Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle Allen
Published by W.W. Norton & Co., 223 pages, $25

Danielle Allen grew up as part of a tightknit black family that operated on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. A professor’s daughter, she grew up with plenty of resources. Her cousin Michael, also intelligent and sensitive, was raised by his single mother who was often in abusive relationships. Danielle is now a political science professor at Harvard. Michael is now dead.

Danielle begins her book, Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., with her cousin’s death and fills in the story with details from his troubling life. After confessing to some minor robberies, and an attempted carjacking during which he is shot, Michael is convicted and sentenced, at age 15, to 11 years in prison. With help from his family, he pursues an education inside jail, writing brainy papers and excitingly describing the firefighting work he does as a prisoner. Finally released, Michael once again blends in with gangs in LA and gets involved in drugs, eventually returning to prison and getting wrapped up in a fateful romance.

Modest about herself, Danielle writes with affection for Michael, describing his twists and lapses as well as his love of meditation and literature. She also fiercely condemns the ruinous laws and policies and the way gangs form what she calls a self-protective “parastate” that leads to inescapable trouble for many men ensnared by a life on the street. In the end, Danielle’s love and advocacy could not overcome the strength of that parastate. 

From page 105: “In this hell, where I have come across dozens of Virgils, Shakespeares, Martin Luther King Jr.s, Einsteins, Alex Haleys, and Dantes, I have a second chance. In this hell I am Dante. Dante was not in hell due to a fatal sin but somewhere in his life he strayed onto the path of error, away from his true self. I, K-10033, strayed away from my true self: Michael Alexander Allen.” 

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