CUZ

The Life and Times of Michael A.

Danielle Allen

Michael Alexander Allen, baby cousin of an extended family, was first arrested at fifteen for an attempted carjacking. Tried as an adult and sentenced to thirteen years, Michael served eleven. Three years after his release, he was shot and killed. Why? Why did this gifted young man, who dreamed of being a firefighter and a writer, end up dead? Why did he languish in prison? And why at fifteen was he in an alley in South Central LA, holding a gun while trying to steal someone’s car? “Cuz” means both “cousin” and “because.” Danielle Allen grew up with Michael and,

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Michael Alexander Allen, baby cousin of an extended family, was first arrested at fifteen for an attempted carjacking. Tried as an adult and sentenced to thirteen years, Michael served eleven. Three years after his release, he was shot and killed. Why? Why did this gifted young man, who dreamed of being a firefighter and a writer, end up dead? Why did he languish in prison? And why at fifteen was he in an alley in South Central LA, holding a gun while trying to steal someone’s car? “Cuz” means both “cousin” and “because.” Danielle Allen grew up with Michael and, in 2006 when Michael got out, was cousin-on-duty, shouldering the responsibility to support his fresh start, while juggling the demands of her own promising academic career. In this Ellisonian story of a young African American man’s coming-of-age in late twentieth-century America, and of the family who will always love Michael, we learn how we lost a generation.

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  • Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Hardcover
  • September 2017
  • 256 Pages
  • 9781631493119

Buy the Book

$24.95

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About Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen is the James Conant Bryant University Professor at Harvard University and author of Our Declaration. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Praise

“A literary and political event like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Danielle Allen’s Cuz is an elegiac memoir and social jeremiad born out of the tragedy of mass incarceration.”Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“What starts as a personal memoir, an effort to resurrect from oblivion a beloved cousin who died young, modulates in Allen’s hands into a cool, reasoned, but ultimately devastating indictment of the War on Drugs and the sentencing regime it has given birth to.”J. M. Coetzee

“Unforgettable. . . . The pacing is brisk and novelistic, but the message is large and clear: we need urgently to reform the system through which we process juveniles who commit crime, because the current system perpetuates the very injustices it was designed to address.”Andrew Solomon

Discussion Questions

1. Reflecting on the day she retrieved Michael from prison, Danielle writes “to know something intellectually is so very different from feeling it in your flesh.” How does “intellectual” knowledge and this more visceral knowledge that Danielle describes, interact throughout the memoir?

2. What role does place and the city of Los Angeles play in this story? How did the family’s return to Los Angeles affect Michael?

3. There are several instances throughout the text where Michael’s own voice or writing is used. Locate a few examples and discuss how they’re used and what we learn through hearing from Michael directly.

4. When Danielle describes Michael’s love for Bree, she writes “Michael had made his defining life’s choice.” She also describes the relationships Michael forged throughout his time in prison, and the many invisible forces at work in the penal system.  Which forces or relationships do you think were most instrumental in shaping Michael’s life?

5. In an essay for one of his college courses, Michael compares his experience in prison to that of Dante’s portrayal of hell in Inferno. There are many likenesses, Michael observes, but concludes “the biggest and most important difference in the Inferno and my hell called prison, is that I have a way out.” Does this statement ring true? Why or why not? In what other ways does Michael’s experience mirror the experience of hell?

6. When Danielle visits Michael in prison, she describes the many rules and codes of behavior expected of both visitors and inmates. How do these codes – both spoken and unspoken – affect Danielle’s interactions with Michael?

7. Michael finds a kind of freedom in firefighting. Describe his experience in this literal inferno, as it compares to his experience in prison. How is it freeing, and why?

8. The story of Michael’s life does not unfold linearly, but moves back and forth in time. Did you appreciate this experience as a reader? What does it tell you about Michael’s experience? About the nature of grief?