In a debut book about growing up black in California in the 1970s, a teenager attempts to avoid violence despite racism and gang warfare.
Roger, the oldest of four children, lives in South Central Los Angeles. This autobiographical novel opens with the then-14-year-old chafing against his “Little Worshipers” classification at Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. Moms and Pops force him and his siblings to attend church every Sunday—even though he has encountered bullies there, as well as at school—but he eventually chooses to become a member and be baptized. At a time when Crips and Bloods are in the ascendant, church is presented as a positive influence that counterbalances violence. Roger recognizes that he is fortunate to grow up in a two-parent family. Still, life isn’t easy for a young black man. The volume dramatizes Roger’s struggles with racism through a presentation of his experiences at the several schools he attends as a teenager. First he and a friend try to prove they can survive at an all-white junior high 27 miles away, but “everybody looked at Ron and me like we were from Pluto,” even scattering watermelon seeds around their lockers. After being attacked by a mob of white teenagers wielding pipes, Roger finally transfers to a school within walking distance that’s friendlier to African-Americans. Here, though, Crips steal kids’ lunch money, and Roger falls in with a rough crowd and gets caught shoplifting. At his final school, blacks and Mexicans go head-to-head, and an unfortunate incident sees him arrested at age 17. Anderson’s dialogue is strong throughout this lively novel, as is the sense of internal conflict between Christianity and carnal desire: “I was willing to throw part of my faith out the church window for the sake of getting” sex, he recalls. In a series of black-and-white photos—labeled, textbooklike, “Figure 1” and so on—Anderson revisits his childhood haunts, another strategy, though perhaps a superfluous one, for bringing Roger’s story to life. The cliffhanger ending suggests that the author may be contemplating a sequel.
Sometimes harrowing, this striking account of an African-American’s life in Los Angeles delivers powerful moments.