A Lamentation for a Life Cut Short

Greg Howard in The New York Times:

BookOn the morning of Sept. 15, 1995, a 15-year-old black boy named Michael Allen was rushed to Harbor-UCLA hospital, bleeding out from a bullet wound through his neck. In the ambulance, Michael confessed he had tried to rob an older man who was buffing his car, and things went awry when the man lunged for the gun, got it, and then shot the teenager in self-defense. Michael was arrested for the first time in his life, and spent much of the next 13 years in prison, serving time for the attempted carjacking. In June 2008, he was released; in July 2009, four months shy of his 30th birthday, he was found shot dead in his car. Danielle Allen is a political theorist and professor at Harvard University, and “Cuz: Or the Life and Times of Michael A.” is her attempt to understand the circumstances that ripped her cousin Michael, eight years her junior, from their sprawling, close-knit family before eventually claiming his life.

Who’s Michael? For Allen, Michael might as well be her own baby. “It’s a cliché to say that someone has an electric smile,” she admits, “but what else can you call it when someone beams and all the lights come on?” He had “high cheekbones” and a “bob in his step.” She calls him “beautiful,” “a source of vitality and warmth.” Her descriptions of Michael often verge on cliché or folklore. In Allen’s eyes, Michael is soft, sensitive and flawless; it’s no wonder that he never quite comes into full view. When she peers upon his face at his funeral, she’s astonished by his solidity — this isn’t her little, lithe Michael, but “Big Mike,” as he was known on the street. You realize that Allen didn’t know Michael much at all. And that’s sad too; Michael’s life and potential were stolen from him, and he was stolen from her. “Cuz,” then, is chiefly a story about these thefts, and the merciless carceral state that perpetrated them.

More here.