Greetings, thREADERS! I decided that today would be the perfect time to kick off my “Black History Year” movement. As was promised in my previous entry, my pledge is to educate you all weekly with a Black History fact or review of something “Black related.” I’m starting off… with a book.
Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story is the second-best book I’ve ever read. I’m fortunate to where people know I’m a huge
bibliophile nerd and often ask me to recommend something to them when they’re looking for a new book to read. I don’t mention Building Fences often because, well, for years, it’s been my little secret. I hold it very dear to me because it’s one that I personally relate to in many ways. Luckily for you, THREADers, I feel I can trust y’all with this “secret.” So I’m sharing it now.
Raising Fences is an autobiography written by Michael Datcher, a journalist and spoken-word poet from Los Angeles. With writers like Teri Woods and Vickie Stringer finding their works being deemed too raw for mainstream (when, quite honestly, Donald Goines and Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck published similar stories decades earlier) and thusly starting up their own “strictly hood fiction” publishing companies that quickly gained a following; and writers like Eric Jerome Dickey, Bebe Moore Campbell, and Omar Tyree firmly staking their claim on national book lists, it was easy for someone lesser known to slip through the cracks in 2001 (though The Today Show Book Club took notice). Datcher’s story is very different from these authors’ works. It doesn’t drip sex or violence, or overindulge in profanity. Its male protagonist isn’t cocky and doesn’t boast about his sexual prowess. Its male protagonist is Datcher himself, a man trying to find love and a better definition of himself that exists outside of the fact that he was brought up without a father.
The premise for the book’s title can be summed up in the opening words of Chapter Two –
“I’ve been obsessed with being a husband and father since I was seven years old. Quiet as it’s kept, many young Black men have the same obsession. Picket-fence dreams. A played-out metaphor in the white community but one still secretly riding the bench in Black neighborhoods nationwide… [But we young Black men] Hide Huxtable-family dreams in the corner: Can’t let someone catch us hoping that hard.”
That paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the book. From then on, it’s clear that Datcher is “wide open” – he’s baring his soul for the reader, seeking neither affirmation nor encouragement, but merely just wanting some place to tell his story. And it just so happens that the pages of this book serve as Datcher’s safest haven. Without giving away too much of the story, Datcher recounts many things throughout the book, including how he dealt with being an adopted child; life-changing, borderline traumatic encounters with police at a young age; how his earliest approach to sex was based upon him wanting to “measure up” in the eyes of his boys; and how he found therapy (and perhaps rebirth) in prayer and especially in poetry.
Poetry plays a huge part in Raising Fences. Datcher lets readers know early on of his involvement with the World Stage Poets of Los Angeles, but that doesn’t prepare them for how fluid the book actually is. Building Fences reads like a 280-page epic poem, a Black man’s Beowulf where the “Grindel” is his own personal demons and self-questioning. Chapter by chapter, as Datcher bounces back and forth between childhood, young adult experiences, and his adult life, readers will watch him grow before their eyes. They’ll see him stumble, see him (re)gain confidence, see him become a stronger, more self-assured man… so much to where, at one point, he relies upon his love of poetry in order to take the most daring leap of his life. Datcher also inserts some poems written by his fellow World Stage Poets. I first read this book in 2003 and even now, I still feel affected by the “Raising Children” poem.
I strongly recommend every young Black man read Raising Fences; but really, anybody should. It provides an unflinching, vulnerable look into the mind of a Black man. It doesn’t make excuses, it doesn’t say “this is the way a man acts because that’s what a man does.” Instead, this book provides readers with an alternative image: Often, the Black man is depicted as someone with built up brick walls shielding his spirit and feelings. This book recognizes the other kind of Black man, one who is trying to “raise fences” around the life he is trying to build – fences just high enough to protect his dreams, but not so high that they shut out anyone willing to hear his story.