Cataclysm Awaits

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I'm doing my last public reading of The Beautiful Struggle this Friday at McNally-Jackson. All week I'll be running excerpts from the book. The Beautiful Struggle is, at its core, a comic book. A self-aggrandizing comic book--every man is Odysseus in his own mind. Anyway, yesterday was Flash Thompson. I'm going to skip the Spider-bite and get straight to Gwen Stacy--without the bridge.


You may note that all my references to girls have been brief, and mostly touched by failure. My catalogue was comic:

Page one

I sat on a fence in early June, 1985, my last years of boyhood drawing to dark. I was waiting on Brenda Neil, who I knew had to walk this way to make it home. Soon, she'd be off to Falstaff, or one of those boarding schools way out, with horses and fencing teams. Of course she was brown and lovely, her eyes were great planets, but what I remember most was how the world would pause and come to her, how she spoke and walked easily, like 5th grade, with all its giant uncertainties, was just her personal ballet. When she laughed, her voice lightly cracked and with it, something inside me too, took days to set right. She would tap her number two pencil against a desk and look up and away for an answer, and even that dumb look thrilled me. Then I knew how the damned dinosaurs died, that even here, in Miss Boone's ordinary classroom, cataclysm awaits. 

I was on the fence at Cold Spring and Callaway, a block away from the 7-11 where I saw my first gat, across the street from where the highwaymen of Wabash snatched my black skullie, sat there nursing my last chance. I don't remember what I said, but in response she walked past, and would have smiled and said something nice, because she was not the type to get loud on you, and for now had rejected the seductive venom and backtalk that is the birthright of all black girls. What I know is that I did not say what was needed, what ached beneath every rib, that I watched her walk away with, at best, goodbye and good luck.

I was born under a lame sign. Big Bill could make them yell "Go William" and do the whop. Dad had his flock and thus direct evidence that, in these matters, his was the arm of Thor. But I had taken a wrong exit, picked up a manual written in French, because, in truth, my greatest disaster was that I just did not understand. Jennifer would clip me in the hallway, pull my shirt, punch me in the shoulder, grab at my chair while I reared back on two legs, mash an index finger in my face, then an hour later smile and ask what I was reading.  But it never got through.



Page 7 

There I am at my seventh grade locker, halfway through the year of all hell. Teyanda whispers in my ear, "Ta-Nehisi, I have a crush on you." I turn and she's running off, only to turn back for a second, unsmiling through her glasses, and say, "It's true." I am overcome, but still I demand parted clouds and a booming voice. A glad to see you grin would have helped, and furthermore I am not sure what I am supposed to do next. I could walk her home, but Teyanda lives down near Longwood where legionnaires carry warhammers and long daggers in their dip. I am my own quagmire, and so at the end of the week Teyanda extends her right hand to mush my face, and sucks her teeth, "Ta-Nehisi, I don't have a crush on you.'

I should have known--all of us were damaged goods, and if I missed something it was this:  My greatest perils were sudden and defined--a Timberland boot to the dome, the talking end of a three eighty, a cop looking to make his night. But on the other side, the pitfalls were bottomless. This was the era of high schools fitted with nurseries, HIV was the air. Nigger, that year at Woodlawn, I had a mother or an expecting in every class. And still fools had the nerve to yell "You got a phat ass!" from the passenger seat--always the passenger seat--of speeding cars, to sidle up and ask why you never smile. Who knew what this dude was holding behind those cold hazel eyes? 

Girls of Knowledge would shoot a nigger down without so much as eye contact, because they knew every smile, every infatuated act, compromised security, and handed us a weapon that we would only deploy for selfish use. So they made themselves into fortresses, and demanded you drop your arms before they even thought about the drawbridge. They had so much more to lose.

Page 12  

It is 1992, and I am doing what I have mastered at Woodlawn--sleeping through health class, my head resting on folded arms, folded arms resting on my desk, next to one of Dad's latest reprints, which, needless to say, was not the text of the class. A girl named Ebony walked by with a stack of papers and tapped and tapped my desk until I came out of the haze. I was an exile then from Poly, banished from the crystal city and denied even the rep of a West Baltimore public school. What karmic poetry--I had spent all those years wrestling with the Knowledge only to become a county boy. I had disgraced my parents, and exhausted by the rigors of it all, they simply threw up their hands and backed off.

You do what you want boy, Dad told me one day in the car. But at the end of this school year, you will leave my house. You can go into the army, I don't care. But you will not be here next year.

Dad and Ma believed 17 was an internship to manhood, that at that point, the child would be what he was. This was my senior year, the first time no one checked my home-work, asked if I had studied or requested progress reports from school. I came in with 1.8 GPA. College would require a series of awesome labors. I would have to start with invention of time travel. Still, I was blessed with some understanding of standardized tests, and thus SAT scores that, at least in Baltimore, stood out. And my advanced classes at Poly had softened my landing here in my senior year at Woodlawn. I had three classes after lunch--Health, Spanish I, Applied Math. I showed my respect by sleeping as much as I could and pulling Bs on pop quizzes. The classrooms were crowded and tight. The last thing a teacher wanted was to make me into an issue. They left me to my afternoon nap. I left them to their restless kids.

Ebony had not been informed of the arrangement. She sat at the front of the class, knew all the answers, and was first pick for class errands. She tapped on the desk until I looked up, handed me some inane ditto, then picked up the thin book lying next to my arm.

What are you reading?

David Walker's Appeal. It's a written by a black guy from the slavery days. He predicted a lot of the stuff they said in the 60s. They killed him, of course.

She stood there for a few moments asking more about the book, then gave her impressions of Malcolm's memoirs, and carelessly smiled. That was when I noticed her. That she was black and beautiful like her name, and wrong as it was, that made her prominent to me.

I watched her in the halls over the following days. I was down with no one here. I talked little out here in the county school--I didn't even fuck with bucolia like that. I fed myself on my own myth. They were Snap to my Chill Rob G.  I was the West Baltimore original, while they just played the part.  

But their girls, with their wrap skirts, sun dresses and wide-leg jeans, were exotica. She was a duchess among them. She stood out amidst the dime-pack--the ones who got their hair done monthly, and touch-ups on the mid-weeks. She wore it wrapped or all pulled back into a French roll with blue glitter or curly bangs hanging down the front. They dressed like it was all a fashion show. They dispensed smiles and laughter, as if from a box of exquisite chocolates, with none to spare. All of them except Ebony. She was always laughing.

And she was Conscious. She was president of the "cultural enrichment club," a black student union, but in deference to Woodlawn's non-black 30 percent, no one called it that. I started going to meetings, mostly still just playing the back, but occasionally piping up to interject a minor suggestion. We became closer this way, began to talk after Health class, or at the public library after school. I got the math in my usual, flicted way.  Sidled with homework help, which of course, I did not need. 

We talked almost every night for hours about all the nothing that young people feel the fate of worlds hinges on. After school, we'd hang out at the library or the sub shop across the street. I gathered her life story, how she was originally from Jersey, and how drugs had taken both her parents down. She moved in with a godmother out in the county, and came to high school away from all the problems of the city. Of course, by then Woodlawn was also shifting over. In ten years, the neighborhood mall would go from the Gap, arcades and Hechts to check cashing joints, fast food and plus-size clothing stores.

On the surface of it all, she was unbroken and serene. Once, she challenged my father to a debate over his revolutionary credentials--made him justify a Black Panther who'd moved to the suburbs. He was forty-six, and was moving toward a lighter touch with my younger brother Menelik. He did not preach much now, as he was entering into the twilight of his parenting years. My mother might go away for a weekend, and Dad would cook, wash dishes and take us to the movies. He walked in on us studying, wearing reading glasses, pulled low on his nose. He looked down at us sitting at the table and then pulled up a seat. She grinned immediately, and then grilled him on the ethics of talking black, while leaving the least among us behind. It was good and spirited, and Dad's logic was indomitable as usual. Still, it didn't stop Ebony from asserting my claims to the West-Side were little more the fraud.

Beneath it all, I saw her wounds, the thing that makes men run into burning houses. Here was my damsel. All her demons were hidden, but I could feel them baying out from within and activating something immutable in my DNA.  My grades improved in direct proportion to the time I spent around her. I got extracurricular. I did a Garvey speech for the school in the black awareness assembly. I became a peer counselor. They'd pull me out of class for workshops on conflict resolution.

My motives were all impure. Ebony was involved in all of these things. She was one of those kids. She caught me in the hallway after sixth period. She'd been gone all day, and was wearing a dress that seemed like it was bought for church. She'd just been honored for grades, for extraordinary effort or some such accolade of overachieving. She was always overachieving. She handed me an envelope, and told me not to open it until after school.

I had to go to Mondawmin that day for shopping, and thought nothing of what I'd mindlessly stuffed in my backpack. I opened it after I got off the subway. It was the program from her ceremony, and on the side was a love note, that I could not recognize as such. It was written in that vague, noncommittal way of a girl who wants you to know what she feels, but wants to protect herself all the same. I did not know what I was holding, and was caught on the price in self-esteem for figuring it out. I talked to her that night and thanked her, but I did not push like I was supposed to. I could not see that beneath the shield, beneath the smiles and laughter, which were her armor, behind the glowing axe, all of us are waiting to be swept away.

 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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