By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Read for inquiry, learning, and critical thinking to determine how authors develop personal narratives and memoirs.
- Identify composition techniques for personal writing in various rhetorical and cultural contexts.
The Storyteller’s Tools: Context and Voice
Ta-Nehisi Coates (b. 1975) is a best-selling author, journalist, and educator. His writing explores complex issues such as race relations, urban policing, and racial identity, often focusing on his personal experiences as a person of color. Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother was a teacher, his father a librarian and founder of the Black Classic Press, which publishes and republishes significant works by and about lesser-known people of African descent. Reading the works of these authors instilled in Coates a lifelong love of reading and learning and a desire to experience the world outside his neighborhood.
Coates credits his unusual upbringing with providing him both stability and early access to influential “Afro-centric” literature, which would influence his life and career. His memoir reflects the steps his father took to encourage his son’s development into adulthood, from reading all types of books to exploring the neighborhood to helping him grapple with what it means to be a Black man in America. This lived experience is central to the personal narrative he creates in The Beautiful Struggle.
Coates’s best-known essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which proposes reparations for slavery, was published in The Atlantic in June 2014. Framing his argument around the history of slavery, Coates paints a picture detailing the connections among slavery, race, and economics, specifically focusing on the modern Chicago housing crisis and policy. “The essence of American racism is disrespect,” he proposes.
The next year, Coates published the best seller Between the World and Me, a personal narrative written as a letter to his teenage son. In this book, recounting his own upbringing in Baltimore’s violent inner city during the crack cocaine epidemic, Coates explores the idea that the structure of American society fosters white supremacy. He reveals his wish for his son, now “growing into consciousness”: “that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” In 2019, Coates published his first novel, The Water Dancer, a work of historical fiction about a slave who helps in the Underground Railroad.
In addition to writing, Coates is an educator. From 2012 to 2014, he was a visiting professor at MIT, and in 2014, he joined the faculty of the City University of New York as a journalist-in-residence. Coates compares writing to a refining process: by applying pressure to yourself, you develop new muscles. He calls writing “an act of physical courage” that relies on the revision process to translate thought to page: “I . . . consider the entire process about failure, and I think that’s . . . why more people don’t write.”
Coates uses doubling in his writing. Because he is both protagonist and narrator, he sees himself as both subject and object, both character and storyteller, and at once a participant and an observer in his narration. Such doubling is often symbolic in memoirs, represented by paired events or mirroring.
You can watch Advice on Writing to learn more of Coates’s advice to writers such as yourself. You can also read some of his articles to study his writing style. Listen as American correspondent Martha Teichner (b. 1948), interviews Coates on CBS Sunday Morning, November 5, 2017.