It’s easy to get excited about Khary Lazarre-White’s refreshing picture of a black family living in New York City in the early 1990s. The anger in the story is not within the filial unit itself—which depicts a close-knit, loving family—but, rather, at the world beyond the confines of their apartments. I make that last word plural because although the father and the mother live in separate dwellings (one in Harlem, the other in Brooklyn), they are not divorced but still close to one another and, above all, protective of their children, concerned about their education, fully functional and supportive in the way we like to believe the traditional nuclear family functions. There is not one iota of anger expressed by their seventeen-year-old son about either of his parents. Rather, we see love, affection, kisses and hugs on his part, especially for his much younger sister, who is about five years old.
That son is called Warrior, a literal translation of his Akan/Ghanaian name. The other three members of the family are simply called mother, father, and sister, the generic terms demonstrating a bond among the four much closer than would be implied by giving them actual names. And what affection there is, inspirational and worthy of emulation of any family, not simply one that happens to be African American. There’s a scene about halfway through the slim narrative that records what Warrior said when he was a child when he was asked what all children are always asked. What do you want to be when you grow up? When I grow up, I want to be my daddy. Not the anger of the young black male for his father we have seen depicted in too many novels and movies. The line is then further embellished: If I live to be a man, I want to be just like him.
That second line not only demonstrates the child’s love for his father but, sadly, a truth that young black males, especially, are forced to learn so early in their lives. If I’m alive, which dovetails with an earlier response to a similar question, but posed in the opening chapter of Passage, Lazarre-White’s praise song of black family life. The earlier incident is in response to a question asked at school, within the context of the “concrete jungle, surrounded by pain, with a life expectancy of days.” That’s how violent the school environment is, as well as life on the streets, outside of the protective umbrella of home. This time Warrior’s response to the question of what he wants to be is “How about alive…”
This is the other half of the calculus: what a young black male faces in the world away from home, the random violence within the communities that black people are typically forced to navigate on the streets of big cities. As mentioned above, the time frame for this novel about New York City is the early 1990s when the city was certainly not the safer place it has become today. There’s even a race riot described late in the story, triggered by police killing a black boy, the same kind of act we read about and watch on our TVs today, but with less frequency in New York City today than twenty-five or thirty years ago. The race riot is not the focus of Passage, but a simple question of how a young black male passes from adolescence to adulthood without ending up dead.
The streets (crowds, the subway, the park, his school), even empty spaces—especially at night—can come alive in a matter of minutes and cut life short. Gangs of black youths are another threat. If you yourself do not join a gang, gang members may stalk you. There’s a reference to Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royale” in Invisible Man in a letter from one of Warrior’s friends who is in prison. Brotherman tells him that they are “puppets being played by the Officers here, that they stood by smiling as our Black blood was spilled. I told them that there is no greater sellout than the Black man who allows the system to drive him to kill his own brother.” A second warning from prison reiterates Warrior’s (and all young black men’s) lack of choices: “My trial is coming up, and I’m starting to get nervous. I know that they have no case, but that means nothing. They might convince the jury that it’s illegal in this state to assault a blue soldier’s stick with a Black skull. Or they might convince them that my teeth committed felonious assault against the soldier’s gun.” Justice is the last thing that can be counted on.
No surprise that on completely empty streets Warrior feels that invisible forces are watching him, following him, threatening him like a pack of wolves. And there are also ancestral spirits. These and other images (from the Middle Passage, for example) become a living reminder of his precarious situation, like the “painted tombstones” that Warrior calls the graffiti on abandoned buildings in his Harlem neighborhood: “Families, crews, and other loved ones would pay the graffiti men to perform their work. Then the artists would paint the image of the dead on the sides of abandoned buildings, creating tombstone portraits of fantasy configurations. Most would be dressed in finer clothes that they had ever worn, with more jewels than they had ever owned, in front of cars they had only driven in their dreams.” Does that not describe the enormous split between the cultures? Whites cringe with horror at the graffiti painted everywhere, while blacks regard it as honoring those who are dead.
Khary Lazarre-White’s Passage is a brave account of black survival in white America when a strong family operates as the necessary bulwark. “A man is only a man if he shows his love to those he loves…. Nothing meant more to Warrior than his family, his mother, and his father, his sister…. His life was their life. They were his religion.” Yes, some of the passages especially of his fears that are in italics are self-conscious, perhaps too didactic, but there is honesty in this novel, in Warrior’s daily life and rituals that will chill you at the bone—like the claws of the invisible wolves stalking Warrior whenever he leaves the comfort of his home.
Khary Lazarre-White: Passage
Seven Stories Press, 192 pp., $23.95