Harvard Educational Review
  1. Saving Our Sons

    Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World

    By Marita Golden

    New York: Doubleday, 1995. 190 pp. $18.50.

    The daily death toll recorded on the pages of the Washington Post is controlled by a mysterious, primal, almost gothic aesthetic. The accounts of young Black males shot over a look, an imagined slight, turf, a girl, become a kind of literature, a never-ending, fascinating, horrible, unfolding saga. I yearn for the stories to end, yet find myself reading them obsessively, in search of a new tale, a new death. (p. 83)

    When I was a child, I often sat with my grandmother as she read the morning newspaper. She inevitably turned to the obituary section first, and I, with the arrogance of the young, would tease her about it. But what she was doing was taking an account of old friends lost; perhaps she was also counting down the days to the end of her time. "Lord, Lord, Lord" she would say, "old Miss Rose died." Day after day it was the same, an accounting of those lost to us, a kind of death watch.

    Marita Golden, in Saving our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, is on a death watch of a different sort. Counting the deaths of those lost in youth is very different from counting the deaths of those who have had a chance to live a long life, who have had a chance to savor the good and the bad that life brings, and who have had a chance to provide a thread from the old to the new — to link one generation to the next. What is lost when we lose our young?

    Miss Golden's death watch has an immediacy and cogency because she is the mother of a Black adolescent male. In her words:

    As the mother of a Black son, I have raised my child with a trembling hand that clutches and leads. I am no slave mother, my sleep plundered by images of the auction block. I dream instead of my son slaying the statistics that threaten to ensnare and cripple him, statistics that I know are a commentary on the odds for my son, who isn't dead or in jail. And though I have paved a straight and narrow path for my son to tread, always there is the fear that he will make a fatal detour, be seduced, or be hijacked by a White or Black cop, or a young Black predator, or a Nazi skinhead, or his own bad judgment, or a weakness that even I as his mother cannot love or punish or will out of him. (p. 7)

    The statistics to which Miss Golden refers are daunting. In the three-year period from 1987 to 1990, "nearly fifteen hundred people, most of them Black males of all ages, were killed in Washington, DC" (p. 92), the author's home town. Nationally, homicide is the leading cause of death among Black males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Her son Michael is fifteen. She recounts a conversation with a friend, who is a counselor, some ten years earlier in which the friend told her that twenty-one was the most vulnerable age for young men — "it's like if they can get past twenty-one they'll make it" (p. 93). A chilling thought.

    Because it is a personal account of a Black mother's concern for her son's safety, Marita Golden's book puts a human face on the statistics that we read. And frankly, on a personal level, I share her concerns. Though not a mother, I have two beloved male cousins, ages nineteen and twenty-one, for whose safety I constantly fear. Like Washington, DC, New Orleans, my home town, has become a killing field -— daily the bodies of young Black boys and girls add to the faceless statistics of death — leaving fear and loss in its wake.1

    No young Black male in this country is exempt from having to cross this field — not even Miss Golden's only child, Michael, who is the son of educated parents. His mother is an accomplished writer and, at present, a professor in the MFA graduate writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University.2 Michael's birth father is a college educated Nigerian businessman, and his stepfather is a public school teacher with twenty years' experience in the Washington, DC, schools. Despite the apparent advantages of a solidly middle-class life and of having professional parents, Michael is no safer, or at best merely a little safer, than a child growing up in some of the worst public housing projects and neighborhoods. It is not that some children should be more safe than others; all should be safe. What Michael and the others have in common is that because they are Black and male, they all have to cross the killing field.

    Miss Golden's personal account of her concern as a Black mother for her Black son is based on a diary she began keeping in early 1993. She began keeping the diary as a way "to freeze and permanently possess the events and emotions that would define that year in my son's life" (p. 76), the year Michael would finally meet his birth father, whom he had not seen since he was a year old. Her other purpose for keeping the diary was "to meditate on and overcome the psychic toll the continuing murders of Black youth imposed. Washington, D.C. was becoming a killing field" (p. 76).

    In her effort to understand why so many Black males are dying, she looks at structural, historical, community, and personal or family dynamics to provide answers. But it is her conversations with mothers who also have Black sons that yield insights in her search for understanding. For example, as she and a friend discuss the violence killing so many young men, Patty, a TV producer, interjects: "I've got a six year old son and I feel like I'm raising a target" (p. 8). In a discussion with sociologist Joyce Ladner of Howard University, Golden tells Ladner that she is considering enrolling Michael in a private boarding school because she fears for his safety in the public school he attended. Ladner responded that her own son had been in a private boarding for several years and was about to graduate; she was glad she had made the decision to send him. Golden expressed surprise and inquired about the trade-offs that might have resulted from her decision. Ladner answered, "The first trade-off is he's alive" (p. 10).

    My one disappointment in Golden's fine book is the interview she conducts with one young man in prison for murder. The young man had once had a promising future, but had engaged in violence and subsequently was convicted of murder. I wanted the author to ask more incisive questions. Maybe this is the sign of a good book, because as she sat with him in prison, I felt I was also there and wanted to ask my own questions.

    Golden's book offers a different look at violence and illustrates how it can touch the lives of everyone. It is different because it gives us a view from a perspective we do not expect when we talk about youth violence. Too often we label violence as a problem of the so-called underclass; but, in fact, it is much more pervasive than we would like to believe. In fact, no place is safe, no one is safe. The killing fields are out there waiting to claim another victim.



    1 According to Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Black males are at greatest risk, but she notes that Black females are also at risk: "In fact, Black females are significantly more at risk over a lifetime than White males." She quotes figures from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta: "A Black male infant born in 1989 has 1 chance in 27 of dying in a homicide. A Black female has 1 chance in 117 of dying in a homicide. A White male, on the other hand, born in 1989 faces a lifetime risk of 1 in 205. Over the course of her lifetime a White female faces 1 chance in 496 of being murdered" (p. 16).

    2 Miss Golden has produced three novels: And Do Remember Me (New York: Doubleday, 1992); A Woman's Place (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986); and Long Distance Life (New York: Doubleday, 1989). She is also the author of a memoir, Migrations of the Heart (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1983), and editor of the book, Wild Women Don't Wear No Blues (New York: Doubleday, 1993).
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