After three pages into Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle, I thought, “I can’t read this.” It is not because I couldn’t understand the book. It is because I immediately had a sense of cultural trespassing. This book- about growing up on the West Side of Baltimore in the eighties, about Black Consciousness, about the limits of being able to imagine a future unlimited by the way you’re perceived in the world- this book was not meant for me, for my white eyes, for my privileged sensitivities.

This book is not for my shelf to be credentialed as a better ally. This book schooled me into realizing that any allying I have done until now has been so far from street level that it barely is worthy of the name. And the way Coates writes prose- non-fiction prose… For me, it is like cleaning fish. There’s guts, blood, sharp bones, and unlaid eggs, but the whole picture is of a life-giving reality that is beautiful and terrifying and nourishing, but demanding of careful handling or it will make you sick.

There is no religion in this book. At least not the way the usual traffic of this website would necessarily recognize it. There is swirling cloud of saints that are the black men and women, named and unnamed, who gave life and lives throughout the ages. There are names that I recognized and names that weren’t known to me. I felt so out of my depth that, at one point, I googled “fade haircut” so I could have the correct picture in my mind. I think that might be the pinnacle picture of my whiteness- using the internet to help me interpret the black life about which I am reading. Thus, I sat on my couch, a cultural interloper, caught up in a story that I could barely understand and, yet, grasping that it was important for me to read.

I was on my couch, in a park, a sushi joint, at my workplace reading this book. Feeling dislocated and suspicious reading the text, I never received so much as a sideways glance. It was a tiny flipped script of the reality that belongs to Coates and other black young men and boys and grown men and elders, but never belongs to me.

At one point, Coates writes about his mother, interpreting her thinking:


She knew that I had no idea how close I was, would always be, to the edge, how easily boys like me were erased in absurd, impractical ways. One minute we were tossing snowballs at taxis, firing up in front the 7-Eleven, speeding down side streets and the next we’re surrounds by unholstered guns, a false move away from going down. I would always be a false move away. I would always have a dagger at my throat.


Coates has a new book out this week, Between the World and Me. Between that book, which is certainly commendable and Go Set a Watchman, the first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird, the internet is all a-hum with reviews of both. The Beautiful Struggle is an entirely different book, but I believe more commendable in this time of tension. Coates’s Struggle causes the reader who is unfamiliar with his language, experience, and worldview to perceive the kind of otherness that is the reality for so many today.

I comment this book to you for your personal edification. Within congregational life, it would be worth giving this book to the person you know who thinks Tim Wise is the most righteous person they know. For our non-American RGBP gals and pals, I recommend searching deeper into your own First Nations or significant minority or immigrant author voices and attempting to read something that’s a little outside of your comfort zone. This book truly rocked my world, in the sense that it shook up quite a bit, which is a right and proper thing.


2 thoughts on “RevGalBookPals: The Beautiful Struggle

  1. Just finishing this myself. It is so far from me culturally. The understanding gap (vocabulary and historical references) forced me into the role of outsider as I struggled to understand and follow what was going on. Made me wonder how many kids in our school system feel this way with euro-normative texts.


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