Two Generations of Black Power

by Calvin Reid -- Publishers Weekly, 4/21/2008

Best known for publishing classic African-American nonfiction and for being a former National Book Foundation board member, Black Classic Press founder W. Paul Coates can also be described as a tough-love dad and a former black power revolutionary. This spring Coates, along with his son, former Time and Village Voice staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, will show off those facets of his life when the younger Coates publishes a memoir and the elder Coates marks a new era at BCP with an original work of comic fiction by acclaimed novelist Walter Mosley.

In May Ta-Nehisi Coates will publish The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel & Grau), an intensely personal memoir of growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood in the 1980s under an eccentric and hyper-strict urban patriarch. It's the story of the often difficult relationship among the bookish Ta-Nehisi, his thuggish brother, Bill, and Coates, a street-tough Afrocentric autodidact and former Black Panther captain who transformed himself into a distinguished publisher.

Spiegel & Grau editor Chris Jackson, who acquired the book, described it as a profile of Coates, “a complicated man who was a black nationalist and a capitalist; a family man with children by four women; and a Black Panther.” The initial printing will be 40,000 copies.

This year is also the 30th anniversary of Black Classic Press, a small Baltimore press that specializes in historical African-America nonfiction. Coates just published The Tempest Tales, a new book by Walter Mosley. It's a work of satirical fiction written in homage to poet Langston Hughes's classic Harlem character, Jess B. Semple, a comic everyman who commented on social issues. It's the third Mosley book published by Coates. In 1996 BCP published Mosley's Easy Rawlins novel Gone Fishin' and sold 96,000 copies. In 2002 he published Mosley's nonfiction work What Next: An Memoir Toward World Peace.

Coates said the first printing for The Tempest Tales will be about 20,000 copies. He described the novel as a “philosophic work” that questions “race and the nature of sin.” He expects the book will be “the best of the three books we've done with Walter. The experience we've gained will really help us manage it.” The book will be featured in upcoming issues of Essence and O magazines, and it will be a featured title at the National Book Club Convention, an annual gathering of more than 700 African-American reading groups held in late summer in Atlanta.

Coates is also taking on an unusual title for BCP. He's publishing a new edition of biographer and former National Book Foundation director Neil Baldwin's out-of-print biography To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, the Doctor Poet, originally published in 1983. The book will be produced by BCP Digital Printing using in-house print-on-demand and binding technology. Coates is a pioneer in short-run digital printing and has owned and operated an in-house POD facility since the early 1990s.

Coates worked closely with his son on early drafts of The Beautiful Struggle, and he described his reaction to seeing his family and professional life dissected in print. “I disagree with some of it, but I can't disagree with the net result. It's the story of the birth of a responsible black male,” Coates said, referring to his son as “someone who understands the difference between street knowledge and real black political consciousness.” Coates even cited the controversy around presidential candidate Barack Obama and pastor Jeremiah Wright. “I'm from the Wright generation,” said Coates. “Ta-Nehisi is part of the Obama generation. He sees more hope in America than I do.”