Spiegel & Grau (2013)
272 pages; $25
Reviewed by Elena Carter
Near the end of MK Asante’s new memoir, Buck, the author describes an early foray into writing and reading: “Now I see why reading was illegal for black people during slavery. I discover what I think in words. The more words I know the more things I can think about.”
Asante is now a filmmaker, a professor, and the author of three books of poetry. CNN calls him “a master storyteller and major creative force.” But when the book opens he’s a twelve-year-old kid struggling through his teenage years in the ‘90s and early ‘00s in a Philadelphia neighborhood he and his friends dub “Kilodelphia, Pistolvania” for its drug and gang-related violence. He goes by “Malo” and attends a private, predominantly white prep school, where he clashes with his teachers, principals, peers, and a basketball coach who helps keep him from being expelled as long as he continues to carry the team. Meanwhile, Malo’s family life is a mess. His beloved stepbrother, Uzi, is in a jail. He has little contact with his sister, who’s in a mental institution, and his parents’ marriage is beginning to fall apart.
Both parents are dominant presences throughout the book. Malo’s father, MK Sr., or Pops, a renown professor and public figure dubbed the “Father of Afrocentricity,” is rarely at home. But when he’s there, he lays down the law. He doesn’t allow his son to buy a Luke Skywalker action figure (“Dad wouldn’t get them because they’re white.”) or light fireworks on the Fourth of July (“Whose independence are you celebrating?”).
But it’s from Malo’s mother, Amina, that he inherits his gift of words. When Malo’s father leaves indefinitely, Amina, a former dancer, becomes severely depressed. She composes long letters to her old self, Carole, the non-African name she went by for much of her life. Asante reproduces these letters, allowing her to speak for herself as she tells of her painful upbringing (she started working at eight years old, scrubbing toilets for white families in Long Island) and her struggles to keep her sons out of trouble with the kind of energetic prose that Malo also masters: “They expect me to keel over and wither … I’m dying a little inside but they don’t know who I am: the little girl from Brooklyn that can throw down with the best of them.”
Despite his mother’s best efforts, teenaged Asante falls in with drug and arms dealers and seems on the verge of going the way of his peers. In one of the more memorable scenes of the book, the author recalls meeting eyes with a childhood friend as they are separated from each other in a crowd. Police move in to break up a scuffle. “Police horses screech, kick high, and charge the crowd. I catch Amir’s eyes—heavy, alert, and breathing like glowing coals. I lose him in the chaos. I scan the faces, but they’re gone. More shots pop in the night. I run with the flow of the crowd to avoid getting trampled … I walk home alone, thinking about the last time I saw Amir.”
We learn in the following chapter that Amir, sixteen, has been shot and killed; the author never finds out who is responsible for his friend’s death: “The cops are suspect for not having any suspects,” Asante writes, “Tupac gets shot, dies, no suspects … Amir gets shot, dies, no suspects. My soul weeps for Amir, for all the Amirs in this city.”
Ultimately, teenaged Asante gives school a second try, enrolling in an alternative arts school, where in creative writing classes he discovers Whitman, Baldwin, and most importantly, the power of his own words: “After class I keep writing. School lets out and I’m still going, flowing, writing, writing. No one comes in. I hear Frank, the maintenance man, tell someone, “Yep, he’s still in there, writing. Been in there for hours. I keep writing. I write sentences that flow, like water, then I ride the word waves into new perceptions, new ideas.”
It’s through writing that Asante strives to examine himself in relation to the outside world, to take a step back and see how educational and criminal justice systems are failing him and his peers. Much of the book takes place at a time when Reagan’s War On Drugs caused incarceration rates for African Americans to skyrocket to the point that 2000 levels of incarceration were twenty-six times higher than those in 1983. Throughout his memoir, Asante never loses sight of the tragedies that occur on both structural and individual scales, or the sense of how close he came to meeting a similar fate to Uzi’s, to Amir’s, to the one in every three black males born today who can expect to go to prison at some point in their life.
In the final chapters, Asante, having discovered his proclivity for the written word, says of his friends, “They can’t even think of freedom because they don’t have the language to.” This ending is perhaps a little too neat, but nevertheless it allows Asante to deliver a powerful message. There is almost nothing about these friends that does not remind him of himself.
Elena Carter is an MFA student at the University of Minnesota.