A young black man’s self-destructive arc, cut short by a passion for writing.
Asante’s (It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop, 2008, etc.) memoir, based on his teenage years in inner-city Philadelphia, undoubtedly reflects the experiences of many African-American youngsters today in such cities. By age 14, the author was an inquisitive, insecure teen facing the hazards that led his beleaguered mother, a teacher, to warn him, “[t]hey are out there looking for young black boys to put in the system.” This was first driven home to Asante when his brother received a long prison sentence for statutory rape; later, his father, a proud, unyielding scholar of Afrocentrism, abruptly left under financial strain, and his mother was hospitalized after increasing emotional instability. Despite their strong influences, Asante seemed headed for jail or death on the streets. This is not unexplored territory, but the book’s strength lies in Asante’s vibrant, specific observations and, at times, the percussive prose that captures them. The author’s fluid, filmic images of black urban life feel unique and disturbing: “Fiends, as thin as crack pipes, dance—the dancing dead….Everybody’s eyes curry yellow or smog gray, dead as sunken ships.” Unfortunately, this is balanced by a familiar stance of adolescent hip-hop braggadocio (with some of that genre’s misogyny) and by narrative melodrama of gangs and drug dealing that is neatly resolved in the final chapters, when an alternative school experience finally broke through Asante’s ennui and the murderous dealers to whom he owed thousands were conveniently arrested. The author constantly breaks up the storytelling with unnecessary spacing, lyrics from (mostly) 1990s rap, excerpts from his mother’s journal, letters from his imprisoned brother, and quotations from the scholars he encountered on his intellectual walkabout in his late adolescence. Still, young readers may benefit from Asante’s message: that an embrace of books and culture can help one slough off the genuinely dangerous pathologies of urban life.
Asante is a talented writer, but his memoir is undernourished.