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Book Review

Tracing History's Links to Bigotry in America Through 'Little B'

March 07, 2002|KAI MARISTED | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE CONDEMNATION

OF LITTLE B

By Elaine Brown

Beacon Press

288 pages, $28.50

"The first difference which strikes us is that of color.... Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white ... preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black, which covers the emotions of the other race?"

A contemporary photo illustrates the jacket of the book that quotes this 18th century argument. It offers just such a face--in this case, that of a black boy. (You'd place him at somewhere between 12 and 15.) He wears an institutional tunic. His arms are held, or pulled, low behind his body. The book's harsh, red-ink title, "The Condemnation of Little B," obscures the lower part of his face. Only his close-cut hair, small sculpted ears and eyes are visible. The head is cocked toward one shoulder. The wide-open dark eyes are undefended, as if contemplating an unsolved question. The eyes have a share of beauty.

Admittedly, my sympathetic reading of this black countenance is just as subjective as was the distaste of Thomas Jefferson, cited above. His rhetorical soul-searching concluded thus: "I advance it

"Little B" is the street name of the pensive boy on the book jacket, Michael Lewis. Born in the Bluff, Atlanta's most neglected and derelict inner-city neighborhood, he can hardly be said to have been "raised" there.

Father unknown, mother a crack addict, young Michael (a nominal but forgotten ward of the state of Georgia) survived in the Bluff, homeless and school-less from age 11 to 13. During that year, 1997, this boy's luck changed. He experienced his first arrest and was tried, convicted and sentenced as an adult for the murder of Darryl Woods, "a working black man, a husband and a father." The state finally put a roof over Michael's head: the Georgia State Prison in Alto, which he entered as the youngest of 1,200 incarcerated felons. He is there today--visited when possible by Elaine Brown, the author of "The Condemnation of Little B," and his little sister Ta-ta. He's 18 years old now and still waiting for justice.

For all the pathos of his story, "The Condemnation of Little B" is not your run-of-the-genre, gritty biographical tear-jerker. Multifaceted author Brown (a classically trained musician, writer, lecturer and former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party) has set herself a considerable challenge: to trace the historical and political arc connecting bigotry in America from pre-Revolutionary times to the present--in other words, to show how the legacy of Jefferson has impoverished the chances of Little B, along with his brothers in all the Bluffs of our abandoned inner cities. This is no scattershot diatribe. Brown's approach is reasoned, statistically documented and scrupulously footnoted. Yet her anger burns on every page.

The gist of the historical overview, sandwiched between thinner slices of Michael's life, won't surprise readers of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" (which is frequently referenced in this volume). However, it's a corrective in fact and focus, which is hard to find elsewhere in any form, let alone in one up-to-date volume. Brown points up the echo-effects of slavery, botched "Reconstruction," Jim Crow, the more recent rollback of equal opportunity, poverty programs and affirmative action. She names names with bitter relish.

She is witheringly good at exposing the myths that allow power groups, both black and white, to exploit and crush the weak with a comparatively untroubled conscience--all more or less veiled versions of racism, ranging from Jefferson's theories on why blacks can't write poetry to today's trumpeted "new phenomenon" of young, black male "Superpredators" sprouting in our midst.

Which brings us back to Little B, society's boogeyman. Is it just to try to punish a child without parent or guardian, with only a sixth-grade education, as an adult? Whatever his crime, should a 13-year-old be deemed a priori unsalvageable? Can we, the most affluent society in history, afford only terror, no pity?

The pity and terror of this specific matter, as Brown's anatomy of a weak defense and horrendously flawed prosecution shows, is that Michael's unprompted earliest words to her may well be true: "I didn't kill that man. I didn't kill nobody, ma'am."

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