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Checking Under the 'Hood : Rare tale of crime that humanizes black victims and perpetrators : DRIVE-BY, By Gary Rivlin (Henry Holt: $25; 274 pp.)

February 04, 1996|Natasha A. Tarpley | Natasha A. Tarpley is the editor of "Testimonies" (Beacon Press)

On any given night, if you turn on your local television news or open your local newspaper, there will be black faces and white faces flashed across the screen and spread across the pages. Some will be victims, others suspects and still others will be the faces of those guilty of committing a crime. Very often the way these stories are reported depends on the color of the face. If the face is white, then it becomes more than just a face, it becomes part of a body, and the body is given a name and a history. By this I mean that viewers and readers are generally given information about this person, explanations, excuses even, for why or how he or she could have committed a crime or become the victim of one.

For instance, the media coverage of Jeffrey Dahmer--the mass murderer who killed more than a dozen young men of color and ate their bodies--was full of information about Dahmer's relationship with his family, his troubled childhood. In fact, at some point after he had begun serving his prison sentence, one of the major networks ran a half-hour special on him, which basically told his life story. More recently, in 1994, before her confession, the nation's sympathy went out to Susan Smith, a white woman who claimed that her two children had been kidnapped by a black male after he carjacked her. When she later admitted to drowning her children, there was a public outpouring of anger and disgust. However, as her lawyers argued for a sentence of life imprisonment instead of capital punishment, the nation's sympathies were aroused once more, as the public learned about the great emotional stress Smith was under, caused by worries over money and soured romantic relationships.

In most instances, African Americans do not receive such treatment. (O.J. Simpson is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.) The lines between innocent and guilty are strangely blurred, and there is little doubt of which we can be given the benefit. On the news, our faces linger on the screen throughout the reporting of the story, as if to say, "get a good look, he or she could come after you next." Black adults and children are regularly shown handcuffed, surrounded by guards as they are led into courtrooms or prisons. Rarely are the details of African American lives reported. Black people are portrayed in isolation, with no connection to family or neighborhood or any kind of infrastructure.

For these reasons, I was very hopeful and excited by the prospect of Gary Rivlin's nonfiction narrative, "Drive-By." Centered around a drive-by shooting, which occurred as the result of a scuffle between several neighborhood teenage boys and which left one young man dead and two other teens wounded, "Drive-By" tells the stories of the young men involved in this incident and of their families, providing detailed accounts of their lives. Through the telling of these stories, Rivlin attempts to force the reader to acknowledge the humanity of the people so often denied this understanding, to challenge the negative images and stereotypes that flood the airwaves and fill countless pages in newspapers and books about black people, particularly those living in our nation's ghettos, the beating hearts of cities encased and contained within cities.

In some important ways, the book fulfills its promise. For at its best, "Drive-By" is a source of information, adding flesh to the skeleton of the stories that are usually reported by the mass media. The first section of the book relays the family histories of the young men involved in the shooting, beginning with their parents and in some cases going back as far as their grandparents. In tracing the steps of each family's migration to California, roots are uncovered, a lineage, a historical and geographical reference point is established.

In the second section, Rivlin introduces the young men, showing how they were drawn to the streets and eventually to dealing drugs, despite their families' attempts to provide them with other options and despite their own yearnings for something that challenged their minds. In the environment in which these young men were raised, males in particular are required to adopt a hard demeanor, a tough exterior in order to survive daily affronts to one's humanity.

These affronts could come in the form of an attack by a rival dealer or being forced to attend a school that doesn't even have enough money for books. Or such an attack could come--and often does--in the form of unwarranted harassment, even arrest, by the police.

Just as Rivlin's detailed accounts of these lives provide a glimpse into Oakland's inner city and other areas like it around the country (worlds virtually invisible to lawmakers and wealthier citizens, save being held responsible for most of the nation's crime), they also become problematic for several reasons.

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