The author’s account of growing up with a former Black Panther for a father in a disintegrating corner of Baltimore.
Unlike so many of his compatriots in the Black Power movement, Paul Coates didn’t burn out in disappointment after the heat of ’60s idealism turned to ash. Instead, he raised his family, a polyglot mix of children from four mothers, to exacting standards in a Baltimore that by the time of the author’s childhood in the late ’70s and early ’80s was experiencing a drug-and-violence-fueled societal breakdown. In Coates’s poetic account of his youth, Paul provided a bulwark against the buffeting waves of the crack wars outside: “We were a close-knit circle, but a circle surrounded by dire wolves.” While Paul rescued the works of lost or little-known writers through his Black Classic Press (still in existence) and pushed his children to succeed, the author watched with mixed worry and jealousy as his older brother Bill ran the streets and built his rep. The details of Coates’s travels through disintegrating neighborhoods and schools that seemed almost designed to torment a bookish, dreamy kid would be pedestrian in many writers’ hands, but he wields words with a rare grace that gives his story an uncommon power. “The world was filled with great causes—Mandela, Nicaragua, and the battle against Reagan,” Coates writes. “But we died for sneakers stitched by serfs, coats that gave props to teams we didn’t own, hats embroidered with the names of Confederate states.” It’s one of the saddest descriptions of the crack epidemic ever put to page. Given the tragic number of African-Americans who didn’t survive that epidemic, it’s a pleasure to read the author’s awed appraisal of a father who never stopped striving for the best in his family and community, no matter how hopeless the view outside his window.
A rare, lyrical family memoir that rises above banal domesticity.