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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.


The Lyrics of Identity

This is the second 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 Gillian Devereux, Director of the Writing Center and Instructor in Humanities and Writing.

The Lyrics of Identity

By Gillian Devereux

Born in 1972, I was an only child until 1980, the only kid in my neighborhood who went to my Catholic school, the only person in my family distressed by the fact that we had a black and white television without cable for the first 12 years of my life. My parents encouraged me to entertain myself with books, music, and as little television as possible. I spent decades curled on my bed, stopping and rewinding cassette tapes so I could transcribe lyrics. Later I scribbled my own lyrics which would eventually become poems, or stories, or impassioned passages in half-empty diaries.

I will admit a lack of discrimination in my earliest years, a tendency to doodle Chicago and Journey lyrics on my notebooks, a weakness for Lionel Richie, a belief that “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” had taught us all a critical lesson about desire and fulfillment. But I was a lonely child, bad at making friends and easily depressed. As I entered adolescence, I felt more isolated at home and at school, and this isolation made me anxious and angry, lazy and ambitious, aloof and needy. I still found solace in books, but few I understood addressed the feelings I needed to process. Pop music offered no solace whatsoever, and so I turned, desperate and confused, to punk and new wave.

I buried myself in music, barricaded myself in my room, blasting Tinderbox, Billy Idol, Los Angeles, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Black Celebration, Never Mind the Bollocks …, and London Calling through the flimsy foam headphones of my Sony Walkman. These songs both reflected and revealed — mirroring the emotions my body could barely contain and unearthing other emotions I had not yet been able to acknowledge. This music, this style of lyrics, this raw expression of inequity and injustice shaped the girl I was and the woman I would become. I returned to these songs again and again, letting them guide me through my earliest attempts at feminism and social justice. I can trace their influence on the map of my life, seeing where those artists’ words intersect with my own writing, my own choices, my own beliefs about the world.

When I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, I was immediately drawn to the points in the narrative where he discusses his own relationship with music and lyrics. As early as page 5, he references “KRS” while discussing the love he and his older brother Big Bill had for professional wrestling, and only a few pages later, he describes the summer of 1986 as the one when “KRS-One laid siege to Queensbridge” (pg. 11).

KRS-One – Sound of da Police

Coates juxtaposes KRS-One’s booming challenges to the legacy of black slavery — “You can’t stand where I stand / you can’t walk where I walk” — with words from LL Cool J’s Todd Smith persona, sharing an image of his 10 year old self “throwing up [his] hands, reciting” lyrics (pg. 11). He continues to equate the language of rap and hip-hop with reflection, revelation, and revolution throughout his memoir, frequently invoking the metaphor of music or song when examining how he developed a sense of identity. He describes his first day at Lemmel as one where “[e]veryone moved as though the same song were playing in their heads,” adding “[i]t was a song I’d never heard” (pg. 37). He explains how hearing “Lyrics of Fury” at age 12 showed him the path to manhood, to full participation in the battle for Consciousness, proclaiming “I put away childish things, went to the notebook, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed, and put pen to pad” (pg. 111)

Just as his father’s identity evolved and coalesced through his work running Black Classic Press, Coates’ immersion in rap and hip-hop culture altered his sense of self and his understanding of his place in the world. Although Coates believed “[e]ach black boy must find his own way to this understanding,” he also recognized that “under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone” (pg. 61; 111). In 1988, when “all the world’s boom boxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy,” Coates became a “reluctant convert” to the music of Chuck D and Flavor Flav, falling captive to “the many layers, the hints at revelation, and a sound that I did not so much enjoy as I felt compelled to understand” (pg. 104-105).

Public Enemy – Don’t Believe The Hype

 

Public Enemy’s second album, aptly named It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, tapped into the “collective memory” of Coates and his peers, reminding them how injustice, corruption, and the Reagan era itself manipulated them, herded them into stereotypical roles (drug dealer, basketball player, thug, failure), and disempowered them (pg. 105). At the same time, Public Enemy’s lyrics resonated with fathers and mothers, linking generations through powerful imagery, insightful social commentary, and references to influential black activists like Dr. Khalid Muhammad, whose words became the introduction to “Night of the Living Baseheads:”

Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god … and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.

Coates takes the time to depict his father, a man who eschewed popular culture, who “watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot,” making an authentic connection to Public Enemy, showing his readers how “She Watches Channel Zero?!” reminded his father of his mother (pg. 54; 104). Chuck D had the same fears and ambitions as Coates’ father and mother, but unlike them and their writers, Chuck D “spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of [Coates’] time” (pg. 104).

In the late 80s, Coates begins to realize “the claws of rage digging into” him would never disappear, that “[h]istory would be altered, not in the swoop but with the long slow awakening” (pg. 58; 91). In the penultimate chapter of his narrative, Coates submits his college applications and reaches the turning point of his senior year. This is the climax of his story; a college acceptance will forever separate him from the comfortable routine of Woodlawn, the powerful camaraderie of drumming, the familiar confines of home. As his identity shifts from child to man, his musical preferences, influenced, as always, by Big Bill, also shift.

Coates writes about Big Bill introducing him to the reggae legends of the time: Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley, artists who, like the activists whose words filled the shelves of Black Classic Press, rejected the language and conventions of racial oppression through their names, words, and beliefs. Coates calls these men prophets, explaining how their music foretold his fate: “I did not know where I was headed, but I knew I was mortgaged to the grand ideal—the end of mental slavery and the fulfillment of the book” (pg. 200).

Here, Coates references not only the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” but also Marley’s inspiration and source text, Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech “The Work That Must Be Done.” Garvey had been invited by the mayor of Sydney, Nova Scotia to speak about his work with the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his speech focuses on the precarious position of people of color abroad and the means by which they might empower themselves:

We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or for ill. If a man is not able to protect himself from the other man he should use his mind to good advantage. The fool will always pay the price. The fool will always carry the heavy burden.

Music critics, scholars, and Marley’s biographers have all observed that “Redemption Song,” more than any other track on Marley’s final album, represents a major departure from the musician’s earlier work. Garvey’s life, work, and death had a significant impact on Marley, just as it did on Coates, who references the activist multiple times throughout The Beautiful Struggle, referring to the Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey buttons on his tie-dyed book bag as “the totems of my champions” (pg. 127). And a young man such as Coates, whose father had risen through the ranks of the Black Panthers, whose playmates included Afeni Shakur’s son Tupac, who would search “liner notes for clues, play back lyrics until they were memory, and then play back memory until [he] gleaned messages imagined and real” must have quickly understood the implications of the line “How long shall they kill our prophets / while we stand aside and look?” (pg. 102).

“Redemption Song” became a prophecy for Coates, just as Marcus Garvey’s words had become a prophecy for his father. Like his father, Coates “took up that call, the charge to make Garvey’s kingdom real” (pg. 55). He brought the resources he had at hand — “an hour, a pen, a pad” — and the structure and rhythm of hip-hop to the fight (pg. 147). He transformed his talent as an MC into a talent for prose, fulfilling the book in the most literal, and lyrical, sense. And like the activists and lyricists before him, he used his words to show the world that “[n]one of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up” (pg. 170).

Bob Marley – Redemption Song (Official Music Video)

 

Author’s Note: While reading and reflecting on The Beautiful Struggle, I created a Spotify playlist that contains all the available songs named in the book. Periodically, Coates will either reference lyrics to a song or mention an artist without identifying a specific album or track. In these cases, I added songs hip-hop scholars have identified as the most influential to the playlist, which you can stream here.


The Mythical World of The Beautiful Struggle

This is the first 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 Jenne Powers, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Writing. 

The Mythical World of The Beautiful Struggle

By Jenne Powers

The first chapter of Coates’s memoir opens with a fight scene described in terms that evoke Dungeons and Dragons, the World Wrestling Federation, Lord of the Rings, and the Transformers. Right away, Coates plunges his readers into the media- and myth-saturated world of his young mind. The opening lines describing Murphy Homes read, “When they caught us down on Charles Street, they were all that I’d heard. They did not wave banners, flash amulets or secret signs. Still, I could feel their awful name advancing out of the lore” (1). The lore here is local legend amplified by a boy’s imagined confrontation with orcs, goblins, and trucks that turn into robot killing machines. By including this kind of imagery and these references, Coates casts himself as a player in a monumental story. His mentors – his father, his brother Big Bill – are larger than life. His journey travels through time into the past and the future. Reading is ritual. He is struggling not just on the path to college, but to the Mecca.

As the chapter progresses, Coates develops the complex voice that characterizes this book. Like many narratives about childhood it is a double voice – at once a child’s and a man’s. His point of view is often limited to his child’s eyes and conveys a child’s enthusiasms and fears (“amulets or secret signs…”) but at the same time it is informed by the experiences and wisdom of mature Coates, the author.

His description of WWF wrestling and its juxtaposition to the Murphy Homes battle especially conveys at once his childish enthusiasm and his adult critique of cultural appropriation and racist media stereotypes:

I was open, and wanted to cheer the Birdman, resplendent in wraparound shades, a Jheri curl, and fluorescent gold and blue spandex. . . . maybe that night he dipped and glided toward the ring, flapping his arms and talking to the parakeets perched on each of his shoulders. I wanted to see the Dream, who was at the height of his feud with the Horsemen, and outnumbered, had taken to guerrilla warfare—masks, capes, ambushes, beef extended into parking lots, driveways and dream dates. But I lost it all out there, and when I dig for that night, all that emerges are the tendrils of Murphy Homes, how they dug into my brother’s head. (6-7)

His child’s eye delights in a grown man acting like a bird and bringing pets into the ring, while his adult’s critical eye sees a dangerous caricature of an African warrior, compounded by the subsequent rhetoric of the Dream, a White character who regularly appropriates Black culture. At the end of the passage, we feel a child’s confusion in the fray as well as an adult’s pain in the act of remembering. This double voiced narration allows Coates to develop the important ideas of Knowledge and Consciousness as expertly as he does. While reading this book, we are immersed in the experiences of a young boy who gains Knowledge every day, Knowledge rooted in his experiences as a young Black man in a world shaped by institutionalized racism. His child narrator may not always grasp the significance of his experiences (nor do we at times). However, we are led through the journey by an expert, Conscious guide – Coates.

Coates tells a story of growing up in a setting rich with myths – some patently fictional, some historically liberating, some media-generated, some community-minded. Young Ta-Nehisi demonstrates his resilience and strength by surrounding himself with so many myths. He is not one to succumb to the danger of a single story. He has many heroes to choose from and villains to battle. His coming of age will be, throughout the memoir, owning and telling his own story: Consciousness.

And his voice is not always easy to identify with. But maybe he is not asking us to identify with him. Coates’s language is intensely personal and powerfully political. It is not an everyday voice – no hero’s is. And his journey is not without peril – no hero’s is. But he will persist, and it is his control over language that gives him the tools he needs to complete his quest. This memoir comprises the mythical origin story of the scholar and public intellectual who brings us “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” and Between the World and Me.


Introducing Charles Owen

charlie

Another new face at the Library!

Name: Charles Owen

Job title: Administrative and Acquisitions Assistant

Location in Library: Floor 2

Tell us what you do in 50 words or less: I order all materials for the library, reconcile all invoices, maintain serials, and anything else that I am asked to do.  Most recently, I have been working on compiling data for the school’s accreditation.

Choose one service that your department provides that you most want the Wheelock community to be aware of:  We do allow people to suggest titles to buy and often we do end up buying them.  If you have a suggestion they are always considered and if they are not purchased they still help to shape our understanding of the community’s needs.

What is a typical work day like for you? Depends on the day.  Usually I am ordering something, whether it be office supplies or books.  I also tend to do invoices at least once a day.  Otherwise I do not know what I’ll do on any given day until I’ve checked my email and found some urgent message.

What is your favorite website?  Wikipedia

What is your favorite book in the Wheelock Library collection?  The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

When I’m not at work, you can find me… Studying or working on group projects for my Master’s, traveling, or planning a travel adventure.


Introducing Joseph St.Germain

There is a new face at the Library!

Name: Joseph St. Germain, but most people call me Joe.

Job title: Access Services Librarian

Location in Library: Floor 1M

Tell us what you do in 50 words or less: I strive to make sure library resources and services are useful and available to Wheelock College students, faculty, and staff by crafting user-friendly policies and procedures, educating patrons about the library’s varied offerings, and developing a service oriented environment at the front desk.

Choose one service that your department provides that you most want the Wheelock community to be aware of: Course reserves are one service I hope both faculty and students are aware of. Placing items on reserve ensures that students can access essential course readings, media, and other resources at their convenience.

What is a typical work day like for you? You can usually find me behind the front desk or in my office on the floor 1M providing both direct and indirect support to staff and patrons through policy implementation, staff training and mentoring, resource selection, interlibrary loan facilitation, reference consultations, and similar tasks. Essentially, I am always working to make sure every patron’s experience at the library is positive, productive, and worthwhile. My goal is to ensure patrons get the information and help they need to succeed in their academic and personal pursuits and have a pleasant time doing so.

What is your favorite website?  Boston.com is my favorite website and the first one I read each day during my morning commute. It does a great job of balancing news, weather, and features and keeps me relatively informed about what’s happening in the city.

What is your favorite book in the Wheelock Library collection?  I would have to go with The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Although it is a sad book, I like how the story emphasizes the fragility and wonder of life and love as well as how well-developed and realistic the characters are.

When I’m not at work, you can find me… walking around the Horn Pond Park in Woburn, MA. The park is full of trails and a great place to go to think, socialize, and appreciate nature.