Growing up, author Ta-Nehisi Coates came from an unusual home. His father, a former Black Panther, raised seven children with four mothers, and they were all — including the four women — considered Coates' family.
"On weekends ... there might be different combinations of kids," Coates tells Terry Gross. "I didn't consider it particularly unusual because, quite frankly, there were a lot of kids in the neighborhood who had a similar situation, except in most cases the father was not there."
Coates writes about his childhood — and especially his father — in the memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.
The author grew up in a rough neighborhood in West Baltimore, but the family's home life — though somewhat unconventional — provided him with stability. His father, a professor at Howard University, had a small publishing company in the basement where he published books by African-American authors, and Coates found refuge in "Afro-centric" books and X-factor comic books.
Coates' father encouraged his children to read all kinds of books, but he also encouraged them to explore the neighborhood: "My dad's thinking was that he was raising men, as it came to me, for all seasons. He wanted people who were comfortable in the neighborhood, people who were exposed to things outside the neighborhood, people who could be comfortable in many different worlds."
Coates attended Howard University, a traditionally African-American college, an experience, he says, that made him more comfortable with his identity as a black man in America. He hopes that lesson will translate to his own children.
"I do want, Sumari, my son to have some sort of consciousness about what it means to be an African-American," says Coates. "I don't want him learning about African-Americans from watching TV. I don't even necessarily want him learning about African-American strictly from listening to music. I want it to be a lived experience."
Coates is a contributing editor and blogger for The Atlantic magazine.
This interview was first broadcast on February 18, 2009.