The saddest sentence in Marcus Burke’s lucid and affecting first novel is, like much of the book, unquotable in a family newspaper, but here’s a paraphrase: “Stuff is all messed up — it always is — but for a change I sort of wished someone would save me from myself.”
It’s not the sharpest sentence or the cleverest or the best — the novel is thick with poetry, dense with lines of pitch-perfect verse that pulsate with the rhythms of the street — but if you’ve ever known or taught or loved a young black man driving relentlessly toward self-destruction, that’s the line that will make you cry.
In “Team Seven,” the young man is Andre Battel, the son and grandson of Jamaican-Costa Rican immigrants. Andre is 8 when the novel opens, growing up in a working-class town just outside Boston that is not quite the city and not quite the burbs. As a character, Andre possesses all the requisite attributes for entry into the ever-popular genre of Black Dysfunction Lit: outrageous basketball skills; a deadbeat, drug-abusing father; a Jesus-loving, stunningly oblivious mother; a sassy, sexually reckless sister; and a tough-but-wise, drug-slinging mentor who tries halfheartedly to talk the kid straight.
What saves these characters from dispiriting stereotype is Burke’s ability to endow each with real and palpable humanity. He succeeds best in this regard with Andre, who struggles to understand not only his family but also his own self-destructive impulses. The narrative hints at reasons for Andre’s slide into drug-dealing and worse — poverty, a longing for masculine role models — but the family is surviving, and balancing his absent father is a stern-but-loving grandfather who calls Andre “Champion,” teaches him to cook and beats him when he catches him with drugs.
Andre appreciates his grandfather’s discipline, even if he thinks it’s futile: “As I walked out of the shed,” he says, “the rain stopped and the sky shattered itself into a sunny day. Me and Papa Tanks both know I know better, but the fact remains: morals can’t override hunger.”
“Team Seven” has its flaws. The female characters tend to have no more than two dimensions. The novel shouts out to other coming-of-age African American texts such as “Black Boy” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” but lacks the sociological imagination of those great works. And the ending doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the start. Still, “Team Seven” is an accomplishment, both for its ambition and its grounding, for what it tries to say and how it says it. Burke has an ear for the ridiculously rich and slyly intelligent language of urban black America. As the great James Baldwin asked, “If black English isn’t a language, then tell me, what is?”
Consider these passages from “Team Seven”:
“He drove by us every day after school, never stopping to politick. He’d just thump on by, slow-freezing ever nigga in their pose. Rumor is he used to be a dopeboy but I don’t know.”
“Okay, so now I was officially upset. I thought to myself, This guy is on crack. I was so mad, so mad I just spoke my mind. ‘Listen, ’ight. Let me tell you something, Pop. This ain’t fixing to be no every week thing. After today don’t bring him ’round me no more. Test me if you think I’m playing. I’ll beat his lil’ ass and then what?”
Black English is the unique creation of the black diaspora. As Baldwin wrote, “This was not, merely, as in the European example, the adoption of a foreign tongue, but an alchemy that transformed ancient elements into a new language: A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.”
Burke understands that one of the questions this elegant and complex language must convey now is this: Who or what will save these beautiful young men of color from themselves? That “Team Seven” offers no real answers to that question is not a failure. The writer’s job, said Chekov, was not to solve such problems but to “be an impartial witness.”
McLarin is an essayist, novelist and professor of writing at Emerson College.