There are spoilers coming. There’s just no other way to review this one.
MK Asante was born in Zimbabwe, but the first time we meet him is in “Killadelphia, Pistolvania”. His family is out of control, and consequently, so is he. His brother is deep into gang life, running guns and drugs. By the time he is 12, MK has “favorite” porn artists, is sexually active, and doesn’t think twice before leaping into a stolen car alongside his brother, who goes by “Uzi”. He adores his brother. His brother is 16 and assumes that he won’t stay long behind bars for the things he does because he is a minor. We never learn for sure whether he is sent to live with a relative in Arizona to keep his influence from affecting MK (too late) or because the local heat has a real itch for him. Once he is there, however, he is tried as an adult for rape, for having sex with a 13 year old Caucasian. He thought she was 16. It’s a huge blow to everyone when he draws hard time.
Let’s pause here a moment. If you know absolutely no street lexicon (USA), and if you regard the Philadelphia police force as brothers and comrades, keep your wallet in your pocket. If you aren’t sure, or have seen the cops in major metropolitan cities do low-income teenagers (and even those from the middle class) irreparable harm and no good (or not much), you might be in the right ballpark.
I hope you are, because this is a powerhouse of a memoir. But there is no glossary, so for example, if the word “blunt” means something that is not sharp-edged, and nothing else, you may get dizzy and give up. If you don’t know the difference between “nigga” and the N word, and who can say it and who can’t, move on to the next selection on the shelf. But if these things have become either part of your own lexicon, or are familiar because of young people in your life who say them, you can read this just fine and Google any parts where you have difficulty. It’s well worth it.
Oh, and lest I forget, here it is: YES! I got this book free, from the Goodreads giveaway. If this had been a lousy read, my gratuity would have been withholding my review. Nobody gets five stars out of me unless I think what they have to offer is worth five stars.
The one question I have about this one, is where this urban jewel has been hanging for the last several years. All of hip-hop lyrics, the songs of urban protest, are from the 90’s. It is true that Tupac lives on forever, but in 2013, it seems to me that some years have gone missing nevertheless. I hope Random House hasn’t bought the rights to this book and then parked on it for awhile, and I hope it comes out soon.
I began reading within 48 hours of the Trayvon Martin verdict. My own large family is multiracial, and my youngest son, who is African-American and 25, was just packing to move out of the house and in with some friends. Reading the first chapters of this book gave me such an anxiety attack that the man did well to get out of the house before I started sewing name tags into his hoodies and packing him a plastic lunch box to take to school and work. I’m exaggerating, but only a small amount. I think this is a time when family members of young Black men are watching their own closely and holding their breath.
Carole/Amina, the mother who provides counterpoint to Malo’s (MK’s) narrative, is anxious too, but mental illness and a deteriorating marriage have deprived her of her voice. She loves her son, but has lost all authority and communication with him. She begs him to take care of her, and he recognizes, when his father leaves, that he is the “man of the family”. He has been deprived of his childhood somewhere along the way.
He learns his mother’s thoughts only by reading her diary. He is chronically truant from the private Quaker school she and her husband have sent him to, but she isn’t worried about that. She isn’t worried about the fact that he and a friend regularly steal her car and ride around in it until dawn, even though he is way too young to even have a learner’s permit.
I want to scream at her, “Why the hell not???”
That’s the easy part.
The school principal wants to talk to his family, but nobody is available. Ultimately, MK’s mother attempts suicide (not for the first time) and is institutionalized, as her daughter has already been. When she comes home, Malo’s father, a man known and respected as a civil rights activist and scholar, leaves her. His sole remaining child is enraged by his abdication. Every time his father loses control of the household, his response is absence.
The hard part is to say, “What would you do here?”
Can you correct the problem with social workers and foster homes? I don’t think so. Most foster kids vote with their feet. They stay for dinner, maybe try to round up some cash, then hit the bricks and don’t go back.
Can you fix the problem with a good school?
Yes, no, and maybe.
I send my own children to a really wonderful alternative school. It has made a huge difference for my kids who were at risk, and also for the child who was always the perfect example. But if other things get bad quickly enough, the school can’t do a damn thing.
The Quaker school was majority Caucasian at a time when the author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” says is actually when Black teens need an immersion experience to foster their sense of self. The Quaker school, though some of the staff appeared to mean well, either wrote Malo off as a bad seed (and face it, how many academics want to hear “fuck you” from an angry student?), or decided that he could not produce, as the high school basketball coach gives him permission to spend his class time shooting baskets if he’d prefer.
A gym is a safer place than the streets…but what kind of education is that? Is this really the best a gifted young Black man can expect? Not only no, but hell no!
The alternative school is one his mother finds after he has been arrested. He agrees to give it a try, and for (amazingly) the first time, he is asked in a friendly, personal yet not invasive environment to write something–anything.
As a retired language arts and history teacher, I find this dreadful. Every kid should be given this type of opportunity. I am appalled by the public school teachers who flatly tell the students they don’t want to be there and only show up for the paycheck. Are they expecting the students to react with understanding? I taught in high poverty schools, too, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I apologized to my students if there wasn’t a desk for everyone, and I found a spot for everyone to sit down until I could rectify the situation. Malo was robbed both by the Quakers and the public school system.
The alternative school helps him find his own voice. He discovers that until he has begun to read, he has no vocabulary, and without a good vocabulary, he wasn’t able to express himself.
But the other critical factor is the reemergence of his father, who to be fair has been trying to call him, trying to get in touch with him, but Malo has been unable to forgive him for abandoning the family and leaving his mother to flounder unaided in an untenable situation. When Malo is arrested, he refuses to phone his father, not wanting to give into his own need, or to see his father’s disappointment. His father finds out and comes to pick him up anyway. And though I have given away a large part of his story, I will leave the climactic scene between the two of them for the reader.
Later, Malo performs at a spoken word session when his girlfriend signs him up. The poem “Buck” is one of his own. He tells us that he finally understands why it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write, because there is so much power in the written word. And he decides that he wants to be a writer.