In the vein of Richard Wright’s Native Son , this novel is a wake-up call to America “told exceptionally well in the lyrical first person voice of a sensitive and perceptive youth” ( Booklist ). A spellbinding coming-of-age novel about love, hope, and the will to survive, Hold Love Strong is a revealing look inside the nation’s crumbling housing projects, and a universal story about the incredible capacity of the human spirit..
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Hold Love Strong
The first pain came at noon but she didn't tell anybody about it. My mother was thirteen and she went about the afternoon being every part of such a precarious age. She watched TV. She popped pimples and studied her face in the bathroom mirror. She listened to the radio, sang along with songs, and laughed along with the afternoon DJs. She wrote in her diary. I still can't Beleve! I'm pregnant, she scribbled in bulbous letters that began and ended in curls. I can't beleve my belly is soooo big! At five, she took a nap and awoke three hours later, home alone and in a wet bed. She thought it was pee, balled the sheets, put them in the trash, and told herself she was disgusting. Then it was midnight and the pain became a fiery Cinderella banging to flee her guts. Still, she ignored it. Twenty minutes later, another pain came like the previous one but angrier, and so along with the banging it tore at her, buckled her knees, and left her coiled and crying on the floor. She had to do something. She had to find an answer; or something to distract her from the increasing frequency of such mercilessness; or some kind of pliers to rip and wrench the pain out of her. She went to her best friend Cherrie's apartment one floor below ours. It was a Friday night and she knew Cherrie would be awake watching TV.
"It's just gas," Cherrie decided, pouring my mother a glass of ginger ale in the kitchen. "What you eat?"
"Some Ring Dings and a bag of Doritos," said my mother.
"A whole bag, damn!" Cherrie forced her surprise to fit into a whisper because her mother was asleep in one room, her big sister Candy was asleep in the other, and the walls in the apartment, like the walls in every Ever Park Project apartment, amplified even the slightest sound.
Although Cherrie had a way of convincing my mother that what was major was minor, and although my mother hoped that what was going on inside her was something trivial and unholy, she was still just thirteen, so she was scared, maybe even desperate.
"Should I call James?" she asked.
The year was 1982. There were no cell phones or pagers so there was no way to get in touch with people unless you knew where they were or left a message where they would soon arrive. My grandmother and my mother's sister, my Aunt Rhonda, would have been my mother's first and second choices, but they had taken my Uncle Roosevelt and my cousins Donnel and Eric to see E.T., so there was no way of speaking to them, and calling where they would arrive meant calling where she had just left. As for James, he was my father. That is, James Llewelyn Arthur sowed the seed that became me. He was twenty. The last time my mother and he spoke they fought over a retractable Bic pen. He wanted it. She wouldn't give it to him. He punched her breast. She stabbed him in the leg with it. That was the previous week. Since then he was gone and never found; never found a phone; never found another pen and paper to write a letter; never found two twigs to rub together to make a small fire so a smoke signal would drift into the sky and prove he knew we were alive.
"James?" said Cherrie, wiping her mouth after swigging straight from the two-liter bottle of ginger ale. "What's he gonna do?"
Although the answer could only be nothing, my mother used Cherrie's phone to call James. Of course, there was no James to speak to. He was out said his grandmother, an old woman with a wobbly, frayed voice who was too lonely to even wonder, let alone ask, why my mother was calling so late. "You know," she said, "come to think, I ain't seen him since yesterday. I hope he comes home tonight."
"Tell him Angela called," blurted my mother.
"OK, Angela, that's such a pretty name. I once had a dear friend named Anita. That's a pretty name too."
"Tell him I need to see him, that it's real, real important. Tell him to call as soon as he comes in. It don't matter what time it is."
"He has your phone number?"
"Yeah," my mother answered, trying to sound confident yet wondering if he remembered it.
Because my mother hadn't left a note nor trace of where she went and why she left, she and Cherrie ascended the stairs from the third floor to the fourth floor and returned to my grandma's apartment. There, they sat on the plaid, mustard-colored couch and watched TV as if late night reruns of the Three Stooges could refute my mother's pregnancy and pains and transport them to who they should have been at this time in their lives, nascent teenage girls just beyond the loss of their last baby teeth, confidantes whose essential aims had yet to be developed and so needed to be discussed in that mighty gabbing and giggling best thirteen-year-old girlfriends do when awake after midnight.
Just as suddenly as each pain before, another crash tried to split my mother in half. She slammed herself into the back of the couch, and breathed so hard and fast snot flew from her nose.
"What's it feel like?" asked Cherrie, touching my mother's round belly with both hands.
"God damn, fuck!" said my mother, sweating and shaking her head no. "It's like I got lightning inside me."
When the pain dissipated, Cherrie got my mother a glass of water from the kitchen. Then there was the sound of keys opening the door, a click and clack and then two clacks more. Locks were being unlocked. Someone was about to be home.
"Ma!" my mother shouted as if she had fallen down a dark hole and feared she would never be found. "Momma!"
But it wasn't my grandma. The door opened and my Aunt Rhonda walked in holding Eric in her arms, his legs dangling around her waist as he slept with his head burrowed in the crook of her neck. Eric was two and he was afflicted with a particular idiosyncrasy that made him somewhat of a spectacle. He was born with Sjögren's syndrome so he could howl and shout, and he could screech and scream until every vein in his head seemed as if it might explode, but he could not cry. Never. Not once had there ever been nor would there ever be a tear in or falling from his eyes.
"Sorry we so late," my Aunt Rhonda said, taking her keys out of the door so not yet looking at my mother. "The first movie was sold out, so we had to see the later one."
My Aunt Rhonda was seventeen. She was five foot three inches tall, one hundred and ten peanut-butter-brown pounds of a young woman, and the extreme of the lesson my mother was learning. That is, she only knew loving herself through seeking, finding, and being hurt by men who did not love themselves nor comprehend the value of being someone cherished. She said hello to Cherrie. Then she looked at my mother and her eyes got stuck.
"Jelly, what's wrong?" she asked, calling my mother by the nickname she had given her when she was a little girl.
"She got gas," said Cherrie. "I made her drink some ginger ale. She'll be all right soon."
"See," my Aunt Rhonda scolded. "I told you to stop fucking with all that junk food."
Through the open door my Uncle Roosevelt strode into the apartment, dragging my Aunt Rhonda's eldest son, my cousin, weary-eyed, half-asleep four-year-old Donnel by the hand behind him.
"Damn, Jelly," Roosevelt said. "Why you look so crazy?"
My Uncle Roosevelt was an amber-skinned, narrow-eyed, gangly nine-year-old who already owned the kingly disposition only the world's most blessed men approach possessing. His grace was astounding. No season, situation; no rage, pain, or suffering touched him. He let go of Donnel's hand, crossed in front of my Aunt Rhonda, and came to the couch.
"How's the baby?" he asked.
"Where's Ma?" my mother said.
"She's coming," my Aunt Rhonda answered. "She got stuck talking to Mr. Goines outside."
"He loves her," added my Uncle Roosevelt, stating what everyone knew to be truth.
He leaned over my mother and put his ear against her belly. Suddenly my mother winced and moaned and was racked with a wave of pain that made her nostrils flare, lips quiver, and her body shudder as if her ribs were pounding her organs to pieces. My Aunt Rhonda ran to her, seamlessly handing Eric to my Uncle Roosevelt, who cocked his hip, set Eric upon it, and tucked the boy's head beneath his chin without waking him.
"Jelly," said Rhonda wiping the sweat from my mother's forehead with her hand. "Jelly, your water break?"
"I don't know," my mother moaned. "It just hurts."
When the contraction ended my Aunt Rhonda told Cherrie to call an ambulance.
"No," said my mother.
"What you mean, 'No'?" my Aunt Rhonda asked. She stood tall, planted her hands on her hips, and looked down at my mother. "We got to get you to the hospital."
"James is gonna call," said my mother.
My Aunt Rhonda sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes as if making a red circle around an incorrect answer in the air. "Jelly, you about to burst!" she scolded. "We don't got time for James."
"I got time," said my mother.
My father was not the type of man who gave a damn or sacrificed in the name of what was necessary, just, and good. My mother was impulsive and headstrong. We were going to be a family is all she believed. That's it, that seventh-grade cusp of pubescent confusion, that dream trumped all truth. That conviction was her head and heart and the construction of her vital organs. James would come around. He would realize it was only a pen and she didn't mean to stab him. It was only a matter of time. They would raise me together. She paid no mind to my Aunt Rhonda's history, the other young histories pushing strollers in the neighborhood, nor what anyone warned her. James Llewelyn Arthur loved her infinity. That's what he told her just before the first times but never after, just before she gave him her virginity, just before the first time she gave him head, just before she let him go down on her, bury his lips, lick, lap, and spread the one part of her body she had never studied in the mirror nor had the courage to touch herself.
My grandma came into the apartment. "What are you all crazy or something?" she scolded. "Why is this door open?"
"Ma," my mother whimpered.
My grandma didn't speak. She didn't blink or breathe. A passionately constructed woman of only thirty, she swiftly studied the scene. She looked at my mother. She looked at Cherrie. She looked at Rhonda. All of my grandma's features possessed a depth and delicacy that made her and everything within ten feet of her beautiful. Her body and being were balance. Her arms were long and muscular as were her legs, fingers, neck, earlobes, and the length of time her laughter lasted.
"When was the last one?" she asked.
"Just before. Maybe not even two minutes," said my Aunt Rhonda. She slammed her eyes on Cherrie. "What I tell you? Shit, what the fuck I say?"
Cherrie sprinted into the kitchen, where our phone sat on the counter, and my grandma and my Aunt Rhonda led my mother into the bathroom because the couch was my grandma's first and only couch and even though she bought it used she refused for it to be ruined or even slightly stained by anyone or anything, even birth, no matter how divine an occasion it was.
"Mind your nephews!" my grandma told Roosevelt.
"I got them," he said, taking Donnel's hand, leading him and his wide eyes to sit on the couch, and then sitting beside him with Eric, still sleeping, balanced against him.
In the kitchen, Cherrie turned the rotary dial, held the phone to her ear, and listened. Nothing. She tapped the switch-hooks hoping that there was some kind of short, or that one of the buttons was stuck. Still, nothing. She slammed the phone into the cradle then picked it up and held it to her ear again. Nothing. She slammed the handset down.
"It's dead!" she cried out. There ain't even a dial tone!"
My grandma closed her eyes and cursed everything under her breath, Queens and the state of New York, the phone company and Ever Park, life, herself, America. The phone could have been dead for one of any number of reasons: the phone bill hadn't been paid; the phone company didn't do the proper upkeep; someone in our building cut a wire thinking splicing it would give them phone service.
"Go downstairs," shouted my grandma. "Don't act like you ain't got no sense! Use yours. And if that don't work go use a pay phone! Shit, Cherrie, don't just give up!"
Cherrie bolted out of our apartment like my grandma's voice was fire and the drum of Cherrie's heavy feet could be heard thumping down the stairs until she reached the third floor's door, which squealed when it opened then boomed when it closed.
In the bathroom, my grandma and my Aunt Rhonda helped my mother take off her clothes.
"My shirt too?" asked my mother.
"Shirt too," ordered my grandma. "Unless you got the money to pay for a new one if it gets bloody."
So off came my mother's shirt and for a moment my grandma, my aunt, and my mother just stood there, three proximate shades of black women, autumnal hues in a small, plain bathroom with white walls, a white porcelain sink, a white bathtub, and a white toilet with a broken black plastic seat. My grandma and my Aunt Rhonda looked at my mother, who, looking in the bathroom mirror, looked at herself as well. In addition to the disposition and body type of my grandma, my mother was the color of an old penny at the bottom of a wishing well. Equally, she reflected and absorbed sunshine, streetlights, and the hopes of those who wished upon her, then cast her off. Her eyes and lips, her nose, shoulders and breasts, even her thighs and hips were shaped like new leaves, full yet still timid, still approaching their eventual lustrous peak.
My grandma snatched the red bath towel from the back of the bathroom door and put it on the floor. "Here," she decided. "Lay down on this. And Rhonda, get behind and hold her. That baby is coming. I can feel it. We ain't got much time."
My mother lay down. The bathroom was so small her head crossed the threshold of its doorway. Behind my mother, on her knees, wrapping her arms around her and wedging her thighs against my mother's back, my Aunt Rhonda kneeled on the coarse, grey carpet of the living room. My grandma stepped into the bathtub. She hiked her skirt up over her knees, squatted, and put my mother's ankles on her shoulders.
"Lord have mercy," she said. "Lord have some motherfucking mercy on me."
My mother sweated, shivered, and writhed from the pain and the fright. Another contraction came and went. Then she cursed and screamed and told my grandma she didn't want to live no more.
"Jelly, shut your mouth!" demanded my grandma. "Stop thinking about yourself! You about to be a mother!"
On the couch, Donnel asked question after question and Eric awoke and hollered for my Aunt Rhonda. He reached for her. He fought to get out of my Uncle Roosevelt's arms. My uncle tried to keep them calm. He hushed them. He softly sang verses of spontaneously composed lullabies. He tried to remind my cousins about the movie they just saw, how ET had a magic finger and loved Reese's Pieces candy.
My mother quaked with another contraction and she moaned and rolled her head from side to side as if her neck and spine were suddenly severed. Then she stopped and looked down at the round mound of her belly, her eyes so wide it seemed she was surprised by the sight. She put her hands on it, and with her fingers spread as wide as they could stretch, my mother began to weep. But it was not weeping caused by physical pain, or by ignorance, or even a weeping caused by fear. My mother wept because although she was still a child she had enough sense to understand that she was not prepared to shape my life. She couldn't multiply or divide. She didn't know north, south, east, or west. She couldn't tell time on a regular clock. This is not to say she was dumb. In fact, my mother was brilliant, so smart she could remember all of the words in a song after hearing it just once. What my mother was then was the product of low expectations. She had been failed so she had failed. And yet, social promotion: she had just graduated the seventh grade.
But when she felt weak, when she felt hopeless and useless and begged my grandma to make the pain stop, to let her quit, my grandma said, "No!" My mother couldn't stop, not even if great God Almighty Himself said she could quit. And so, because my grandma was not the type of woman anyone could disregard, my mother pushed with her life. She clenched the air in her fists. She gritted her teeth. She closed her eyes so tightly she saw everything she'd ever wished to see, every mountain and ocean, every sandy beach, tropical waterfall; elephants and lions and giraffes in Africa; she saw Jesus, she shook President Reagan's hand; she saw the Statue of Liberty; herself with a car, a fur coat; a collie like Lassie; she saw herself as a movie star. Her toes curled. Her calves cramped. Her heart became a volcano bursting blood. She saw her dreams. She felt their temperature. She smelled them.
My grandma saw my head. She took it in her hands and pulled gently, but then, holding one hand up as if halting a train, she shouted: "STOP!"
Every muscle in my mother's body went limp. My umbilical cord was wrapped twice around my neck. My mother's pushing combined with my twisting and turning was killing me. I was being lynched and I was hanging myself. My face was the color of an electric blue bruise. One more push or pull, one more twist, and I was dead. My mother begged to understand what was happening.
"Momma," she said, propping herself on her elbows. "Momma, please."
"What's wrong?" asked Rhonda. "Ma, what is it?"
My grandma breathed deep. "Shh, both of you, let me think."
Outside of the bathroom, Eric stopped hollering, Donnel stopped asking questions, and my Uncle Roosevelt stopped hushing and singing lullabies. All of Ever Park, all of Queens went silent. Then, in through the door burst Cherrie.
"They coming!" she shouted. "A ambulance is on the way!"
My Aunt Rhonda looked over her shoulder at Cherrie, her eyes demanding silence.
Cherrie stopped in the middle of the living room. "What's going on?" Cherrie said, her voice a fraction of its preceding size.
In the bathroom, my grandma looked up at the ceiling. "God," she whispered. "Jesus. Somebody, please help me save this child."
My grandma took one deep breath, closed her eyes, and made the same prayer silently. Then she opened her eyes, gently held my head and slowly drew my shoulders free. She paused to think. What next? What could she possibly do? The umbilical cord was taut. She cupped her hand beneath me, breathed, then cautiously guiding me in an unhurried somersault, she turned me upside down, freed my legs, and unwound the umbilical cord from my neck. My grandma saved me from that which fed and kept me for the first nine months of my life. She cleared my nostrils and mouth with her pinky. Then she wiped the blood from me with the palm of her hand.
"Roosevelt!" she called out. "Get me a knife! A sharp one. One of the ones with the wooden handles."
But it wasn't my uncle who brought my grandma the knife. It was Donnel. Like a miniature Mercury, he burst into the bathroom and held the knife out to her. Then he stood on his tiptoes and looked at the new life my grandma cradled to her chest.
"This your baby cousin," she said. She pushed me into his arms. "Now, hold love strong."
Donnel held me against his chest like a ball of loose yarn and my grandma cut my umbilical cord and left me the ugliest outie the world has ever seen. She washed me in the sink and handed me to my mother. And as my mother held me on the floor in the bathroom, as she wept and dealt with the awe of my making, Rhonda asked what my name should be because my mother had not yet been able to settle on one.
"Abraham," my grandma announced.
"Like the president?" Rhonda asked.
"No," said my grandma. "Like the old man in the Bible that God said was gonna be the father of a great people as numerous as the stars."
I'm one of hundreds; one of thousands; one of millions now and millions more to come; a project nigga, a beautiful project nigga through and through. I lived in Ever Park every day of my life; in a building of stacks, of bricks stacked upon bricks, people stacked upon people, the smell of adobo stacked upon the scent of frying chopped meat stacked upon a hungry baby screaming for food. I lived on a ladder, on one of the rungs between third and first world. I didn't care about people starving in Africa or Mexicans stuffed like sardines in the back of a truck just to get a chance at the American Dream. I didn't care about wars in other countries, apartheid in South Africa, feeding the world's poor, housing the world's homeless, or bringing freedom to every communist country. I hardly cared about slavery. I'm not saying I didn't know or think about those things. I'm not saying I was unsympathetic, impervious, uneducated. I was affected. I understood. But I also knew how people lived where I lived so I didn't need to go looking for struggle, pain, or a country of people who needed to be free, because that country, those Somalians, those Rwandans, those Iraqis were my people, my family in Ever, where men came home from prison desperate for the gentle touch of a woman, for a breast to rest their heads on, a neck to nuzzle into, for the sanctuary of a lover's voice whispering about the brightness of their future, how now there was nothing to stop them, nothing standing in their way then two weeks later these men found themselves missing the prison's hospitality, the three square meals a day, the library, and the fact that their misdeeds made them members of a world rather than unemployable pariahs. Where were they to go, brothers wanted to know. Back to Africa? Haiti? Jamaica? Puerto Rico? Trinidad? The Dominican Republic? And do what? Die dirt poor or in the midst of a civil war? Wasn't this America; wasn't this the greatest land of all great lands of opportunity? In Ever, we were three things: broken, desperate to leave, or soldiers in a war so impossible to win that everything we did, even blinking our eyes, even licking our lips, might be suicide.
Then crack hit. Then AIDS came right behind it. And who wasn't plucked and sucked dead either got high, wasted away one bloody sore at a time, or fought with all of their might just to exist, just to walk down the street, just to make love without being afraid of saliva and semen, just to share a can of soda, a straw, a spoonful of ice cream with a best friend, just to sleep with some semblance of restfulness and peace. How did AIDS spread? Where did crack come from? What, who, if anything and anyone, was safe? In Ever, brothers and sisters were fish and dying was the H, the 2, and the O of our lives. So what did we do? We did what anyone would do. We breathed in dying and lived in dying as if dying and the baggage that came with dying were normal, like everywhere in the world mama stole from grandma and sold her pussy in the stairwell to get high.
I was a statue, the type of infant whose stoic, tearless nature and irrevocable insomnia led my family to believe I was afflicted. I could be knocked down, dropped, shaken like a bottle of soda, even forgotten for hours at a time, yet still I would not burst, cry out, whimper; still I would not look upon the world with anything less than a wide, exacting stare. Over the course of the first two years of my life, all kinds of ailments, retardations, and deficiencies were prefaced with maybe and assigned to me. Maybe I was deaf. Maybe I was mute. Maybe too much water surrounded my brain. I didn't get enough air. I was blind, lacking the sense of touch. I was autistic, dyslexic, unable to make the connection between need and action, emotion and thought, heart and mind. When put down, when brought to the floor, when seated on the bus, when planted on a lap, I grew roots; I stayed. When put to bed, I lay on my back, my brown eyes round, unblinking, doll-like. When lifted and carried, I leaned back, made myself a weight greater than I actually was, pushed away from my embracer as if determined to attain a particular distance, freedom, a space that gave me enough room to look around, lay my eyes upon the people and environment enveloping, studying, tickling, prodding, and fussing over me.
When she was not doting over her newest truest true love, when she was not chasing after or being chased, flirting or playing coy, my Aunt Rhonda teased me, poked my belly, picked me up to sit me down again so she could study my stillness and have a laugh. When he was not playing basketball with friends, practicing his shooting form in the bathroom mirror, or dribbling a ball in the apartment, the hallway, on the roof, or up and down the stairs, my Uncle Roosevelt utilized me like an inanimate object. I was the stone he used to prop open a door, the broom he used to sweep the kitchen floor, a table he tried to balance things on, a shotgun he tucked under his arm, cocked and aimed. The doctors at the clinic had no time for me. I looked healthy, they said. My stool was normal. I didn't have a fever. Take him home, they said. My mother fretted over my lethargy, my aloofness, the distance I seemed predetermined to attain. She feared she did something to damage me during her pregnancy and her fear was so great she was positive she must have. Perhaps it was the cigarettes she'd smoked, the pulls from a joint. Perhaps it was her youth, that because she'd only menstruated a handful of times prior to my conception and without any semblance of regularity, I was damaged. Maybe she'd run around too much, chased, teased, laughed, and sobbed. Maybe she talked on the phone too loud. Maybe she watched too much TV. Maybe the various manifestations of her physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual immaturity pervaded me, infected me with the particulars of my nature.
My grandmother told her not to worry. She shrugged off all fears and doubts. She said I was Job; Jonah in the belly of the whale; Noah in his ark; Moses in the desert. It was my great patience that would help me overcome everything the world, this life, gave me.
Of course, my mother didn't believe her. She couldn't. She didn't have the capability. She was a teenager. How she felt, not facts or biblical stories, burned inside of her, mingled with her desire to dance and flirt and the fantasy that there was a brother who was her prince, who would soon arrive, ride into Ever on his horse, his magic carpet, in a car, a boat, a plane, and whisk her away, take us to a land where she was queen.
Yet, because she was the only parent of a black boy from the projects she also knew herself as the sole remaining partner of a creation that would not only outgrow her but also live in a land that, if it did not despise me, certainly made it difficult for my soul to achieve a human level of peace. Like any mother, she knew she could only protect me for so long, that her role as the center, the cause, and the solution of what occurred in my life was a fleeting post. The summation of these facts caused her to doubt herself, perhaps even hate herself. That she was already a mother at thirteen, and what motherhood meant for the remainder of her life, was often, if not always, too tremendous a weight for her to bear. So, although she did no greater wrong than what both my Aunt Rhonda and my grandma had done before her, having a child while still children themselves, my mother was fraught with self-abasement, and eventually, mortal defeat. In her diary, she cursed herself. She cried at night. She was ornery. She acted out, threw tantrums and doled out silent treatment as if extreme action would both reverse her life and provide her control over it. Some days she couldn't bring herself to pick me up, to hold me, to feed me or change my diaper. Sometimes she watched me sleep and considered ways to make me not hers. She could leave me outside, put me on the stoop of a church, leave me on the bus or train with a note. Maybe the pawnshop would take me. Maybe some rich white woman in Long Island needed a small, brown novelty. Maybe she could take me to an ocean, a river, lay me down, sail me away.
While my mother struggled with how tremendously my arrival into the world had changed her life, Donnel, encouraged by my grandmother, propelled by both curiosity and an already intact sense of paternal responsibility that belied his age, slowly assumed more and more responsibility over me. He loved to hold me, to feed me, to proclaim that I, Abraham, was his baby cousin. He, when my mother couldn't, owned my well-being. At the park, in the waiting room of the sulfurous city health clinic with the failing fluorescent lights, in the Laundromat, on the bus, through summer's hottest days, through autumn, winter, and spring, and when we went shopping along the avenue, Donnel carried me, moored me upon his narrow hip. According to my grandmother, never had a brother so young walked with such pride; never had a boy emanated a holy power of unconquerable manhood.
Donnel taught me how to speak. He taught me how to hold a bottle. He reveled in making me giggle and smile. And like a puppeteer, he taught me how to walk. He stood in front of me, held me by my hands and helped me balance, then walked backward as I walked forward. I moved where his hands, his eyes, his smile led me. I lifted and dragged my feet according to his desire. By the time he was five, Donnel, with limited supervision and later no supervision at all, determined if and when I soiled myself, then changed me, gently laid me on a kitchen chair or the couch or, when need be, utilizing the dexterity and balance only available to fearless children and great athletes, he changed my diapers in his arms, pressed me against his body, nestled me in the crux between his rib, arm, and abdomen.
The bond Donnel and I had, the bond he was unconsciously but purposefully building was, in its essence, the fundamental mooring and foundation of my family. We were not grandmother, daughters, sisters, or sons. We were not uncle, aunts, and cousins. We were brothers. Our love was unwavering, unflappable, greater than anything presented by the Bible, the Torah, and the Qur'an combined. That is, where we'd go, what would occur, what we lost and gained together, what we suffered and championed through, what we sometimes wished to recall and force ourselves to forget, our lives, the occasions and circumstances, were more than everything, more than forever, more than even the truth. Copyright © 2009 by Matthew Goodman
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Matthew Aaron Goodman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
- What is the significance of the title, Hold Love Strong? What scene in the book does it originate from? What do you think its meaning is in the context of the book’s message?
- Abraham claims that “in Ever, we were three things: broken, desperate to leave, or soldiers in a war so impossible to win that everything we did, even blinking our eyes, even licking our lips, might be suicide”. Discuss the following characters in the context of this statement: Abraham, Jelly, Rhonda, Nice and Donnell. Which of the three categories does each character fall into? Do you think it’s possible for them to move from one to another? Why?
- Abraham’s grandmother reasons that, “there were lives…that were simply impossible to live.” Does the life that Abraham begins to want seem impossible? When does he realize that it is possible? What steps does he have to take to make it possible?
- Abraham’s grandmother forbids Abraham to allow his mother back into the apartment once she succumbs again to her crack addiction. When he sees her on the basketball court, he refuses to approach her. How is this different from his earlier behavior? Was it just Abraham’s grandmother who distanced them or has Abraham himself changed? Do you think he would have handled it differently if he knew it was the last time he would see her alive?
- When Nice returns from prison Abraham claims “seven years of incarceration had made his beauty the type of beautiful you had to commit yourself to, the type of beautiful you had to understand” (p. 235). What does Abraham mean by this? How is his uncle different from the man he knew?
- Abraham constantly wants to be somebody. How does he handle the shortcomings of those he admires? What is the symbolism of the characters on The Cosby Show? At what point does he decide to be himself, to be “more than such nothingness?” (p. 305)
- Why do you think that basketball is such an escape for Abraham? Discuss the statement: “…basketball was the way I lived, so personal every action, every dribble, every pass, every move to the basket, my defensive stance was essential, note in a song” (p. 269)
- Were you surprised when Abraham admitted that his mother “was my composition, the integral integration of me, and…I could not nor would I ever be able to strip or rip her being from me.”(p. 340)?
- What is the “effect of Ever” that Abraham mentions (p.351)? Discuss both its positive and negative affects in terms of the main characters of the story. Who were the worst cases? Who were the best?
- The author chooses to end Hold Love Strong with Abraham waiting for the bus to Brandeis University. Why do you think he decided to do so? Would the story have benefitted from chronicling Abraham’s experiences at Brandeis? Why or why not?
- In the beginning of the book, Abraham mentions that he “lived on a ladder, on one of the rungs between third and first world” (p. 15). Do you feel that is an accurate assessment of where he lived? Do you think he will ever move up the ladder? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Bookclub
1. Matthew Aaron Goodman currently leads a literacy program for a nonprofit organization that assists youth on the spectrum of criminal justice involvement. Visit their blog to learn more about their work: www.exaltscholars.wordpress.com.
2. Abraham plays basketball for the Police Athletic League. Visit http://www.nationalpal.org/ and find a chapter in your area. Then take your bookclub to one of their sporting events!
3. Idols, as you know, play a big part in the book. Discuss with your bookclub a few people who have been your idols. How have they helped you get where you are today? If you can, bring them to a meeting of your bookclub so everyone can meet them!
A Conversation with Matthew Aaron Goodman
Your ethnic, social and academic background is very different from those of the characters about whom you’ve written. What served as the inspiration for you to write Hold Love Strong?
At the time when I began writing Hold Love Strong, I was teaching at an alternative school in the South Jamaica section of Queens while living at a boarding house. There were 200 students with only 50 desks. We had no supplies. The kids had seen six or seven principals at the school within the span of a couple of months. There were no resources and very little stability in school and within their homes. I felt helpless, trying to figure out how to reach these kids. I was not functioning in a reality that most people experience.
Then our country was dealt another blow with September 11th. As profoundly tragic as September 11th had been, I was confronted with the reality that the kids I taught saw death and despair all around them every day. I wanted to find a way to tell the stories that we often don’t hear – the bad as well as the good – and hopefully start a dialogue about what needs to be done to help kids and families like those you read about in the book.
How did you come to create and develop the characters?
Through my work with the students I taught and my work in the prison system as a case manager, I grew to know and love the people I worked with. Like anyone else who works on a job, the people you’re working with is who you talk about when you leave the office. They were my colleagues and co-workers. So I drew off the many people I had the honor of working with and helping, all of whom I came to love, respect and care deeply about.
What was most challenging about writing Hold Love Strong?
It took eight years to complete the novel. To be honest, poetry had been my first love and I didn’t truly know how to write a novel. So I had to learn how to govern myself in writing the story, really pacing the way I told the story. I also had to get out of my own way because it can be easy to convince yourself that you can’t do something that you’ve not done before.
I also worked hard to make sure that I didn’t overwhelm the reader. Abraham’s story – and the stories of the people around him – is not easy to read. Not that we should run from them either, so I wanted to make them accessible and approachable without limiting the characters and their voices.
The voice throughout the book is that of the character Abraham, who is also at the center of the story. Abraham has a constant inner struggle with who he believes he wants and deserves to be and what he sees all around him, including friends and family members. How were you able to strike a balance the two sides of Abraham?
It really was not that difficult because I think we all struggle with balancing our lives. Take me, for instance. Although I didn’t grow up in the same social environment as the character, Abraham, I still struggled with the same sorts of issues. Where do I fit in? Is college really for me? What do I want to do with my life? I wasn’t the greatest student but I grew up understanding that education is important and I was obedient to that belief. I attended college at Brandeis, not always feeling like I fit in. I’ve lived in a number of different places, trying to make a home and life for myself. So I wanted to represent the inner struggles that Abraham was having, between what he wanted for himself and the realities of what he saw around him, based on my own experiences and what people go through every day, regardless of their circumstances.
Hold Love Strong is a fictional account of an African American family, but how real do you feel these stories truly are?
I know the stories in Hold Love Strong are based on real life because I’ve witnessed it through my work. I run a literacy group at present where I work with 15-20 African American and Latino boys and girls who have been incarcerated themselves, on probation, or their parents have been incarcerated. Working with them gives me a front-row seat to a lot of what’s happening in the world outside of what is considered the norm for many of us. And a lot of what I witness through my interaction with them is not fantasy or made up. It’s real life for them and as someone who works with them, it’s real for me, too.
What made you decide to write the story from the perspective of the 1980s-early 1990s time period?
I wrote Hold Love Strong during this period because it bridged my own youth with that of the character, Abraham. The 80s and 90s have their own respective histories and I found a lot during that era to explore through the eyes of Abraham – the onset of the crack epidemic, the growth of hip hop, the colloquialisms of the day, what we were watching on television (i.e., The Cosby Show), while revisiting my own coming of age.
AIDS and the crack epidemic are front and center in Hold Love Strong, particularly as it relates to Abraham’s immediate family. What do you say to those critics who might say that you’ve written an unfairly stereotypical account of a black family in the ‘hood?
I don’t feel that I’ve written an unfair or unflattering portrait at all. What’s unflattering is reality. When we meet one another, we construct what we think to be one another’s stories. Sure, you can get a short bio of where someone went to school, where they live, where they work. But only when we each look in the mirror do we see our own stories in its entirety. Hold Love Strong, while not representative of the whole story of any one community or family, it is the story of countless Americans.
Teenage pregnancy and single motherhood are also at the forefront of the story. Abraham’s grandmother is only 30 years old when he is born to his 13 year old mother. There are no fathers in the household, only male nephews and cousins. How close to reality do you believe a story like this to be?
The truth is in the statistics. There are an overwhelming number of households, largely African American, being headed by single mothers. A lot of the kids I have worked with throughout the years speak to the high number of households where there is no father or father figure present. I chose to tell Abraham’s story as such because it represents the positive that can and does come out of households headed by single women, particularly amidst social adversity.
The “N” word is used throughout the book, which some may find offensive or difficult to digest, particularly coming from someone who is not African American. How do you explain its use and context in Hold Love Strong?
Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, once wrote, “Perhaps the most soulful word in the world is ‘nigger’. I especially believe that our society’s preoccupation with the word is also our way of avoiding the real issues that accompany the term. I personally have my own issues with the word and do not use it in my everyday life. However, I will say honestly that I’ve been called the “N” word in a loving way more times than my own name in some instances. I’ve also been referred to as the “N” word in not so desirable terms. My reason for using the term in Hold Love Strong is quite simply being true to Abraham’s voice, not in any way, shape or form condoning or glamorizing the word.
Tell me about who Matthew Aaron Goodman is.
I’m a boy who loved playing basketball, yet grew to be a man who strived to live his dream of being a writer. I’ve never pursued writing in the celebrity sense. My goal has been to write great, meaningful, thought-provoking stories that people can relate to, enjoy reading and hopefully walk away having learned something from the experience. I’m also a person who loves my work with youth. I never walk away disappointed in my interactions with them. I learn from them as much as I hope they learn from me.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading Hold Love Strong? Are there any important lessons to be learned?
Mahatma Gandhi said “A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.” I hope that Hold Love Strong is able to contribute to the discussion that proves our universal humanity. That is, if we can accept that we can build such destructive devicesthe atomic bomb, weapons of war, etcwhy is it that we struggle to believe that we can build constructive ones as well, ones that bring us together instead of destroying and dividing each other? I always find it amazing when someone says you can't understand someone else. Considering that human beings have the capacity to split two invisible atoms (nuclear energy), I think we have a much greater capacity to understand each other than we give each other credit for.