Bird Uncaged, by Marlon Peterson****

I’ve never felt so ambivalent about a Civil Rights memoir. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Public Affairs. It’s for sale now.

At the outset, Peterson describes his early years as the son of Trinidadian immigrants living in Brooklyn. His family belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so that is an angle I haven’t encountered before. He describes his brilliance as a student, and the glowing future that has been predicted for him, scholarships, fine schools, and a ticket to the top. It doesn’t happen that way, though. He is involved in a robbery that becomes a homicide, and he wants us to know none of it was his fault.

What?

This is what concerns me throughout most of the book. He describes the limitations on young Black men in America, the limitations of poverty; the racist assumptions; and the “toxic masculinity.” He is sexually assaulted as a youngster, and he considers that an element in his decision-making, the trauma of his past informing the crimes he commits later. He talks about this at length, but I’ll tell you what he doesn’t talk about much. He doesn’t talk much about the near-rape in which his was the pivotal role. He asks a “chick” out, and he and his friends are planning to “run a train” on her. But she is alarmed when she realizes that there are other men in the bedroom where they’re making out, and she gets away fast. He doesn’t recall her name, and he wants us to know he wasn’t that interested in her, anyway. She wasn’t “the pretty one,” she was the friend of the pretty one. And I keep wondering why he includes this if he feels so badly about what he and his homies nearly did to her. He pleads ignorance; he was a virgin. He just wanted to lose his virginity. He had believed she would welcome a roomful of men lining up to use her.

Uh huh.

There are also a good number of solid aspects to this memoir, most of them having to do with the dehumanizing American prison system. There’s not a lot that I haven’t seen before, but obviously, the system hasn’t been significantly altered as a result of the other memoirs that have seen publication, and so there’s a further need for stories like his. He speaks of how, while doing his time, after a visit from his mother, he kisses her on the cheek, and the guards swarm him to check the inside of his mouth before his mama is out the door. I’m guessing that after that farewell, the woman is out the door in a matter of seconds. What would it hurt to hold him there for 30 seconds, let the parent get out of the room, and then check him? It’s little things like this that increase the alienation felt by those that are incarcerated. Other countries don’t do it this way, and you have to wonder why the U.S. has to be so ugly about it. He leads a program and conducts protests while he’s inside, and is successful in making small changes. Other men learn from his work and are improved by it, and that’s something to be proud of.

But back to the robbery. He keeps reminding us that he was only nineteen years old, and I cannot, for the life of me, think why he considers this a mitigating circumstance. Ask a youth psychiatrist or counselor when men are at their most dangerous, and they will tell you that the teenage years are the worst, hands-down, because young men haven’t developed impulse control. And Peterson himself points out, later in the book, that when ex-cons get out of prison after spending a long time inside, they don’t go straight because they’re rehabilitated; they go straight because they’re older, and have outgrown that nonsense. It’s inconsistencies such as this one that weaken the narrative.

Toward the end, he pulls it together and claims responsibility, and he does so eloquently. But it makes me wonder why he didn’t go back and rewrite the earlier passages. Because there are a lot of red flags back there, things that those of us that have worked with at-risk youth know to listen and look for. For example, there are a lot of passive references to his crimes, things that “happened” rather than things that he did, or things that went differently than he expected; there’s an awful lot about his trauma, the environment, and allll the “toxic masculinity,” but thefts, robberies, and the homicide for which he was the lookout man but “didn’t even have a gun,” are given relatively little ink.

I’m carrying on quite a bit about this, but I have seen glowing reviews, and he’s gotten awards for this book, and nobody is talking about the red flags, and so I feel it’s important to mention them. The fact that the book ends with much more accountability is what’s kicked my rating up to four stars.

Read this book, but do it critically. There are lessons here that are intentional, and others that aren’t.

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