This post, which is under construction (as of 29 March 2016), is meant to model a post that students will produce–those students who have chosen the biography* track as their final project. (Others are choosing the commonplace book option, and they can produce their introductory post based on the collection of questions I have supplied on the course blog.) For the biography students, I want to model, and experience for myself, the composition of a first post that will appear on each student’s personal blog. I am writing this piece after having already started reading my biography. Recently it dawned on me that this book puts me in roughly the same stage as my students. Even though I have started the book, I can re-create the experience of writing an introduction for a general audience.
Students, remember that you may be reading a biography, autobiography, or memoir. My book best fits the definition of a memoir.
I first learned of Ta-Nehisi Coates from his Atlantic article about the challenges of being a black President of the United States. His article impressed me for all kinds of reasons, mostly because he described President Obama’s need to balance forces and histories inside and outside himself. We all face such challenges, but, as Mr. Coates knows from personal experience, this balancing act is especially hard for black men in the U.S. Later, I started to see and hear Mr. Coates interviewed on the radio and television.
Then I learned about his memoir called Between the World and Me. Everything I heard impressed me all over again. As a teacher, I value clarity. I try to guide students toward clearer expression of their ideas, and Mr. Coates writes with crystal clarity. As I saw in his Atlantic article, and as I am seeing in the early pages of this book, much of this clarity comes from not accepting easy answers. He goes after the hard truths. Hard because they are difficult to obtain, difficult to hear and difficult to dispute. He composes his book as letter to his teenage son, and this set-up gives his memoir extra resonance–not only for me as a teacher, but also for me as a white man. He is taking me inside his experience–the experience of his body and mind.
He is a journalist recounting and reflecting on his experiences–for the benefit of his son. He wants his son, and his readers, to know, for example, what he thinks of “The Dream.” Where does this “Dream” come from? Who says this is “The Dream”?
As I read his book, which currently I am doing in small chunks because of the book’s poetic density, I have several things I am watching. First, I need to hear about his experience, which differs from mine in many ways. Where are the places that test me and my experience the most? This is the first need, and any others are clearly secondary. I am also interested in his ideas about writing. It is his writing that first attracted me. As a journalist, he has a lot to teach me about strong and purposeful writing. Writing that pursues its subject, rather than runs from it.