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Couple Power

In their new books, Michael Datcher and wife Jenoyne Adams hope to reignite the bonds of love--especially within the black community.

February 20, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the kicked-up dirt and brittle yellow grass, Michael Datcher sees a thriving garden. Standing in dusk's drizzle, just beyond the front door of the Windsor Hills home he shares with his wife, Jenoyne Adams, Datcher summons rose bushes and a plush-carpet of a lawn. Surrounding it, of course, the white picket fence he long ago commenced to build, plank-by-plank, in his mind.

A poet, it's Datcher's business to dream a world in all its glory and despair, to acknowledge life's extremes. But for him, summoning images and breathing life into them has always been a survival mechanism as well.

An adopted child who maneuvered the mean streets of Long Beach, Datcher searched for a father he'd never know, rebuffed a biological mother who gave him up and later attempted to woo him back. He's had to make do. He's made much of it up as he's gone along.

In time his resume grew to include journalist, essayist, author and co-organizer of the influential World Stage Anansi Writers Workshop in Leimert Park. Success achieved by pure will. But in his wildest imaginings, he couldn't have conjured this--that he and Jenoyne (Juh-NOAN), his wife of almost four years, would have found one another, worked through a rocky start of ideological sparrings and written first books arriving on store shelves only weeks apart.

"It's about being able to share the space," says Datcher. Not just the physical--but the psychological and spiritual.

Both Datcher's new memoir, "Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story" (Riverhead Books), and Adams' novel, "Resurrecting Mingus" (Free Press), confront the intricacies of love--trust, faith and self-transformation. Their goals in mind: to retrofit the foundation of the black family.

Their home is a laboratory in itself--a work in progress--reflecting first steps of trying to merge two very independent lives drawn in bright colors and bold, confident lines.

The living room, their communal space, has the feel of a mountain cabin with rough-wood walls and low-slung ceilings. A weak fire fidgets in the fireplace. Bebop struts out of stereo speakers. The coffee table shows off fancy picture books--portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; William Claxton's moody jazz photographs. Thick ivory candles lend the room a sanctuary feel.

As the fire wanes, Adams, tall and all fluid angles, pads across the polished hardwood floors in leopard-print fuzzy slippers--as graceful as the dancer she spent years training to be. Close at hand she keeps her pen and open journal, careful not to miss a thought.

Like the struggling fire, marriage has to be coaxed. Watched. It's not just a challenge to build but to maintain, both readily admit--especially when not enough examples exist and numbers tallying failure taunt otherwise.

Certainly, the inability to get close knows no bounds of gender, no color lines. But of late, how this phenomenon has permeated black life has been on the minds and souls of black folk too. For a people who in slavery sought strength and solace from strong family ties, the slow deterioration of those once-tight bonds has been nothing short of devastating.

In her newly released book, "Salvation: Black People and Love" (William Morrow), culture critic bell hooks sees this shift as an unexpected evolutionary byproduct. "As an organized black liberation movement emphasizing love was replaced by a call for militant violent resistance, the value of love . . . was no longer highlighted. When the '70s came to an end, a new cynicism had become the order of the day. . . . [Love] began to have little or no meaning in the lives of black folks, especially young people. . . . Indeed, love was mocked. . . . The denigration of love in black experience, across classes, has become the breeding ground for nihilism, for despair."

It is within that embattled larger landscape that Datcher and Adams grew up, where hardened eyes often meant a locked-up heart. And though in their homes love abounded, attempting to find an approximation outside became an epic-worthy journey.

A Window Into the Male Psyche

Garnering praise from writers as diverse as Quincy Troupe and Junot Diaz, Datcher's story is a raw truth-telling. It's a window on the male psyche for women attempting to understand the men they want to love. It's shared testimony for young men who struggle with the weight and purpose of the armor that they carry, the protective layers that keep them from getting hurt--on the street and off.

"Of the 30 families that lived in our eastside Long Beach apartment building during the mid-'70s, I never saw a father living in a household. I never even saw one visit," he writes in a forthright voice. "We rarely talked about our missing fathers. Instead, we poured our passion into our skateboards, our marbles and our mothers." Even still, he allows a peek behind the tough-kid facade, "Quiet as it's kept, many young black men have . . . picket fence dreams."

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