If I Were a Black Kid, Cont.

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I've been meaning to link to this interview I did with The Days of Yore for awhile now. Without harping, it probably explains why I blanch at criticizing children for wanting to play sports or be rappers. Essentially I was that kid:


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Tony Dorsett, the running back for the Dallas Cowboys. That's what I wanted to be.

Did you play a lot of football on your own or was that just sort of a....?

I did, but I didn't play too much on account of not being very good. You know, it was just something we did in the neighborhood, threw the football and ran around a lot, yeah, a lot of fun...

And not only was I that kid, but the roots of my present self are there:

And you listened to a ton of hip-hop.

It was constant, it was the soundtrack of my childhood. It was just everywhere.

So then I wanted to be a rapper, that was next. But much like being a running back, I wasn't very good at it so that was a minor problem with that dream. I wasn't good at that but that led me to poetry and I did poetry for a while. I was a better rapper than I was a running back and I was a better poet than I was a rapper. I wasn't particularly good at any of those things yet.

There was a great degree of failure in my life and I never really... You know, the way I came up, it quickly became clear to me that no person has the right to success. There's no guarantee to success at all; you may get it or you may not. You can like something and you can be bad at it and you can keep doing it or you can be not great at it and you can keep going or you can be mediocre at it and you can keep doing it. You keep doing it because you like it, just because you like it, for you, it's yours, it's private, you own it. Not to please other people, not to impress nobody.

I wasn't really good at school, I wasn't an athlete, I wasn't particularly good with girls, I didn't have any of that. I wasn't a social outcast; I had pretty good social skills and was well-liked among my crowd, so I didn't have the sort of nerd-geek experience. But I did have the experience of not being particularly good at anything measurable as a young child.

And I went through a long period, once I got to writing, of not being very successful but I kept doing it because I liked it.
When I think about my early life I don't really see much difference between myself and other kids--except one thing. I had people around me who. whatever their disappointments in me, really encouraged my interests. My house was pretty tough place. You could get your ass kicked for disrespecting your mother, your teachers or any other adult.  Yet there was always hippy-streak to my folks and they tended to be great believers in imagination. So, for instance, I wasn't allowed to have GI Joe's with white faces--this was the era of black Barbie, and black everything. But my Dad never really told me and my brother Malik to put away the Dungeons & Dragons and read some Du Bois. (He was more a Booker T guy, anyway.)



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As a child, there is a very narrow range of things from which you can derive enjoyment and build self-esteem. You can get self-esteem from romance, or from athletics or from school--but not much else. I basically failed at all of those things. The things I was good at it tended to be narrow. I was a good reader--but mostly outside of school. I was very good at memorizing Rakim lyrics. That was a good party trick, but it didn't have much broad value.

But my folks were pretty good about building in opportunities for me. I started playing the djembe when I was in tenth or eleventh grade. I loved the djembe. (Dundunba  seen here was my favorite) And I loved it even though I sucked at it when I started. The djembe was the first thing I actually took on, and through practice, improved.  After that I started shaving goat-skins in my parents basement and putting the heads on drums alone. I had never been good with my hands. But I discovered that with some practice, I could become better. This was a lesson--you didn't actually have to suck at things. An ethic of curiosity married to an ethic of work would be rewarded. My folks had said as much. But what I needed was a field where I could see that to be true.

I got this lesson at a time when I was really doing horribly at school. (I got kicked out of high school right about then.) My parents were about through with me. But here is what they did not do--they did not take my drum. The did not tell me that I would not have a career playing the djembe. In fact my mother actually bought me a second one. (They were not cheap. I think my second one cost around $350.) 

I remember one day I wanted to go over to D.C. to drum with some friends. I was trying to get my Dad to give me money to catch the local commuter train over. I think he was annoyed because, as usual, I was screwing up in school. But he gave me the money and said, "I guess there are worst things that you could want to do on a Saturday night." And there really were.

Sometimes the lessons came in more indirect ways. My Dad used to watch football with me. He was from Philly and hated the Cowboys. Then in 1987, Doug Williams took the Redskins on a playoff run and my Dad was like Flavor Flav--"We got a black quarterback, so step back." I remember watching the Super Bowl with him and Williams getting hurt. Jay Schroeder came in. Williams kind of hated Schroeder. And my Dad--again this is the 80s--says, "Doug ain't going let the white boy have it." And Doug didn't. He came back in and bombed the Broncos out the stadium. Even now I can see Williams hitting Ricky Sanders with a bomb and my Pops jumping up yelling, "Go, Dougie go!!"

That was a moment for me. Like a deep moment. My parents came up so hard. My Moms is from the projects. She was raised by my grandmother who cleaned white people's floors and sent three black girls to college. My Dad grew up in abject poverty in Philly. He'd once come home and seen all his belongings sat out on the street. He'd lived on a truck for a week as a child. His father had abused him and his family. He used to cut school to hang out in the libraries in Philadelphia. 

I just gave my son a copy of Slaughterhouse Five and watching him go through it, I keep thinking of how our relationship is built on my Dad's time in the library, or my Mom teaching me to read before I went to school. That is wealth. And I think how that social wealth is now compounding with my wife and my son. And then I think of people who didn't have any of that, who were born wan how that debt compounds.

We all aren't going to come into our own in the same way. Everybody isn't going to be ready for college. But one reason I even had the opportunity to reflect on that is because I had great deal of wisdom and social wealth around me. I grew up in West Baltimore. In my heart I wasn't much different than my friends. But I had advantages. I didn't just have a mother and a father, I had two parents who really knew some things, who were, in their own way, wealthy. Because of them I had the opportunity to fail and learn. What I want to say here is everybody won't be so lucky. But what I really want to say is buy my book. (What? Too much??)
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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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