Cataclysm Awaits

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.

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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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