Michael Allen was arrested at age 15, tried as an adult at 16 for attempted carjacking, sentenced to 13 years in prison, paroled after 11, and killed in a shooting two years later. Danielle Allen’s heartbreaking, enraging Cuz (Liveright, $24.99), the story of the cousin eight years her junior, is at one level a story about numbers—one of the nightmares from the nation’s mass incarceration. But it’s crucial to see it first as a story about lives and individual choices—about one family’s struggle to surmount those overwhelming numbers. Why did Michael die so young, and why do so many other African-American men meet the same end? It could have made a difference if Michael hadn’t been sentenced as an adult. If he hadn’t been caught in the early zeal for “three strikes you’re out” laws. If he’d been paroled where he could have pursued the firefighting he’d shown an aptitude for. But rules determined these things and they didn’t consider the individual’s best interests. Or what if Michael hadn’t fallen in love with someone violent? If his stepfather hadn’t been abusive? If his family had better understood his needs? If Michael hadn’t kept secrets? Allen relentlessly traces every strand of Michael’s fate, struggling to see how his life could have gone otherwise. There are glimpses of hope, and though she conveys Michael as bright, engaging, and no more or less fallible than anyone else, he’s ultimately crushed between the War on Drugs and the equally unforgiving “parastate” of the world’s largest illegal drug consumer. What’s the answer? Decriminalize drugs. Get rid of the invisibility that permits gangs to flourish and guns to pour into the streets. That keeps parents from knowing what their children fall prey to. Allen’s powerful book, as moving and compassionate as it is angry, reasoned, and courageous, makes it all a little more visible.
Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. - Danielle Allen