Eight years in the making, this edgy, in-depth account follows a black felon’s attempt to find a new life for himself with a white woman in a small-town neighborhood where—as the book’s title implies—such relationships are common. A remarkably intense read, Zebratown reveals a rhythm of life spiked with violence, betrayal, sex, and the emotional dangers created by passionate love.
Greg Donaldson’s Zebratown follows the life of Kevin Davis, an ex-con from Brownsville, Brooklyn, who, after his release from prison, moves to Elmira, New York, and takes up with Karen, a young woman with a six-year-old daughter. Kevin is seemingly the embodiment of hip-hop gangsterism—a heavily muscled, feared thug who has beaten a murder rap. And yet, as Donaldson’s stunning reportage reveals, Kevin has survived on the streets and in prison with a sharp intelligence and a rigid code of practical morality and physical fitness while yearning to make a better life for himself and be a better man.
Month by month and year by year, Donaldson follows Kevin and Karen’s attempt to make a home together, a quest made harder by Kevin’s difficulty finding legal employment. The dangerous lures of the street remain for him, both in New York City and in Zebratown, and he is not always successful at avoiding them. Meanwhile, as Kevin and Karen struggle, the reader comes to care for them, even as they act in ways that society may not condone. Theirs is a complex story with many moments of drama, suffering, desire, and revelation—a story that is frequently astonishing and unforgettable to the end.
Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc in Random Family, Donaldson explores a largely hidden world; such immersion journalism is difficult to achieve but uniquely powerful to read. In addition to spending long periods with Kevin and Karen, Donaldson interviews policemen, judges, family members, and others in Kevin and Karen’s orbit, providing a remarkably panoramic account of their lives.
Relationships between white women and black men have long been a hot issue in American culture. Even years after the 2008 presidential election, when society has in some ways seemingly moved on to a "postracial" perspective, people still have a lot to say about interracial relationships. Zebratown takes us into the heart of one and offers the paradoxical truth that while race is rarely not an issue in such relationships, in the end, what transpires between a couple is intensely individual.
Meanwhile, the difficulty that ex-cons have successfully reentering society is an ongoing problem—for them, their families, and the communities where they live. Zebratown makes this struggle real, as Kevin Davis confronts not only his criminal record and his poor formal education but the cruelties of the postindustrial economy. Both his and Karen’s stories resonate powerfully with twenty-first-century American reality, and in telling them, Greg Donaldson confirms his position as one of the most intrepid journalists at work today.
After a photo of Kevin Davis was used as the cover art for Donaldson s first book, The Ville, Davis was identified, arrested, and convicted on a weapons charge. The two men met in 2002, a year after Davis completed his seven-year sentence, and the ex-con persuades the author that his warrior ethic, his prison exploits, and his connection to the rap music world should be the subject of a book. Donaldson obliges, following his subject through prison stints, jobs, and relationships with women. Sub-Saharan black Kevin loves white girls, always has, and the book follows his partner, the pseudonymous trim blond woman Karen Tanski as well. Donaldson has a dubious capacity for entering the mind of his subjects, and his tone ranges from purple to pulp ( Sure, Margaret favored light skin when it came to beauty, but when it came to sexual attraction, a light-skinned man couldn t do anything but show her where to find a black man ), accented with descriptions of nature and historical tidbits. While putatively a serious sociological study, this book reads more like clunky urban lit.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Great book from beginning till end. Good professor also.
Save your money
I grew up in Elmira and watched the city decline for all of the reasons the author discusses in the book. This book bounces back and forth between being sympathetic to Kevin and Karen, almost making excuses for why they are in social/economic/legal trouble and facing the facts that the reason they end up they way the do is simply because they made poor decisions.
At one point the author almost makes you feel sorry that Kevin is being "harassed" by the Police, but when you take a moment and remember that Kevin is a hardened criminal (murderer and drug dealer) from New York City all sympathy for him goes out the window.
Interracial relationships are nothing new, and the author does a good job of explaining why these relationships are very common in Elmira and the surrounding area. His explanation of suburban whites embracing hip hop culture is spot on.
When I was growing up there in the late 70's and 80's Elmira was a pretty decent place to grow up. The addition of the second prison in Southport, the influx of inmates families into the area, and the city allowing section 8 housing were, I believe, the biggest factors in the city's decline. Surrounding cities and towns like Corning do not have a similar crime problem simply because they are 16 miles away from the prison and do not allow section 8 housing. It is much more difficult for the poor families from New York to afford to live there.
Elmira isn't dead, but it is dying. People are moving out of nice neighborhoods on the west side at an alarming rate as more poor, mostly minority people encroach on their neighborhoods. As this "white flight" happens tax revenues go down and the city gets into a deeper hole.
If you want to read a book about a NYC thug who comes to small town America and ruins the life of a small town girl get this book. If you are looking for a deeper explanation as to why they ended up in their particular situation and why a city is dying look elsewhere.