eddie as I came to know him—went to jail for life plus thirty-seven years and, of the many things from this time which Dad would have to carry on his conscience, that was king.
Across the nation Panthers shouldered the burdens of their comrades and the community. It was what they’d asked for. And then, in 1972, they were ordered to stop. It fell apart on bullshit rhetorical points, a game of who was really ready to go for the guns. Eldridge Cleaver allied with the New York branch, and after that it was gang war. Panthers killing each other. First the rebel Robert Webb, then party loyalist Sam Napier was found bound, gagged, burned, and shot in New York. Only weeks earlier he’d been with my father, and they’d narrowly escaped the justice of the New York faction. Dad was summoned to the headquarters in California and has remained puzzled by what he saw ever since. It was about that time it dawned on him: the world was going to go on as it was.
In California, the higher-ups informed him that Oakland was the only front that mattered, that beefs with local liquor stores were the real makings of this new world. They shut down all the regional offices, and Dad was left to stew on the many Eddie Conways, Panthers who had acted in this theater, now left in jail. Then there were the com- munities, where Panthers provided shoes, doctors, break- fast, and lawyers, abandoned and left to their squalor. And Dad had his own kids, now, five of them, back in Baltimore with a father away on the other side. This was too much for Dad to take. He was identified as a noncompliant and put under house arrest by the Panther Party. He scrounged together money from family and friends and flew back home.
It could’ve been worse. Whatever he faced—pissed-off mothers and grandparents, old taxes and new debt—was nothing like the chasm that swallowed others. Dad believed in revolution, but the truth is, he was always eminently suitable to the world as it was. He was an intellectual, born as it happened among people who could not see a college campus as an outcome.
He thought his country rotten, but he was a better fit than he knew. His comrades were ill equipped. This was about more than shackles of color. They flocked to their revolution because the real revolution, the one that won out— with its marching automation, its theology of efficiency and goods—had nothing for them. A radical undoing was their only way out. Behold how they died: scrounging for crack rocks; infested by AIDS; or, if lucky, under the honorable hail of gunfire.
I begin many years later, After the Fall, after the terrible dawning that the revolution had gone bacchanal, and devolved into shakedowns of drug dealers and parlor games with starlets and playboys who longed to look like danger. Dad and many of his Baltimore comrades had left the Panthers. The final hours of their youth were heartbreaking. They picketed liquor stores for donations, shook cups in Berkeley next to the white homeless, and financed a nightclub. For leaving, the Panthers condemned my father. They instructed Patsy to not allow Dad to see Johnathan. Dad wrote a letter to the central committee. There was no answer.
He was caught somewhere between the old socialism and the understanding that the people could not be moved without capital. Still, he left the Panthers with a basic belief system, a religion that he would pass on to his kids. He jettisoned Christmas and saw the great apostasy of the Fourth of July. He took a pact with a group of brothers and sisters to fast on Thanksgiving in protest over Attica, the Indians, and the sheer gluttony of Satan. Through the years, these brothers fell away. But Dad carried on.
Now he thought back to the Panthers’ heyday and his old friend Walter Lively, who like him, was young, black, and out of Philly. But Lively had an instinct for the inside, and was thus adept at moving the gears of power in the proper direction. He was a shocking blizzard of things. He was named to the city council at twenty-five as a Republican. Finagled a farm in rural Pennsylvania where Dad would stash Panthers on the run. But what struck Dad the most was Walter Lively’s dream of a propaganda ma- chine—a vertically integrated entity that printed, published, and distributed Consciousness to the people. Lively had assembled many pieces of printing equipment, but before bringing it to be, he was on to something else.
Dad picked up the idea. He thought back to the Panthers and their study of Kim II Sung and his parable of the One Hero. It was said that when the Japanese invaded, all the men reached for their guns, but the One Hero grabbed a mimeograph machine. A bullet could fell one enemy, a grenade a few more, but the mimeograph could kill the hearts and minds of thousands and resurrect many more of your own. Dad conceived a new revolution in Lively’s three parts—a bookstore, a printer, and a publisher—that would give the people control of information.
He convened many disaffected revolutionaries. They were a mix of cultural nationalists, militant unionists, and draft resisters straight out of the brig. They did not cohere. They fought over intercommunalism and dialectics. They fought over the working class and the precise calibrations of the petit bourgeoisie. They split and went their separate ways. Dad and Brother Howard, his comrade from the Panther days, carried on. They moved forward with their plans for a propaganda machine, called it the George Jackson Movement. Its namesake was the incarcerated scholar and Black Panther, who predicted ghettos surrounded by barb- wire, grenade launchers smuggled into Watts. Jackson took Angela Davis as a spiritual lover, published two books mulling the coming rebellion, and was martyred in San Quentin, after supposedly having concealed a pistol in his Afro. The George Jackson Movement acquired a storefront on Pennsylvania Avenue. Dad and Brother Howard painted and did repairs. They threw a cabaret, played music, served food, and took donations of books, which became the first seeds of a bookstore. They mailed some of these books to the brothers in prison. Some of the brothers traded the books for cigarettes.
—by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an extract from his memoir The Beautiful Struggle