Teen Pregnancy Was the Fashion

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I'm pretty sure that this reading on Friday evening, at Spiegel and Grau McNally-Jackson, will likely be my last public one for The Beautiful Struggle for a long time. If you're in New York, please come out. We're going to be video-taping and would like to pack the house. Over the next few days, I'll offer some samples from the book for those of you (Negroes) who haven't read the book. All jokes aside, I'm really looking forward to this event. It's going to be fun.

This is an excerpt from the first chapter, "There Lived A Little Boy Who Was Misled."

We lived in a row-house in the slope of Tioga Parkway in West Baltimore. There was a small kitchen, three bedrooms and three bathrooms, but only one that anybody ever wanted to use. All of us slept upstairs. My folks in a modest master. My two sisters, Kris and Kell--when back from Howard University, which we called The Mecca--in an area where Dad also stored his books. There was a terrace out back, with a rotting wooden balcony. I almost died out there. Leaning against the crumbling wood I tumbled headlong, but caught myself on the back door roof, and came lucky feet first to the ground. 

My room was the smallest, and always checkered with scattered volumes of World Book, Childcraft, Dragonslance and Narnia. I slept on bunk-beds carved from thick pine, shared the bottom with my baby brother Menelik. Big Bill, as in all things, was up top. By mere months, he was my father's first son, but he turned this minor advantage into heraldry. He began sentences with "As the oldest son..." and sought to turn all his younger siblings into warriors. Big Bill was never scared. He had a bop that moved the crowd, and preempted beef. When bored, he'd entertain the crowd, cracking on your busted fade, acne, or your off-brand kicks.
In those days, crazy Chuckie threatened our neighborhood. When we lined up for 5 on 5, every tackle he took personally, every block was an invite to scrap. Once he pulled a metal stake from the ground, swung it at fat Wayne until he retreated all the way into our living room. That's when Dad came out, and revealed the face of This Is Not A Game. Chuckie cursed and waved the stake. Then he stalked off. 

That night I laid on the bottom bunk, replaying it all for Bill. Me: 

Man, that nigger Chuckie is crazy. 
Bill: Fuck Chuckie. If he ever step to me, I'll fuck him up. 

That Fall, Chuckie killed his father, got gaffled by the jakes, and disappeared into the netherworld of Boys Village or Hicky Juvenile. . Private school Stevie lived two doors down. I'd sit outside playing with his GI Joes until I realized that this made me a target. Across the street was Mondawmin Mall, the fashion seat of West Baltimore, the pit of sex, beatdowns, and cool. Every window glittered with leather, fur, sterling, and stickers with large red numbers and slash-marks. 

But the price-tags and fat-ass honies made boys turn killer. One misstep onto suede Pumas, and the jihad begins. In those days cocaine was the air, and though I never saw a fiend fire-up, the smoke darkened everything, turned our homey town into a bazaar of cheap ornaments bought expensively, a Gommorah on the inner harbor. A young man's worth was the width of his blonde cable-link chain. The space between two, three then four finger rings, marked footmen from cavalry, calvary from the great gentry of this darker age. 

In all our dreams we cruised the Avenue in black Cherokee Jeeps, then parked at the corner of Hot and Live, our system flogging eardrums, pumping Latoya and Sucker MC's. Even I shared those dreams, and I was only ten. While I was hobbled by pre-teens and basic nature, Big Bill was enthralled by the lights. This was the summer of 86. KRS-ONE laid siege to Queensbridge. I would stand in my bedroom, throwing up my hands, reciting the words of Todd Smith--"Walking down the street, to the hardcore beat\While my JVC vibrates the concrete." 

Bill, and my brother John, spent all summer bussing tables. Bill schemed on a fat rope, one that danged from his neck like sin. Still, his money was young, and he could not stomach the months of lay-away. So he returned from the mall with two mini-ziploc bags, each the size of woman's fist, each glimmering, like him, in the light. 

They held massive rings, one adorned with a golden kite, another spanning two fingers, molded into a dollar sign. He flashed them before me, and I was caught by how the glowing iron made him swell inside his own skin. He was profiling, lost in all his glory, when Dad stepped to him: 

Dad: Son. They're fake. Son. You've been had. 
Bill: You're bugging. This is 14-karats. I paid cash money. 
Dad: Son. Son. Let's have them melted down and tested. If it's 10-karats or more, I will pay you back for the rings. With interest. 

Bill's head went reeling, the dream within reach: He saw a gold herringbone spread over his Black BVD, and when he bopped through Mondawmin, Jenny would jump on his jock, and soldiers would collapse or salute. In the order of Slick Rick, Bill would wear the scarlet robe. So he agreed to my father's proposition, convinced he was on the better end. Dad never made idle threats. But we were young, drunk on ourselves and could not know that all the alleys we took as original, he'd stepped through before. 

He found a place to melt the gold, do the math. And I don't know what was worse; the negative results or Dad's rueful chuckle and sermon. Afterward, Dad went over to Mondawmin and had Bill point out the merchants. Then he walked to the glass counter, brandished the results, and spoke magic words. The magic words were "Fraud," "Black Community, " and "State's Attorney." Bill never felt the same about gold again. 

But out on the block, the hoppers draped themselves in Starter, Diadora and Lottoes. Then they'd roll on to corners and promptly clutch their nuts. Big Bill was there. He rolled through in a brown puff-leather, and captained a minor gang of Mondawmin kids. When bored, they brought the ruckus, snatching bus tickets and issuing beatdowns at random. They gave no reason. They published no manifestos. This was how they got down. This was the ritual. 

They spent summers hunting for girls. The Jennies would catwalk through Mondawmin in stonewash with wide red hands spraypainted across their asses. They gilded their namesakes in triple bamboo earrings, and when they heard your call--hey yo shortie, come here--they did not look back to flip a bird. They did not crack smiles for anything. Their focus was on hair, mounds and mounds of hair, gelled, fried, french rolled, fingerwaved, extended into a dyed and glittered crown. They were of the moment. They took one look at West Baltimore and understood that they were the best of it. So they walked like they were all that mattered, like they had no time for any of us. 

You had to be harder then. You could not bop through Park Heights like the second coming of the Peanut King. Even the skating rinks demanded six deep. Lexington Terrace was overrun by gonorrhea. Teen pregnancy was the fashion. Husbands were outtie. Fathers were ghost.
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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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