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A writer recalls his dad’s tough love

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by Craig Wilson
USA Today

BALTIMORE — Ta-Nehisi Coates is standing in the living room of the red brick row house where he grew up. With him is his father, Paul, and half-brother, Damani.

They’re laughing about the good old days on Tioga Parkway — no air conditioning, at times not even a sofa — although the good old days weren’t always so good.

Coates, 32, a former reporter for Time magazine and now a freelance writer in New York, is the author of the new book The Beautiful Struggle (Spiegel & Grau, $22.95). Its subtitle sums up the tale best: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.

The memoir is a love story, of sorts. A tough-love story of polar opposites. Beatings with fists and a belt were part of the drill.

Coates was a self-described “sensitive and spacey” boy — “I had a whole other world going on in my head” — living in a dicey neighborhood riddled with crack cocaine, a place where young black men needed to be quick on their feet. Or else.

His father was a Vietnam vet, Black Panther, intellectual and serial womanizer, a strong-armed disciplinarian determined his sons were not going to be lost to the streets. “Wake up, boy,” he used to say. “Walk like you got business. Walk like you got somewhere to be.”

On Sunday, Father’s Day, the elder Coates, 61, can bask in a certain success. Ta-Nehisi made his way to Howard University, a career in journalism and now the ranks of published authors.

The opposite of Ta-Nehisi, Damani, 37, was a street fighter who was drawn to the lure of gang life. His father pulled him in, too. He now works for his dad at Black Classic Press.

But as the memoir’s title suggests, none of it was easy. The streets of Baltimore were mean in the ’80s, and at home the Coateses were not the Cosbys. Far from it. Paul Coates had seven kids by four different women, two of whom he married. Ta-Nehisi is the second-youngest child.

“This is all a mess on paper, but it was all love to me and formed my earliest and still enduring definition of family,” he says.

But it was he and Damani, two very different brothers, who ended up living with their father and Ta-Nehisi’s mother, Cheryl Waters. They divorced when Ta-Nehisi was in his mid-20s. (Paul Coates also was married to and divorced from Damani’s mother.)

Ta-Nehisi dedicates the memoir to his mother, who he says “dragged” him along as much as his father did.

“She was the day-to-day person in my life. The one checking the homework,” he says.

But his father was the enforcer, the drill sergeant, the force.

“He had his faults,” Ta-Nehisi says, “but I wanted people to know my father in full. I think he has a great story.”

Interior life of a child

Ta-Nehisi says he also was trying to write about his life, which became yet another struggle.

“I had a difficult time finding my voice as a 12-year-old,” he says. “I wanted it to be true to who I was at the time, and what the time felt like.”

Coates’ editor, Christopher Jackson, says the writer even listened to music of the time to help bring back memories. “He got into the interior life of that kid … getting into the complexity of a young black kid. He took it very seriously, the responsibility to create that life in all its contours and complexities.”

Jackson said the book also became stronger when Coates expanded it beyond just his father (the original plan) to himself and other family members, including Damani, who was called “Big Bill” while growing and never let Ta-Nehisi forget that he was the older brother.

En route to his childhood home last week, Coates, now the father of a 7-year-old son, points out landmarks in the memoir, neighborhood haunts where his childhood played out. The not-always-safe route home from school, the mall across the street where everyone hung out, the corner bus stop where thugs snatched his sky-blue Nike skullcap.

Non-judgmental memoir

His father’s response? Deal with it. Coates repeatedly told his sons, “The world can be a corner bully.”

Ta-Nehisi says his relationship with his father now is “much better than it was when I was a child. But I know he was not there to be my friend.” He said their relationship improved when his own son was born. (Coates is not married to the boy’s mother.)

“A lot of people write memoirs out of anger, to settle scores,” Ta-Nehisi says. “I had no such motive.”

His words bear that out. He passes no judgment.

While the elder Coates confesses he was concerned how Ta-Nehisi saw him and how people would interpret him, he says he regrets little, including disciplining his sons with a black leather belt. Ta-Nehisi says the beatings began when he was only 6, and he knows some will look upon it as abuse.

“That’s their opinion,” he says. “But considering the environment I was growing up in, you’d do almost anything to stop what might happen to your child. It’s hard for me to object to what he did.”

Damani says the beatings “created a plateau of respect.

Says their father: “I have this belief that the worst thing today is you can’t be physical with kids. I’m old-school. I’m the old black father. If you come into my door wrong, you have to deal with me. They always had me to deal with.”

Ta-Nehisi writes that his father and the Black Panthers were a perfect fit: “They were comrades, partners in the great unmaking, the fall of families, governments.… Dad took to this naturally, and soon it seemed whenever a woman smiled his way, she’d already begun dividing her life into trimesters.”

The elder Coates, founder and head of Black Classic Press in Baltimore, makes no apology about who he is, or was. (He’s getting married for the third time this summer.)

He thinks his parenting style worked, saying people always remember the teachers who were hardest on them. When Ta-Nehisi wasn’t living up to his potential, his dad would often show up at school and sit in the back of the room. He often banished the wayward son to the basement to read yet another book on African history.

He hopes he set some sort of an example. “The interesting thing is it’s a wonderful tribute as a father for the son to write about you,” he says. “I’m just happy he’s produced something of interest to other black men. I’ve always looked to books for examples.”

A tour of the house tells as much about the father as it does about Ta-Nehisi and his childhood. It’s filled with books, most written by black authors dealing with the African-American experience.

“We didn’t get it,” says Ta-Nehisi of his father’s pride in all things African-American. But the young author says now that the books were part of the fabric of his childhood. “There were days I didn’t have anything to do, so I’d go through things here on the shelf,” he says. “There were things I didn’t have access to in school. These books gave me my critical thinking.”

Heat and punishment

Damani was more a man of the street. He was in 10th grade when he moved to his father’s row house.

“To be disciplined,” as he says now.

Damani admits punishment for him “was to read a book about (black nationalist, orator and activist) Marcus Garvey. But I learned to be proud of what I am as a black man.”

Says his father: “You hope and you try to do your best. To get a question answered, even half right, it gives you hope that they’re on the right path.”

As a father now, Ta-Nehisi says he mimics his dad when dealing with his son, Samori. At a recent football game in Harlem, he told the timid boy to “get back out there on the field!”

His father even took his tough love into conversations with his children.

“Dad would argue about anything,” says Ta-Nehisi. “He was aggressive, strong, overbearing.”

Counters the elder Coates, “I was just trying to tell them that you’ve got to think for yourself.”

As for the lack of air conditioning all those years ago, he stands by that decision, too.

“Fans worked well. It was more energy efficient,” he says. “I’d be more concerned about what was going on in Ta-Nehisi’s head.”

” ‘I’m hot!’ That’s what was going on in my head!” says the author.

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