Kiese Laymon is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi and the author of a novel, "Long Division"; an essay collection, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America"; and a forthcoming memoir, "Heavy."
When I was growing up in Jackson, Miss., the words "cousin" "cuz" and "cuh" had a broad range of applications. They were used to describe not only the children of aunts and uncles, but also someone you grew up with, someone you were proud of, someone you wanted to be proud of you, and someone with a particular gang affiliation.
My friend Wyze recently posted a provocative question on Facebook: "Do white people have cousins?" His question, fraught with black tragicomic significance, asked us to consider why white American families don't have a need to share language like "cousin," "cuz" or "cuh." It also suggested something much more complicated that lies at the center of Danielle Allen's new book, "Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A."
In her memoir, Allen identifies what she calls "the parastate, an alternative universe of law and order, fundamentally at war with the legally recognized state." She traces the birth of the parastate to the late 1960s and the 1970s, "when the global narcotics business and American street gangs joined forces."
That era has changed the lives of many black families, including hers. Michael A., her Aunt Karen's son, was a casualty of that "new American story."
In "Cuz," Allen eulogizes her younger cousin. By age 15, Michael had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for two robberies, attempted robbery, and an attempted carjacking during which he was shot through the neck. By 29, Michael was dead. Through police reports, pictures, remembered phone calls, newspaper clippings, Michael's letters, essays and rap lyrics, "Cuz" takes us inside the relentless march toward his death and the societal pressures weighing on his life.
Innovative in style and structure, "Cuz" is nonetheless part of a tradition of moral reckoning expressed in black American nonfiction. It brings to mind its literary cousins: Jesmyn Ward's memoir "Men We Reaped," Bryan Stevenson's "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption" and Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Like those three books, "Cuz" seems to draw its inspiration from James Baldwin's lament that black progress in the United States has been at best superficial. "Morally," Baldwin wrote in 1984, "there has been no change at all and a moral change is the only real one." Through Michael's tragedy, "Cuz" draws a portrait of the moral failings in America that are responsible for too many of our cousins' troubled lives and early deaths.
Allen, a MacArthur fellow and Harvard professor, provides a new narrative on the oft-told story of black American cousins who have suffered from the so-called war on drugs. These tales sometimes create overblown portraits of other, "exceptional" black cousins who delicately flutter in offering help and charity. "Cuz" obliterates the standard narrative by embracing reality. "I, my father's daughter," Allen writes, "help Karen's children, the cousins I grew up with. It is just what we do. They help me too. They know me. They've known me since childhood. They take pleasure in my accomplishments and laugh at my foolishness."
The genius of "Cuz" lies in its willingness to accept what isn't known about Michael. Over and over again, Allen's exploration of his life is thwarted. She finds out he is HIV-positive, but she doesn't know when he found out. She knows Michael committed a crime but can't find the last name of one of his accomplices. She knows Michael was a member of the Queen Street Bloods, but she doesn't know for how long. She knows why Michael fell in love with Bree, a trans black woman in prison, but she's unsure why they stayed together through cycles of violence.
Allen makes effective use of storytelling, brainy context and personal reflections, but she acknowledges that she will never be able to fully capture Michael. Her memoir defies genre and expectation. Like its characters, "Cuz" feels like something we are familiar with but don't entirely know. In the book's most daring chapter, Allen revises the writing of the previous chapter. "Time for my own confession," she writes. "I wrote that last chapter like an academic. . . . To be an academic is to acquire an excuse for not owning the pain you see."
I have attended or worked at predominantly white institutions for 19 years, and I have yet to meet a black American professor at these places who does not have at least one cousin intimately connected to the nation's system of mass incarceration. Often, our cousins are incarcerated for "crimes" that wealthy white students gleefully commit every weekend. Intimately connecting her experience to Michael's, Allen identifies a particular black American condition.
"When I went to visit my cousin in prison, I did not feel like a free person," she writes. "The reason for this is very simple. In that prison, even as only a sojourner, I was not a free person."
I wanted Allen to give more attention to how her gender, race and proximity to prison life influences the way she navigates the classrooms, halls and faculty meetings at Harvard, not because I longed to fetishize or make a spectacle of her professorial experience, but because I knew her exploration would be carried out with a depth, freshness and precision that we rarely read.
Still, "Cuz" is a literary miracle of form and content. The book pleads with us to find the moral imagination to break the American pattern of racial abuse. Allen's ambitious, breathtaking book challenges the moral composition of the world it inhabits by telling all who listen: I loved my cousin and he loved me, and I know he'd be alive if you loved him, too.
By Danielle Allen
243 pp. $24.95