Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Beautiful Struggle. The Sound of the Street” – A book like a hip-hop mixtape

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most prominent African-American authors of our time. His essays on the structural racism of American society – published in Germany in 2016 under the title “Between me and the world” – have had great impact, especially his “plea for reparations” in view of the centuries-long history of slavery and discrimination.

His autobiographical memoirs “The Beautiful Struggle” were published in 2008, and only now is a German edition coming out. But it is a highly timely, must-read book that goes a long way toward understanding contemporary discussions of race and identity.

Black Consciousness

Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in 1975 and spent his youth in Baltimore. His father was an activist in the Black Panther movement, he believed in revolution, and when that doesn’t happen, he begins republishing the forgotten writings of black emancipation and history.

He encourages his son to read from an early age and to become “conscious” of his own origins – “consciousness” is the state that one has to achieve in order to resist racism. This is one half of the world Ta-Nehisi grows up in.

The other half can be found on the streets of Baltimore, a harsh, extremely segregated city. Drug addiction and gang crime rule here in the 1980s, the black kids are far removed from any awareness of solidarity, but are consistently busy fighting, injuring and killing each other.

Hip hop as a political stance

The young Ta-Nehisi never really becomes part of the “street”, he is not a fighter, but in the course of his puberty he is repeatedly tempted to use violence – it is too ubiquitous for that. For a long time, the books that his father made him read seemed too far removed from the reality of his life.

That only changed when he discovered hip-hop, because in the late 1980s it became the music of expanding political awareness with rappers and crews like KRS-One, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest.

In hip-hop, the tradition of black nationalism so meticulously preserved by his father finally reaches the present; and that he one day begins to write himself, says Coates, he owes to this early fascination with the rhythms and rhymes, with the spontaneity and at the same time the historical consciousness of the “conscious rappers”.

Effects of racist traumatization

“The Beautiful Struggle” is therefore an intellectual Bildungsroman – but also a detailed description of a youth in the eighties in a segregated city. We read about young Ta-Nehisi’s uptight attempts to approach unattainable “jennys” (girls) – and about the difficult relationship with his father, whom he admires as a universally educated “hero”, but who also has seven children with four wives brought into the world and beat his sons with the leather belt.

For Coates, such a lack of sovereignty and responsibility is also an effect of racial traumatization. But he never depicts his characters as victims: he watches them making right or wrong decisions, and he watches himself making it for him at crucial moments – with the help of his parents, with the help of hip-hop, sometimes only through luck – just manages to save himself from falling into a typical slum biography.

You can learn a lot from this great book, especially as a white reader. The German edition is absolutely commendable. Bernhard Robben translated the rhythm, the flow, the linguistic game with the slang vocabulary into German as casually and virtuosically as possible.

And the journalist and hip-hop expert Julian Brimmers has added a detailed glossary in which all political, literary, musical references are explained: you want to play the old hip-hop tracks again immediately after reading it and delve deeper into it read into it the history of black consciousness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Beautiful Struggle. The sound of the street
From the American by Bernhard Robben
Karl Blessing Verlag, Munich 2021
304 pages, 22 euros