Innovative in style and structure, Cuz is nonetheless part of a tradition of moral reckoning expressed in black American nonfiction. It brings to mind its literary cousins: Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Like those three books, Cuz seems to draw its inspiration from James Baldwin’s lament that black progress in the United States has been at best superficial. 'Morally,' Baldwin wrote in 1984, 'there has been no change at all and a moral change is the only real one.' Through Michael’s tragedy, Cuz draws a portrait of the moral failings in America that are responsible for too many of our cousins’ troubled lives and early deaths ... Cuz is a literary miracle of form and content. The book pleads with us to find the moral imagination to break the American pattern of racial abuse. Allen’s ambitious, breathtaking book challenges the moral composition of the world it inhabits by telling all who listen: I loved my cousin and he loved me, and I know he’d be alive if you loved him, too.
...a compassionate retelling of an abjectly tragic story ... Among the most valuable contributions Allen makes is forcing us to ask: To what end are we locking up our children? Are we not foreclosing their options before their lives have even begun? ... If Cuz were blighted by one or two unsightly clauses, I could have overlooked them. But there are many, and each jolted me out of my reading rhythm, as if a moth had landed on the page. She often has trouble conveying her emotions, too ... Allen’s analysis of gang culture — or 'the parastate,' as she calls it, with its own bylaws and tragic form of appeal — may be where she’s at her ferocious best. She points out that however strong the state is, the parastate is stronger — violate its rules, and you’re asking for death.
In Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., Danielle Allen, a decorated scholar and Harvard professor, struggles with the short life and violent death of Michael Alexander Allen, a first cousin ... Her description of her prison visits is perhaps the most riveting chapter in the book, bringing to mind Wideman’s excursions behind bars to talk with his brother Robby ... Both observations, rendered in quite different but strikingly forceful language, provide a telling glimpse of the dehumanization (both subtle and overt) that can accompany the death of a black person, often while the body is still warm ... Readers will finish this brief, perceptive memoir knowing just enough about Michael to appreciate the author’s devastating sense of loss. They will also have an understanding, barring changes to the system, of the many more Michaels we stand to lose.
Allen’s exceptional professional accomplishments make her latest effort, a memoir about the soul-crushing murder of her beloved younger cousin Michael, all the more stirring ... Cuz records Allen’s ongoing connection to Michael throughout his incarceration... It is a remarkable story of abiding filial love. It is also a painful look into the tenuousness of black middle-class life ... There is some respite for readers, too, from the more painful moments in Cuz in the more argumentative portions of the book ... In Cuz, Allen provides no immediately actionable solutions to the problem of mass incarceration that readers interested in public policy might wish for. But this, after all, isn’t the job of memoir.
Allen, whose writing is creative and accessible, uses her finely tuned talent to fold Michael’s fate into the gathering storms of the U.S. criminal-justice system and Los Angeles’ gang-related and racial turmoil. Both a searching, personal elegy and a sure-footed lamentation of the systems meant to protect us, this is a searing must-read.
In her riveting account of one life gone astray—that of her intelligent, charming ‘baby cousin’—she seeks to explain how a generation of young black men was similarly lost … While those who agree with Ms. Allen will find Cuz powerful evidence in support of their argument, not all readers will be persuaded. Ms. Allen contradicts herself, arguing that the crackdown on drug gangs clogged the judicial system but also left homicides unprosecuted, inviting young men like Michael to take advantage of the laxity … Also given short shrift is the question of individual choice. Yes, Michael had the deck stacked against him. But no gun was placed in Michael’s hand; he chose to steal his mother’s rent money to buy it.
The most compelling sections of Cuz deal with how Michael, with the help of Allen and others, tried to start a new life after being released on parole … Cuz is a frustrating book. Allen’s uneven writing often reaches for a lyricism it fails to achieve … There’s another book lurking beneath the surface here. Allen’s father was a political scientist. He opposed affirmative action as well as being a member of Ronald Reagan’s US Civil Rights Commission; it’s strange, in what she asserts is a candid biography, that these facts don’t bleed into her discussion of the former president’s failures around the ‘war on drugs.’ The secrecy in Cuz is only partially Michael’s.
The first half of Cuz, which stumbles and falters in places, is capped by an explosive reveal of Michael’s killer that comes across as delayed for melodramatic effect. The book doesn’t begin in earnest until its midpoint, when the self-conscious Allen makes way for letters Michael wrote from behind bars. You finally see Michael then. And, as Allen said, he is beautiful. Cuz is slowest and most torturous when Allen is explaining her relationship with Michael, and most enrapturing when Michael is speaking for himself ... It didn’t matter that Michael’s carjacking wasn’t connected to drugs, so long as it was connected to gangs, because the state connected gangs to drugs. By the end, her conclusion feels inevitable: that Michael and millions like him have been casualties of a failed war.
In writing about her cousin, Allen is also elegizing other black men victimized by poverty, drugs and unequal justice. Her blend of personal anguish and social consciousness evokes not just Wideman, but Jesmyn Ward's 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, about the close friends and relatives Ward lost to untimely and often violent deaths ... There's an inevitable tension between statistics and an individual life gone wrong, between what seems fated and the bad choices that comprise that fate. The gap between Allen and her cousin — bridged at times by love — reflects the growing chasm between black men, more likely to end up in a prison cell or a grave, and black women, better bets for higher education and employment.
Like The Other Wes Moore and Between the World and Me, Danielle Allen’s Cuz presents a rich personal narrative in trenchant historical and political context ... The devastating effect of prison on Michael is beautifully wrought in poetic, heartfelt and restrained prose by his cousin, who frequently visited him ... Having read several books like Cuz in an attempt to understand what is happening in this country, I can say that Allen’s is one of the strongest. This book—part elegy, part history, part political philosophy—is wholly unforgettable.
...a doleful and stirring narrative of how Michael Allen Alexander’s magnetic smile slowly dimmed until he was found shot to death in the passenger seat of a car in Los Angeles ... Cuz is more than Michael’s story. It’s the story of Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a city where black and brown girls and boys engulfed by the crack epidemic and the rise of street gangs had no guardian angels. It’s a story about the so-called war on drugs and how, instead of treating communities ravaged by crack and heroin, the government responded by locking up millions of people.
Much of the evidence offered through the flashbacks derives from Allen’s personal involvement in her extended family’s history. Some of the knowledge, however, comes from Allen’s decision to act as an investigative journalist, sharing what she learned from her aggressive reporting, no matter how unpleasant her findings. As the author chronicles her discoveries about how much Michael successfully hid from her, she is sometimes unduly hard on herself. A searing memoir and sharp social critique marred only slightly by the author’s excessive self-flagellation.
[Allen] puts a face to the numbing statistics of incarcerated young black boys and men ... At its heart, Allen’s book is both an outcry and entreaty as she grapples with a painful reality: 'I no longer knew a way of helping.'”