Cover image for Cuz : or, the life and times of Michael A.
Title:
Cuz : or, the life and times of Michael A.
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, [2017]

©2017
ISBN:
9781631493119
Physical Description:
xii, 243 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Language:
English
Contents:
Part I: Release and resurrection. Garden party, July 2009 ; Release day, June 2006 ; The investigation, July 2009 ; Getting started, June-July 2006 ; Job, July 2006 ; Investigation, July 2009 ; School, August 2006 ; Funeral, July 27, 2009 ; Apartment, August 2006 ; Hitting bottom, November 2006 ; The end, August 2008-July 2009 -- Part II: Inferno. Crime and punishment ; Where was our family? Where were the lawyers? ; Milestones ; Norco ; Inferno, in Michael's words ; Visiting 1.0 ; Visiting 2.0 ; Dizzy ; The biggest wildfire in California history -- Part III: Unforgiving world. Fire and ice ; The single mother and the great white whale ; First steps ; "Sis, run!" ; Gangbanging--a definition ; How not to help your kids ; The limit on helping your kids ; City of angels ; The end ; My heart's locket -- Coda: What next?
Abstract:
The author relates how her cousin was imprisoned at the age of fifteen for attempted carjacking and how she took him in upon his release, only to lose him to the deadly streets of South Central L.A.

"A shattering work that shifts between a woman's private anguish over the loss of her beloved baby cousin and a scholar's fierce critique of the American prison system, Danielle Allen's Cuz seeks answers to what, for many years, felt unanswerable. Why? Why did her cousin, a precocious young man who dreamed of being a firefighter and a writer, end up dead? Why did he languish in prison? And why, at the age of fifteen, was he in an alley in South Central Los Angeles, holding a gun while trying to steal someone's car? Cuz means both 'cousin' and 'because.' In this searing memoir, Allen unfurls a 'new American story' about a world tragically transformed by the sudden availability of narcotics and the rise of street gangs--a collision, followed by a reactionary War on Drugs, that would devastate not only South Central L.A. but virtually every urban center in the nation. At thirteen, sensitive, talkative Michael Allen was suddenly tossed into this cauldron, a violent world where he would be tried at fifteen as an adult for an attempted carjacking, and where he would be sent, along with an entire generation, cascading into the spiral of the Los Angeles prison system. Throughout her cousin Michael's eleven years in prison, Danielle Allen--who became a dean at the University of Chicago at the age of thirty-two--remained psychically bonded to her self-appointed charge, visiting Michael in prison and corresponding with him regularly. When she finally welcomed her baby cousin home, she adopted the role of 'cousin on duty,' devotedly supporting Michael's fresh start while juggling the demands of her own academic career. As Cuz heartbreakingly reveals, even Allen's devotion, as unwavering as it was, could not save Michael from the brutal realities encountered by newly released young men navigating the streets of South Central. The corrosive entanglements of gang warfare, combined with a star-crossed love for a gorgeous woman driving a gold Mercedes, would ultimately be Michael's undoing. In this Ellisonian story of a young African American man's coming-of-age in late twentieth-century America, and of the family who will always love Michael, we learn how we lost an entire generation."--Jacket.
Genre:
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Item Note
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Book 305.2421 ALLEN 1
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Book 305.2421 ALLEN 1 .SOURCE. BT 10-4-17
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Library
Copy
Status
Parts
Prescott Public Library1On Order
Prescott Public Library1Received on 9/19/17

Summary

Summary

In a shattering work that shifts between a woman's private anguish over the loss of her beloved baby cousin and a scholar's fierce critique of the American prison system, Danielle Allen seeks answers to what, for many years, felt unanswerable. Why? Why did her cousin, a precocious young man who dreamed of being a firefighter and a writer, end up dead? Why did he languish in prison? And why, at the age of fifteen, was he in an alley in South Central Los Angeles, holding a gun while trying to steal someone's car?Cuz means both "cousin" and "because." In this searing memoir, Allen unfurls a "new American story" about a world tragically transformed by the sudden availability of narcotics and the rise of street gangs--a collision, followed by a reactionary War on Drugs, that would devastate not only South Central L.A. but virtually every urban center in the nation. At thirteen, sensitive, talkative Michael Allen was suddenly tossed into this cauldron, a violent world where he would be tried at fifteen as an adult for an attempted carjacking, and where he would be sent, along with an entire generation, cascading into the spiral of the Los Angeles prison system.Throughout her cousin Michael's eleven years in prison, Danielle Allen--who became a dean at the University of Chicago at the age of thirty-two--remained psychically bonded to her self-appointed charge, visiting Michael in prison and corresponding with him regularly. When she finally welcomed her baby cousin home, she adopted the role of "cousin on duty," devotedly supporting Michael's fresh start while juggling the demands of her own academic career.As Cuz heartbreakingly reveals, even Allen's devotion, as unwavering as it was, could not save Michael from the brutal realities encountered by newly released young men navigating the streets of South Central. The corrosive entanglements of gang warfare, combined with a star-crossed love for a gorgeous woman driving a gold Mercedes, would ultimately be Michael's undoing.In this Ellisonian story of a young African American man's coming-of-age in late twentieth-century America, and of the family who will always love Michael, we learn how we lost an entire generation.


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

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." (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Allen, Harvard professor and author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), illuminates the path that led to her cousin Michael's incarceration at age 15 and to his murder at 29, less than a year after his release. Eight years the author's junior, Michael was Allen's father's sister's son. Though a chasm existed between their circumstances Allen's parents, an academic and a librarian, raised her with stability in idyllic Claremont, California, while Michael's strong, loving mother struggled to advance her career, secure reliable housing, and make ends meet for her three children after leaving their abusive father they were always close. Arrested after an attempted carjacking in 1995, Michael also confessed to two other armed robberies and, three strikes suddenly against him, was sentenced to more than a decade in prison, where he would meet his eventual undoing. Allen, whose writing is creative and accessible, uses her finely tuned talent to fold Michael's fate into the gathering storms of the U.S. criminal-justice system and Los Angeles' gang-related and racial turmoil. Both a searching, personal elegy and a sure-footed lamentation of the systems meant to protect us, this is a searing must-read.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2017 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

ON THE MORNING of Sept. 15, 1995, a 15-year-old black boy named Michael Allen was rushed to Harbor-UCLA hospital, bleeding out from a bullet wound through his neck. In the ambulance, Michael confessed he had tried to rob an older man who was buffing his car, and things went awry when the man lunged for the gun, got it, and then shot the teenager in self-defense. Michael was arrested for the first time in his life, and spent much of the next 13 years in prison, serving time for the attempted carjacking. In June 2008, he was released; in July 2009, four months shy of his 30th birthday, he was found shot dead in his car. Danielle Allen is a political theorist and professor at Harvard University, and "Cuz: Or the Life and Times of Michael A." is her attempt to understand the circumstances that ripped her cousin Michael, eight years her junior, from their sprawling, close-knit family before eventually claiming his life. Who's Michael? For Allen, Michael might as well be her own baby. "It's a cliché to say that someone has an electric smile," she admits, "but what else can you call it when someone beams and all the lights come on?" He had "high cheekbones" and a "bob in his step." She calls him "beautiful," "a source of vitality and warmth." Her descriptions of Michael often verge on cliché or folklore. In Allen's eyes, Michael is soft, sensitive and flawless; it's no wonder that he never quite comes into full view. When she peers upon his face at his funeral, she's astonished by his solidity - this isn't her little, lithe Michael, but "Big Mike," as he was known on the street. You realize that Allen didn't know Michael much at all. And that's sad too; Michael's life and potential were stolen from him, and he was stolen from her. "Cuz," then, is chiefly a story about these thefts, and the merciless carceral state that perpetrated them. In 1996, Michael, then 16, pleaded guilty. He was a minor, and he didn't have a record, but he was still sentenced to what amounted to 12 years and eight months of prison or supervised release. (A judge dissuaded Michael from pursuing a jury trial by telling him the carjacking, combined with charges for the attempted robbery and two previous robberies, would trigger California's "three strikes" law and bring him 25 years to life.) Sixteen-year-olds, Allen explains, can only remember back about 13 years, to the time they were 3. Michael's sentence "was equivalent, in psychological terms, to the whole of his life." "In the here and now," she writes, "he had been given the strange privilege of access to an early simulation of eternal damnation, of registering in his sensorium the yawning chasm of infinite punishment." THE FIRST HALF OF "CUZ," which stumbles and falters in places, is capped by an explosive reveal of Michael's killer that comes across as delayed for melodramatic effect. The book doesn't begin in earnest until its midpoint, when the self-conscious Allen makes way for letters Michael wrote from behind bars. You finally see Michael then. And, as Allen said, he is beautiful. "Cuz" is slowest and most torturous when Allen is explaining her relationship with Michael, and most enrapturing when Michael is speaking for himself. Michael is a virtuoso of a writer, and his brilliant letters chronicle his growth from boy to man in California's penitentiary system. There are bright spots: He falls in love in prison, and never does he feel more alive than when he's staring down a roaring blaze as an inmate firefighter, his eyes smarting as he breathes in the smoke and ash, battling the largest wildfire in California history. But Michael is in hell. He compares his time in prison to Dante's "Inferno," writing about the lust that plunged him into the darkness. "Whichever lust," he writes, "that convinced me I needed something at all cost, was my deception and therefore the reason for my present darkness." He is, Allen argues, wrong about what doomed him. She views Michael's sentence, for a 16year-old who didn't have a record and "was the only person physically injured," as "one of the purest expressions of hatred I can imagine." Michael, for all his potential, wasn't special. He is one of millions of black men condemned to hell, "one of so many millions gone." Allen runs through American history and economics to explain both the "parastate," an invisible world of gangs that ensnared Michael and so many others, as well as the war on drugs, which "morphed into a War on Gangs" and sentenced so many black men through the three-strikes law and mandatory minimums to eternities in prison. The purpose was deterrence, though the war on drugs has had little effect on drug use. But the state connected drug distribution to gangs, and law enforcement often saw menacing gangs in loose social networks of black men. This is how by 1992, as Allen writes, "the Los Angeles Police Department had 47 percent of African-American men between the ages of 21 and 24 in their gang database." It didn't matter that Michael's carjacking wasn't connected to drugs, so long as it was connected to gangs, because the state connected gangs to drugs. By the end, her conclusion feels inevitable: that Michael and millions like him have been casualties of a failed war. GREG HOWARD is a David Carr fellow at The Times.


Guardian Review

There are touching moments in Allen’s memoir of her young cousin who became a victim of the US prison system – but her subject remains frustratingly elusive It’s both known and yet not known enough that the US imprisons more of its population than any other country on the planet. That number has quadrupled in recent decades. Normally this is seen as a national calamity. But what if, legal scholar Michelle Alexander asked in her 2010 bestseller The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration was actually a success? Can it be an accident that “huge segments of ghetto communities are permanently relegated to a second-class status, disenfranchised and subjected to perpetual surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement agencies”? These are questions asked by many contemporary black American writers – among them Jesmyn Ward in Men We Reaped (2013) and Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015). They are also questions sort of addressed by Danielle Allen, a classicist and political scientist by training, who teaches at Harvard and has also served as an adviser to the Labour party in the UK. Cuz is a memoir about her younger cousin Michael who grew up in Los Angeles where, at the age of 15, he was arrested for a botched carjacking. He was tried as an adult, jailed for 13 years, released at the age of 26 – and murdered three years later. What happened? Ex-prisoners are often feared. They are treated as ghosts and contaminants. The most compelling sections of Cuz deal with how Michael, with the help of Allen and others, tried to start a new life after being released on parole. She includes scenes, touching in their normality, where he’s at home eating tortilla chips and fried chicken, playing football coach video games with young relatives. She gets him a drivers’ licence. They go to the local library where they spend hours combing the internet for jobs at Burger King and Safeway. Eventually he finds a gig at a Sears department store. Soon, though, he is drawn into a fight with taunting co-workers. He drifts towards bad company. Increasingly, in the last weeks of his life, he sits alone – deep in thought – on the rooftop of a local church. Later, when Allen looks at his body lying in a satin-lined coffin, she realises he’s wearing the same suit he wore at her wedding a month earlier. Michael remains elusive. Allen quotes from his letters and reproduces in full a startling essay he wrote from prison in which he likens his conditions to Dante’s Inferno: “To the state of California I am not Michael Alexander Allen but I am K-10033. When they want to know anything about me they do not type my last name in the computer but it is my number that is inputted. My number is my name.” At prison he overcomes his stammer, converts to Islam, earns a dollar a day as a member of a prison crew tackling the California fire siege of 2003 that blazed across 800,000 acres. But there are many secrets he never reveals. After he loses his job, and especially after a very possessive former lover reappears, his demise takes on a horrible inevitability. Allen acknowledges her prose is a shield, but too often she is most captivated by her own overwrought feelings Cuz is a frustrating book. Allen’s uneven writing often reaches for a lyricism it fails to achieve. A university campus in recess is “the balm of Gilead”. When Michael receives his prison sentence “he had been given the strange privilege of access to an earthly simulation of eternal damnation, of registering in his sensorium the yawning chasm of infinite punishment”. In a passage about the pleasure she took in Michael listening to classical music in jail, she includes a strangely moralistic section about symphonies being superior to pop tunes and how they “convert time’s passage, as we sojourners pass through our earthly prison, into a realm of interest and beauty”. Allen is sharp enough to understand that her prose is a shield. “To be an academic is to acquire an excuse for not owning the pain you see,” she claims. “Abstraction. Distancing. Those are my first tools of self-protection.” Too often though she is most captivated by her own overwrought feelings: “That wound of visiting Michael in prison goes so deep that somehow, even in writing this book, I have found it hard to own up to one simple fact. I went to prison. I was in prison.” There is an undertone of class snobbery in her descriptions of some of Michael’s friends. She talks about “sodomization” within prisons rather than “rape”. There’s another book lurking beneath the surface here. Allen’s father was a political scientist. He opposed affirmative action as well as being a member of Ronald Reagan’s US Civil Rights Commission; it’s strange, in what she asserts is a candid biography, that these facts don’t bleed into her discussion of the former president’s failures around the “war on drugs”. The secrecy in Cuz is only partially Michael’s. - Sukhdev Sandhu.


Kirkus Review

A professor turns to her family to offer a powerful memoir revolving around her younger cousin, who was murdered at the age of 29.Allen (Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics/Harvard Univ.; Education and Equality, 2016, etc.) adored her cousin, Michael Alexander Allen, who possessed a winning personality and wide smile. Although he had the potential to succeed in school, Michael turned to petty crime at a young age and was convicted of a felony at 15. The author blames herself for failing to halt Michael's wildness, and she condemns the criminal justice system for punishing Michael as an adult instead of a juvenile. Her critique of juvenile detention centers and adult prisons is convincing. Racial discrimination alone did not yield all of the injustices aimed at Michael, but they certainly contributed. When he won his freedom after 11 years in prison, he declared that he would become successful; the author believed him and offered him extraordinary help with a job search, rental housing, and college applications. However, she had no clue that Michael was leading a triple life: the "good" Michael was also deeply involved in crime and in a stormy relationship with a lover prone to violence. Allen details the circumstances of the murder and then offers flashbacks as she pieces together the circumstances of Michael's life, foreshadowing its violent end. Much of the evidence offered through the flashbacks derives from Allen's personal involvement in her extended family's history. Some of the knowledge, however, comes from Allen's decision to act as an investigative journalist, sharing what she learned from her aggressive reporting, no matter how unpleasant her findings. As the author chronicles her discoveries about how much Michael successfully hid from her, she is sometimes unduly hard on herself. A searing memoir and sharp social critique marred only slightly by the author's excessive self-flagellation. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Allen (director, Edmond J. Safra Ctr. for Ethics, Harvard, Univ.) relays the story of her cousin Michael, arrested at 15 for an attempted carjacking. Tried as an adult, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. -Allen, who was raised in a university town, contrasts the opportunities afforded her in childhood that were lacking in Michael's. His own upbringing, characterized by abuse and instability, disadvantaged him at an early age. When Michael was released from prison in 2006, Allen helped him find a job and a place to live. His prospects quickly dissolved as he resumed a volatile relationship with a woman named Bree, whom he met in prison. His affair with Bree, who is transgender, is insufficiently explored, and other developments, such as his conversion to Islam, remain unplumbed. The circumstances of his death are also hazy and lack details. VERDICT Although Allen's efforts to reconstruct and understand Michael's life sometimes feel disjointed, this book aptly demonstrates the ways in which young black men in America slip through the cracks, and how our collective institutions fail to safeguard at-risk youth.-Barrie Olmstead, -Sacramento P.L. © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Part I Release and Resurrection
1 Garden Party, July 2009p. 3
2 Release Day, June 2006p. 5
3 The Investigation, July 2009p. 10
4 Getting Started, June-July 2006p. 13
5 Job, July 2006p. 18
6 Investigation, July 2009p. 21
7 School, August 2006p. 26
8 Funeral, July 27,2009p. 29
9 Apartment, August 2006p. 36
10 Hitting Bottom, November 2006p. 41
11 The End, August 2008-July 2009p. 47
Part II Inferno
12 Crime and Punishmentp. 59
13 Where was Our Family? Where were the Lawyers?p. 70
14 Milestonesp. 81
15 Norcop. 89
16 Inferno in Michael's Wordsp. 102
17 Visiting 1.0p. 107
18 Visiting 2.0p. 114
19 Dizzyp. 119
20 The Biggest Wildfire in California Historyp. 125
Part III Unforgiving World
21 Fire and Icep. 149
22 The Single Mother and the Great White Whalep. 153
23 First Stepsp. 157
24 "Sis, Run!"p. 161
25 Gangbanging-a Definitionp. 171
26 How Not to Help Your Kidsp. 181
27 The Limit on Helping Your Kidsp. 187
28 City of Angelsp. 194
29 The Endp. 204
30 My Heart's Locketp. 215
Coda: What Next?p. 216
Notesp. 225
A Note on Sourcesp. 235
Acknowledgmentsp. 237
Creditsp. 241