Check the Technique

This is the third installment of the Wheelock Community Read Summer Blog Series. Each week, we will be posting a blog written by Wheelock faculty or staff that deals with a theme from this years’ community read; “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This week, please welcome guest blogger Scott Votel, Assistant Professor and Director of Composition Programs. 

Check the Technique

By Scott Votel

It’s called The Beautiful Struggle after all.

So what, exactly, is beautiful?

Ta-Nehisi Coates must mean for that playfully oxymoronic title to affirm John Keats’ idea that ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,” right? The book is the true and, thus, beautiful story of a difficult childhood under a difficult father in a difficult city at a difficult time. Coates’ memoir is, if nothing else, the bracingly honest self-portrait of a daydream-prone black son of a hard-nosed Panther living in a city so historically rife with violence visited upon black men that you can even buy a Bodymore, Murdaland snap-back in Orioles black-and-orange. The book practically quakes with hard truths. And so, hard beauty.

But the book isn’t only beautiful because it bravely depicts the hard truths of life in Baltimore by a surviving native son. Resist the temptation, if you can, to draw easy lessons from the book! Battle back the urge to anoint yourself with the liberal pieties that some careless readers demand from black authors! Demand more art from a piece of political art, and you’ll see that The Beautiful Struggle is beautiful because it is a deeply strange piece of nonfictional art.

Hear me out: if Coates, a lithe and flexible writer, wanted to write an excoriating report on inner city life in Baltimore in the late 80s and early 90s for the reader’s edification, then the man would have done just that. In fact, he’s built his considerable reputation on magazine-straining mega-essays like “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” and “Fear of a Black President.” No, what Coates wants to do, among many other things, is to generate an aesthetic experience for his reader.

And the aesthetic experience Coates attempts to engineer breaks most of the unspoken rules of memoir writing. The style is tuned up and tricked out, slang-studded, hyper-allusive. Readers unfamiliar with black or nerd or hip hop culture from the 80s and 90s are lost in a wilderness of unexplained references. Whole conversations are presented without a single attribution. Unless conversations are reported in the form of a transcript. He will frequently slip into someone else’s voice and just as quickly abandon it. Refuses even to set up a present frame story to help us understand his journey through contrast. Just flat out rejects a lot of what we expect from a memoir. In fact, Coates has reported that he didn’t read many memoirs in preparing to write his own: “A lot of the stuff felt cooked to me. After two or three, I stopped reading them.” There it is then, a brave author bravely figuring out how to do it his own way.

I mean, consider the opening chapter.

No, first consider the deeply weird fact that the thing opens up with a fantasy map of Baltimore complete with frayed scroll and Roman sword. It’s a disarming gesture, a reminder that for all his djembe-chic later on Coates is still a nerd at heart. Consider that he follows this up with a sober family tree. A subtle contrast that helps the reader understand that this world is at once fantastical to the boyhood Coates and populated with real people who don’t share this dreaminess. And then consider the opening pages of the opening chapter: a densely allusive passage that stuns the uninitiated. Check the technique:

They were shadow and rangy, like they could three-piece you—jab, uppercut, jab—from a block away. They had no eyes. They shrieked and jeered, urged themselves on, danced wildly, chanted Rock and Roll is here to stay. When Murphy Homes closed in on us, the moon ducked behind its black cloak and Fell’s Point dilettantes shuffled in boots.

What Coates is doing here has a pretty fancy name: literary scholars would say that his narrative is diegetic, not mimetic. In other words, Coates does not try to recreate the exact details of the attack in a realistic way; instead, he creates a distinct voice to report on the action, commenting along the way. And this slangy, free-wheeling approach exaggerates and stylizes the moment such that it—a familiar scene of one group of boys harassing another—becomes new and strange. It shocks us out of the expected way of telling this story. We get to do the hard work of understanding a Young Coates by listening carefully to his idiosyncratic voice: he is conflict-avoidant, dreamy, quick with a self-deprecating joke (“I was spaced-out as usual, lost in […] the magic of Optimus Prime’s vanishing trailer”), a boy in need of protection.

What follows over the next 200-something pages is an impressionistic exploration of this basic dynamic, Young Coates reconciling his basic character with a tough-minded father in a city and country generally unforgiving of black men’s very existence. Along the way, he picks up The Knowledge from his father’s Black Classic Press library and finds conscious rhymes in his Golden Era heroes (Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions) and forges his own voice in the process. Coates does not find his voice. None of us do! Instead, he creates it, like we all do, out of the language around us.

The word we want here is heteroglossia. Literally: different (‘hetero-’) tongues (‘glōssa’). Heteroglossia refers to the way that authors essentially create complex collages of different languages and styles and voices when they write. The originality (and thus worth!) of any given piece of literary art is in the combination of these styles and voices. Coates uniquely borrows the style of DC and Marvel comic books, infuses it with the vocabulary of Black Nationalism, and sets it to militant rhythms of The Bomb Squad. This is new. This particular combination has not yet existed in the history of memoir writing, American or otherwise. And this particular combination, fellow readers, is beautiful.

And what’s more is that this combination, this collage of styles, is more than a cool aesthetic development in the history of memoir. This powerful mashup of styles has a thematic resonance throughout the book. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that Coates is demonstrating that he is the product of these different languages. The man’s very identity is bound up with the languages he uses to present himself. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the language he uses, the words he speaks, the sentences he writes. Like any of us, we cannot be separated from the language we use to construct and reflect and comment upon the world around us.

Which I guess leads me to this simple thesis: The Beautiful Struggle is beautiful because it doesn’t sound like anything else out there. This is black man telling you not what you want to hear but what he knows, which is actually what you need to hear. And what he knows is how he was shaped equally by the ringside taunts of wrestlers in gleaming spandex and the proud scholarship of forgotten black writers. What he knows is that he is the student of T’Challa and Bobo Brazil as much as he is the acolyte of Chuck D and Marcus Garvey. What he knows is how we are the languages that surround us. We are the words that pour through our headphones, just as much as we are the words spoken, too often unheard, by parents and teachers. We are, each of us, an impossible walking dictionary of pop culture and family history and ethnic identity. So: because of the book’s artificial mash-up of voices, because of its hypertrophied style, Coates’ story is urgently beautiful.

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