Review: Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.

It's not an uncommon story: a young black man gets in trouble with the law and takes a public defender's recommended plea to avoid a stiff sentence. After a decade in prison, he returns to an unfamiliar world as an adult unable to assimilate and support himself. Another arrest, another ticket to prison--and so it goes, until he is either killed or ends up serving a sentence extending long into old age. For Michael Allen, the endgame was a violent death on a street in Los Angeles at age 29. Only in his case, he had help from his older cousin Danielle Allen, a high-achieving elite college dean who clawed her way up from similar working-poor family roots. She observes, "There was no one else. Someone's always gotta be the safety net, and it was my at bat."

With her considerable resources and resolve, Allen guided Michael through enrollment and financial support at Valley Community College, helped him secure a job at a local Sears warehouse, led him through the DMV maze for a driver's license and found him an affordable studio apartment near his job and school. Cuz is her story of Michael's short life and her failed attempt to save him. It is also the revealing portrait of a genial, smart, handsome young man hiding a dark side--his street name and rap sheet aka was "Big Mike." Cuz is biography, memoir, sociological study and investigative journalism rolled into one, a plea for a reasoned overhaul of the criminal justice system to save the next generation of black men.

As Allen (Education and Equality, Our Declaration) shares memories of growing up with Michael, she speculates about what went wrong. How did she earn advanced degrees and professional success while he got busted for an attempted carjacking? With a hospitable, self-deprecating writing style embellished with archival family snapshots, Allen--a MacArthur Fellow and James Conant Bryant Professor at Harvard--puts aside her academic robes to dig through prison records and court transcripts to flesh out her memories of Michael's story. In the process, she learns more about his toying with the Crips and Bloods gangs in the neighborhood, and finds that the affectionate term he called her, cuz, was also a standard Crips salutation. In retrospect, she recognizes that "The light went out of Michael's eyes during his second stint in prison."

Allen's journey into her extended family's past uncovers marital abuse, alcoholism, and a trail of hardship--some of it self-inflicted and some a byproduct of location and circumstances. She doesn't flinch from her unpleasant discoveries, nor does she feel guilt for her absences while pursuing degrees in the Northeast and Cambridge, England. Very personal, Michael and Danielle Allen's family story is also unfortunately common. Cuz effectively straddles this divide, shedding light on an environment that creates too many tragedies and not enough triumphs--too many Michaels and not enough Danielles. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: In a personal exploration of the tragic life of her younger cousin, Danielle Allen uncovers discomforting facts about her family, instabilities in the African American experience and the inadequate U.S. criminal justice system.

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