City Paper is not for tourists
There isn’t a mother alive who hasn’t feared for the welfare of her child. We agonize over whether we have taught them all they need to know: Can they iron a shirt, clean house, prepare something other than turkey sandwiches with potato chips and pickle? Will they remember to wear clean underwear in case they are rushed to the hospital? Will they find a loving mate? But these are the simple worries.
Yet Saving Our Sons is not quite a firsthand account. Golden unfortunately obscures her own concerns about the impact of violence in the African-American community by wrapping herself in the patchwork quilt of other women’s personal and often tragic reality. She speaks with sociologist Joyce Ladner, whose Tomorrow’s Tomorrow captured the dilemma of being black and female in America; Lonise Bias, bereaved mother of University of Maryland basketball star Len and high school student Jay; and Ella Ross, whose son Terrance Brown, once an honor student at Roosevelt High School, now is serving a life term for killing a police officer.
While Golden’s unceremonious acceptance of the historical dual role of the African-American writer as spokesperson for the race and social commentator is laudable, she cheats the reader by proffering her own, personal struggle in small, unsatisfying bites. For example, when Michael arrives home with a police escort after trying to shoplift, the reader hears a very rational inquisition, then learns that Golden and husband Joe simply grounded Michael for two months. Baffling. Most mothers would have gone ballistic or signaled panic; Golden selfishly hordes the anger she must have felt.
The result of this literary stinginess is that Saving Our Sons is often sterile and distant, dramatically contrasting with the generosity of Golden’s frank first memoir, Migrations of the Heart. In that volume, she admits the extramarital affair she had while living in her then-husband’s native Nigeria. We experience her fear of being caught as she quietly plots her escape from the patrician life of Africa, and we struggle with her as she re-establishes herself in America as a single mother.
Golden’s marginal intimacy is replicated in her proposals for covering the pitfalls African-American men face. She pleads with black women to forgive African-American men for their transgressions, advancing the new-age notion that forgiveness is the first step to healing. She also urges an expansion of the definition of family, and begs for the dismantling of institutional racism. But these are not new ideas; they have been tossed around for years, and have thus far done little to arrest the danger to African-American men in particular and the decay of the black community in general.
Despite its handicaps, Saving Our Sons is refreshing; in these times of victim literature, when some African-American writers hold up racism as the culprit pushing them off the path, Golden begins, though halfheartedly, to forward the idea that wrong choices shape the destruction in the black community: “[W]e can still keep our sons awake and perhaps alive if we teach them that the first line of defense against racism is to mold themselves into disciplined, self-respecting refutations of its ability to destroy our souls or ourselves,” she writes.
As Golden rightly cautions, disciplined lives aren’t the panacea for what ails black America. But they are a hell of a good starting point for black America’s journey out of its current dismal state.
Marita Golden reads from Saving Our Sons at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at Vertigo Books.