Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. – A Review by Publisher Weekly
Allen, a professor of history at Harvard University and author of Our Declaration, tells the story of her late cousin Michael, who spent his years “from adolescent bloom to full manhood” in prison. In doing so, she puts a face to the numbing statistics of incarcerated young black boys and men. Michael’s story is not simple: he didn’t have a criminal history when he was arrested for attempted carjacking in 1995, but he was charged as an adult with multiple offenses, thus exposing him to California’s three-strikes law and leading to a plea bargain and 11 years in prison. While serving time, Michael flourished, becoming a firefighter and completing his GED and some college correspondence courses. After his release in 2006, and with Allen’s help, Michael obtained a driver’s license, bank account, library card, job, and housing. At the time, Allen was hopeful that with the help and support of his family “Michael could defy the pattern of parolees” and straighten his life out. Alas, in July 2009, barely three years out of prison, Michael was found shot dead in his car. Allen attributes Michael’s tragic death to two elements. One was that Michael found himself trapped in “a war between sovereigns: the parastate of a drug world increasingly linked to gangs on one side, and the California and federal governments on the other.” The other was his love for a transsexual woman he met in prison who in the end was charged with his murder. At its heart, Allen’s book is both an outcry and entreaty as she grapples with a painful reality: “I no longer knew a way of helping.”
It was very fortunate for Michael that he had a relative able to help with all those essentials. How could anyone foresee that a woman he loved would kill him? Maybe if the trans community was not segregated and abused, it would not be victimized. Maybe he was not reached in time by Dr. Allen to avoid the “third strike.” No judgements here! Bad memories – prison produces them as many bad experiences do. I wondered if Michael was offered those counseling services as part of his release. It is my experience that bad memories are there but with help, they become books on a shelf rather than a constantly bubbling rue.
I heard a report on public radio about a church group that decided they were going to go out to the street, find groups of Black men, find out how they’re doing, what they need and walk them through getting it. Plenty churches, Black churches, could probably increase their congregations by taking to the streets. Will they? Here in Birmingham, where shootings are daily as in most cities, congregations are shrinking as in most cities. City government moves quickly to bureaucracy and changes slowly, also as in most cities. Is this problem a runaway train? Our undemocratic institutions controlling and delegating civic power will not alter the way they do business. How many “strikes” do they get?! A parliamentary multi party system in this country would need an overwhelming majoritarian revolution to accomplish that – and that certainly means years of organizing at ever level of society. Yet, compare European imprisonment rates with ours. In my opinion, both the current two party obstructionists own no small part of January 6, 2021.
As someone who has participated in insurgencies at numerous levels, I am now immersed in deadlines in order to build a permanent exhibit on the history and contributions of Black radio in Birmingham – the early days – 1930’s-1980’s – before it became corporativized, and give that history in modern and technological ways back to the community and, hopefully and creatively, to our youngest citizens as well – who are not particularly moved by nostalgia – and I wish Dr. Allen well in that she is alive with hope and using her sorrow and social location to give her strength to others. I’d ask if she could share any answers to running out of answers. I hope her book tour changes lives.
Finally, I am a local poll clerk and June 21st is our run-off here in Alabama. I hope to hear more from the program from others and the video of the conversation.
Bob Friedman is a lifelong independent and the Director of the Birmingham Black Radio Museum.