Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World. – book reviews

Think of Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent
World as a very successful “crossover” book – a testimony bridging
seriously crafted nonfiction and popular concerns, joining readers both
erudite and everyday to heed a message important to all.

By writing Saving Our Sons, Marita Golden has produced a most
crucial book. To call it a “crossover” is not to minimize Golden’s
craft or effort. Nor is it to relegate it to some group of market-wise
books waiting for the next big wave. This book should appeal to a large
audience not because it hit the right target of “high” or “pop”
culture, but because, according to Golden, its focus is the center of
our shared experiences. Thus, Golden has added to her already
successful list of fictional and nonfictional works a book with a
different mission.

For readers used to Golden, this will come as a surprise. For
others, this may be the best and most effective introduction to the
author. It displays her compelling writer’s voice and reflects her
agenda as a Black woman.

There is nothing new about writers enjoying acclaim from literary
critics and praise from the popular culture for bridging the gap
between what one might call literary writing and genre writing.
Literary writing is considered the “high culture” of literature:
esoteric, small press novels, short fiction, poetry and creative
nonfiction from prestigious small presses or subdivisions of large
publishing. Genre writing – the “pop culture” of literature –
represents formula novels, novels that are bound for movie rights
before they are bound in hardcover, the
let-me-tell-you-about-my-deranged-childhood memoir, and myriad
non-fiction works ostensibly set on relieving America of its anxiety
over such pop-fodder as high-calorie diets, Capitol Hill scandals, how
O.J. got over, and how white America then got its revenge.

Of course, there are many other realms in which a writer may garner
praise. But in a culture where virtually all expression fails or
triumphs by way of the manner in which it is commodified, represented,
and consumed, writers are often positioned as literary successes or
popular successes.

Some writers make it in both worlds. They either write the crucial
“crossover” book, or, through careful promotion, have the book ferried
over from the banks of the literary to the shores of the popular. A
recent example of this was when Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Son of
Solomon hit the best seller list after Oprah Winfrey told her
television audience it was a good book. In such a world, one wonders if
writers are writing because they want to be remembered within their
historical moment – made valid by advances, high book sales, and
talk-show hype – or if they are writing for the sake of writing with
their mission being the transformation of the reader.

In the face of this dichotomy stands Marita Golden, a writer who has
written books of fiction and nonfiction (Long Distance Life, A Woman’s
Place, Migrations of the Heart) that were well-received by writers and
literary critics alike. Because she writes clearly, cleanly, and with
unchecked candor about the African American woman’s experience in a
manner that speaks urgently and openly to those below the ivory tower
of the literati, she has enjoyed the additional following of many who
may have previously devoted most of their reading to popular literature.

It is refreshing, then, to experience Saving Our Sons, which bears
the simple, lucid, and evocative prose of any cleanly written literary
nonfictional piece. It also speaks directly from a lived experience to
readers who will be made anew – not because they are devoted to high
culture or pop culture, but because Golden’s voice demands that the
reader look beyond craft and composition, and listen beyond the
sound-bite, to the urgency of her message.

Golden has united a writer’s mission and a mother’s concern into a
book that faces with fear and courage the challenge of raising children
of color against the formidable racial, economic, social, and cultural
dangers that are our legacy – and painfully enough, our present and
future. In her preface, Golden asserts that, prior to Saving Our Sons,
she was at work on a novel but could not see it through after she
assessed how the “unremitting press of young lives at risk, the numbing
stubbornness of annual real-life death tolls, rendered fiction suddenly
unintriguing, vaguely obscene.”

Sons examines a sequence of life for an African American family –
the journey she traveled with her son Michael to the state of manhood
and beyond. This could be any American family’s tale, but Golden has
rendered it uniquely African American. The tale is specifically
gendered as a Black mother’s passage. Its power comes from relying on
the essence of the told tale: an ethos made immediate by its
conversational approach through informal, event-by-event retelling and
diary.

The setting could be any American city, for all have seen thousands
of young Black men dead on their streets or sullen in their jails. But
Golden positions her story in and near Washington, D.C., where she grew
up and chose to raise Michael a child born to a Nigerian father. His
parents became estranged soon after his birth and, faced with raising a
fatherless child, the mother made every effort to provide a healthy
family and community for her son.

The book charts her efforts through four sections, all building upon
the major challenge of raising Michael. However, each section
individually establishes a context in which the reader finds solutions
and hope through an account of lived experience rather than high-brow
aphorism. And although the book’s sections compete against themselves
for different readers – well-crafted sentences giving way to loosely
flowing visceral commentary – Golden’s message gains more power from
its use of example rather than an attempt to present facts.

The first section sets us – presumably those of us without children
who do not live with the fear of seeing our sons and daughters added to
America’s worst social and economic statistics – in the world of a
writer/educator/mother who seems almost overwhelmed by the challenge of
securing her child’s future, but who, nevertheless, always speaks and
acts with that child in mind. Golden illustrates the anxiety present in
all mothers of color by recalling a dialogue with another colleague and
mother about the fears of raising Black children, finding worthy male
role models, establishing effective ties to community, and tactfully
prioritizing education.

The second and third sections are punctuated by a diary which Golden
kept during Michael’s transition from randomly dangerous urban life to
sheltered boarding school life. The journal also examines her
experience with a family whose two sons have been plagued by drugs and
violence. Golden paid prison visits to Terrance DeVone Brown, once an
honor student, who is now locked up for murder. And she encouraged
Marc, a young Antioch student, to display his talents despite a world
that would readily discount them and him.

The final section revisits a problem that haunts Golden throughout
the book: how to reconcile differences with Michael’s father, who lives
in Nigeria and had threatened to take Michael, as a baby, away from her
after she left him. Golden recalls how, with the support of her new
husband, she planned for and completed a trip to Nigeria with her son.
With Michael on the verge of maturity – now slated to finish his
secondary education at a boarding school as an aware, if not
streetwise, veteran of urban danger zone – it is fitting that he
connect with his father.

In reading this last section, one clearly sees Golden’s mission: to
ensure that her child has a complete experience. For her, much of that
means solid male figures contributing to Michael’s life. This, along
with all of the lessons and experiences that Golden provides, is
delivered with an energy, intelligence, and concern bold enough to
challenge many conservative notions about what it means to be a
down-and-out single mother. It may not be every mother’s ideal plan,
but it functions as one fine example.

If Sons fails in any way, its failure does not result from
shortcomings in the content or the author. Rather, the failing will be
in how seriously we, as readers, place its importance to, and impact
on, our lives.

One might discount Golden for failing to provide solutions, if only
because the book offers more personal experience than hard constructive
data. But to discount it in such a manner is to miss her concern, her
approach, and in essence, the very life she has lived as Black woman
and mother.

The book gains most of its strength from the diary sections, which
legitimize themselves through the power of the diaries – relying on the
power of its voice to carry us along on the mother’s journey. In so
doing, her trouble and triumph become our own.

William Henry Lewis is a member of the English Department at Mary Washington College.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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