So tender yet courageous is this fierce family memoir that it makes mass incarceration nothing less than a new American tragedy.
In a shattering work that shifts between a woman’s private anguish over the loss of her beloved baby cousin and a scholar’s fierce critique of the American prison system, Danielle Allen seeks answers to what, for many years, felt unanswerable. Why? Why did her cousin, a precocious young man who dreamed of being a firefighter and a writer, end up dead? Why did he languish in prison? And why, at the age of fifteen, was he in an alley in South Central Los Angeles, holding a gun while trying to steal someone’s car?
Cuz means both “cousin” and “because.” In this searing memoir, Allen unfurls a "new American story" about a world tragically transformed by the sudden availability of narcotics and the rise of street gangs—a collision, followed by a reactionary War on Drugs, that would devastate not only South Central L.A. but virtually every urban center in the nation. At thirteen, sensitive, talkative Michael Allen was suddenly tossed into this cauldron, a violent world where he would be tried at fifteen as an adult for an attempted carjacking, and where he would be sent, along with an entire generation, cascading into the spiral of the Los Angeles prison system.
Throughout her cousin Michael’s eleven years in prison, Danielle Allen—who became a dean at the University of Chicago at the age of thirty-two—remained psychically bonded to her self-appointed charge, visiting Michael in prison and corresponding with him regularly. When she finally welcomed her baby cousin home, she adopted the role of "cousin on duty," devotedly supporting Michael’s fresh start while juggling the demands of her own academic career.
As Cuz heartbreakingly reveals, even Allen’s devotion, as unwavering as it was, could not save Michael from the brutal realities encountered by newly released young men navigating the streets of South Central. The corrosive entanglements of gang warfare, combined with a star-crossed love for a gorgeous woman driving a gold Mercedes, would ultimately be Michael’s undoing.
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 an entire generation.
Allen, a professor of history at Harvard University and author of Our Declaration, tells the story of her late cousin Michael, who spent his years "from adolescent bloom to full manhood" in prison. In doing so, she puts a face to the numbing statistics of incarcerated young black boys and men. Michael's story is not simple: he didn't have a criminal history when he was arrested for attempted carjacking in 1995, but he was charged as an adult with multiple offenses, thus exposing him to California's three-strikes law and leading to a plea bargain and 11 years in prison. While serving time, Michael flourished, becoming a firefighter and completing his GED and some college correspondence courses. After his release in 2006, and with Allen's help, Michael obtained a driver's license, bank account, library card, job, and housing. At the time, Allen was hopeful that with the help and support of his family "Michael could defy the pattern of parolees" and straighten his life out. Alas, in July 2009, barely three years out of prison, Michael was found shot dead in his car. Allen attributes Michael's tragic death to two elements. One was that Michael found himself trapped in "a war between sovereigns: the parastate of a drug world increasingly linked to gangs on one side, and the California and federal governments on the other." The other was his love for a transsexual woman he met in prison who in the end was charged with his murder. At its heart, Allen's book is both an outcry and entreaty as she grapples with a painful reality: "I no longer knew a way of helping."