Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in West Baltimore, surrounded by a tough, violent neighborhood and a dictatorial father determined to shape Ta-Nehisi into a man, which meant attaining the Consciousness of black heritage and making it out of Baltimore and into the Mecca of Howard University. Coates spends most of his childhood feeling alienated and alone. As a dreamy, naturally pacifist kid, he has a hard time picking up on the violent swagger and rules that mean survival in his neighborhood. His father, a former black panther, rejected normal American pastimes such as Halloween, the Fourth of July, candy, and red meat, increasing the alienation that Coates felt growing up.
Coates is only four years older than me, but we probably couldn't have grown up in more disparate worlds. Me in Boulder, Colorado land of happy, peaceful, tolerant, well-off, health-obsessed white people and Ta-Nehisi Coates in the black, violent, crack-infested, single-parent ghetto of West Baltimore. Going into this book, the only things I knew about Baltimore have come from watching the first season of The Wire. But even though there were constant cultural references that I didn't catch, I found myself relating deeply to Coates and his story.
Coates describes his experiences in Baltimore with such sympathy and thoughtful knowledge that he made me understand why there was so much violence and how impossible it was to avoid. At the same time Coates relates the almost universal experiences of an awkward adolescent, feeling alienated, alone, not worthy, and trying to relate to your parents. Coates's prose is poetic and beautiful to read, adding meaning and breadth to his story. I went in to this book, thinking I would learn something about growing up in America in a completely different culture and world, which I did; but I came out of it feeling that I had found--on some level--a kindred spirit.