The breaking TV news rocks Jasper, Texas, to the core: a white police officer is fatally shot in a scuffle with three black youths—and a cellphone video captures Jamal Jones, the sixteen-year-old son of esteemed Reverend Elton Jones, escalating the tragic encounter. Now, as the national spotlight shines on a town already rife with racial tension, Jamal is a murder suspect on the run. And all of Jasper—even the Reverend’s congregation—rushes to judge the boy they thought they knew.
But Gloria Jones knows her son best, and she races to find Jamal before the law does—to the outrage of her workaholic husband. Once she finds him, she has to decide whether to turn him in or help him run. With ruthless prosecutor and Houston mayoral candidate Kay Christensen hungering to put another young thug behind bars, Gloria will face her biggest battle yet. And when long-hidden secrets and shocking lies come to light, throwing Jamal’s case and his destiny into a tailspin, all Gloria can do is pray that the truth—and a mother’s unconditional love—will be enough to redeem the mistakes of the past and ultimately, save her son.
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Read an Excerpt
This had to be what death felt like. What it meant to have the Grim Reaper sneak up on you, wrap his claws around your heart, and squeeze. That’s what Gloria Jones felt right now. Her heart tightened, her breath slowed, and Gloria wondered how it was that she hadn’t passed out. All because of the story that she’d just seen on the news.
“Again, we want to warn you that this video is disturbing,” the red-haired female anchor from Channel 12 News said. “Police have released this footage in hopes that someone can identify the suspect or the other two boys in the video.”
The video that had initially stopped Gloria in her tracks during the news introduction began playing again.
“Are you recording me?” the police officer in the video yelled.
“Yep. I know my rights. I’m not violating any laws. I have a right to film. As long as I’m not interfering in your arrest, I have a legal right to film,” the young boy replied as he turned the camera on himself. It was dark and the picture was grainy, but he was clearly recognizable. And even if he wasn’t, the tiny cross tattoo on his neck was a dead giveaway. “You see how they treat us? If you’re young and black in America, you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
The boy turned the camera lens back on the officer, who was stomping toward him. The officer’s hand went up to block the camera shot.
“I said, get that camera off me.”
Before Jamal could respond the officer raced over and knocked the phone out of his hand. The phone tumbled into the grass.
It looked like the boy was pushed, because the camera toppled to the ground and the screen went to black, though the sound remained on. There was a ruffling noise, then an unintelligible exchange of words, then more yelling.
“Shoot that racist pig!”
“You gon’ die tonight, cop!”
And then, a single gunshot pierced the night air.
The video grew momentarily silent, then one of the boys yelled, “Let’s get out of here!” followed by the sound of footsteps running away.
Gloria stood in petrified silence as the scuffling continued, until finally, the anchor came back on.
“Police in the entire Golden Triangle have joined forces in search of the suspects. Anyone with information is asked to call authorities.” The anchor’s disdain was evident. Whatever happened to objectivity in news?
“I have a right to film!”
Even if Gloria didn’t recognize the grainy image, or the cross tattoo that had sent Elton through the roof, there was no denying the voice. The suspect who was now the subject of a massive tri-city manhunt was her only son, Jamal.
“What in blue blazes is going on here?”
Gloria jumped and then turned as her husband, Elton, made his way into the den of their modest ranch-style home. She quickly slammed the television off, and then looked down at the shattered vase at her feet.
“Did you cut yourself?” Elton said, looking at a trickle of blood oozing out of the top of her foot.
Gloria hadn’t even realized that a piece of glass had pierced her foot. When she’d seen that video, everything else became a blur.
“What’s going on?” Elton repeated, studying her. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. Just dropped a vase.” Gloria knelt down and began picking up the shattered pieces.
Elton eyed her suspiciously. “You were standing there, just staring at the TV. What were you looking at?”
She would have tried to force a smile, but no amount of acting could make that happen. “Oh no, I was just catching something on the Home Shopping Network when the vase slipped out of my hand.” She turned her back to her husband because if he saw her eyes—and her absolute fear—he’d know that she was lying.
“Woman, I done told you about being so clumsy.” He walked over, knelt down next to her, then kissed her on the cheek. “But I love you, clumsy self and all. I gotta get over to the church. Got a board meeting and you know Deacon Wade will throw a fit if I’m not there on time.”
Gloria knew that she should tell her husband what she’d just seen. She knew that he didn’t need to be blindsided at church. But Elton hadn’t wanted Jamal to go out last night. He hated Jamal’s friends. He despised his son’s rebel-with-a-cause attitude and they fought all the time. But Jamal was sixteen and Gloria was scared Elton’s strict ways would push their son away. So she’d convinced her husband to let Jamal go hang out with his friends. She’d told Elton that they had to loosen the reins on their only child. Elton had finally given in. And now look at the price they were paying.
She stopped him just as he got to the front door. “Ah, Elton . . .” He paused, but she couldn’t find her words. She needed to tell her husband that police were hunting their son. A massive manhunt at that. She had to let Elton know. But when he turned to face her, no words would come out of her mouth.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just wanted to say, um, have a good day. I’ll see you later,” Gloria said instead.
Elton studied her for a moment. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, finally forcing a smile. She ran her fingers through her shoulder-length tresses, a nervous habit that she hoped he didn’t notice. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.” He pushed a strand of her graying hair out of her face. After twenty-eight years of marriage, he could tell when something was wrong with her.
“Oh, I’m just tired. I was out in the garden this morning and you know this August heat.” She fanned herself, hoping to seem more convincing.
He stared at her a moment, and then, as if he finally believed her, simply nodded. “Well, get some rest today. Where’s Jamal? Don’t tell me he’s still asleep.” Elton looked down the hall toward Jamal’s room. It was Saturday and Jamal usually slept in until they came in and made him get up.
Gloria couldn’t tell her husband that Jamal hadn’t come home last night. She was praying that he returned before Elton noticed that he wasn’t home.
Gloria hated lying to her husband but ever since Jamal had turned thirteen, his already strained relationship with his father had gone to a whole other level of contention. Jamal wasn’t a disrespectful child but lately it was as if an independent streak had kicked in. He started hanging out with the wrong people, cutting school, and getting fed up with Elton’s strict ways. He’d even started talking about feeling like Elton wished he’d never been born. Gloria had tried to convince her son that wasn’t the case, but it didn’t help that Elton sometimes did act that way.
And then there was that tattoo. That had been the latest act of rebellion. When Jamal told his dad he’d “gotten a cross in honor of the good reverend,” Elton had gone utterly ballistic.
Gloria turned to go get the dustpan so that she didn’t have to look her husband in the eye.
“Oh, Jamal left early this morning to, uh, to go meet up with Brian to catch up on some schoolwork.” The lies were piling up.
Lord, forgive me, Gloria thought.
“Well, you tell him that I said to make sure he cleans those gutters today. They’d better be done by the time I get home.”
“Yes, sweetheart,” she managed to say as he headed out the front door.
Gloria tried to still her trembling hands as she got the last of the glass cleaned up. It took everything in her power to keep from spilling the glass out of the dustpan.
Police were looking for her son. Her son, who despite his recent change in attitude had never been in any real trouble. He’d been suspended once for skipping school, but other than that, nothing.
Gloria dumped the glass in the trash can, then, as soon as she saw Elton pull out of the driveway, she raced over to the cordless phone and snatched up the receiver. She dialed Jamal’s cell phone number and again it went straight to voice mail. She’d been calling all morning, praying that he’d just fallen asleep over at Brian’s house or something. She’d been praying that this all could be explained away.
“Jamal, this is Mama. Oh, my God, son, what’s going on? Where are you? Please call me. I’m going crazy with worry.”
She ended the call, then fell back against the wall and said a silent prayer. Not only that this was all some big misunderstanding but that she’d find her son before the police did. He was wanted for killing a cop in Jasper, Texas, a small town rocked by racism after the 1996 dragging death of James Byrd. Even though that was almost two decades ago, Jasper was still plagued by racial discord. A young black boy shooting a white cop? The racial unrest was about to go to a whole different level.
Yes, Gloria had to find her son first, because if she didn’t, Jasper police would sure enough kill him.
Reading Group Guide
When a news station runs a video of a black teenager shooting a white police officer in Jasper, Texas, Gloria Jones instantly recognizes the face of her son, Jamal—and fears for his life. As a hotbed of racial tension tracing back to the 1990s, Jasper is far from a safe haven for accused killers, and Gloria knows the dead police officer’s family and colleagues will be out for blood.
Poised and determined Houston prosecutor and mayoral candidate Kay Christiansen jumps at the chance to put Jamal behind bars but discovers that a dark part of her past has resurfaced, potentially jeopardizing the case, the election, and even her marriage. In Mama’s Boy, ReShonda Billingsley shows us yet again how morally ambiguous a high-stakes situation can be—and how an individual’s resolve can pave the way to redemption.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. In chapter one of Mama’s Boy, the author introduces us to one of the main characters, Gloria. How would you characterize the relationship she has with her husband, Elton? How is her view toward her son’s predicament different from Elton’s?
2. Why does Kay feel so confident that her son would never be in “the wrong place at the wrong time”? How has her life up until this point influenced her outlook on crimes among young men?
3. Do you think Elton was right to turn his son in? Was he thinking about justice, trying to protect himself, or trying to protect his son?
4. Kay and her husband, Phillip, have a seemingly perfect marriage and household. What were your initial impressions of Kay’s family? What do you think it’s like to have the same job as your spouse?
5. How much of an influence do parents have over their children? What kind of things were outside of Kay’s and Gloria’s control in Mama’s Boy?
6. How would you have acted if you had been in Kay’s position after Elton raped her? How do you think a situation like that should have been handled by the adults in Kay’s life?
7. Do you think Kay’s allegations against Elton would have been taken more seriously if he had not been a pastor? Why do you think Maxine’s and Kay’s family treated them the way they did?
8. Do you think Elton deserves forgiveness from his victims or from his family? Why or why not? Do you think he deserves forgiveness from God?
9. Do you think Camille was justified in placing blame on Kay and Ryan for her own son’s choices?
10. We eventually learn the complicated reasons why Pastor Jones heavily resents his son, Jamal. Would he have been more forgiving of Jamal’s act of self-defense if he himself had never committed a crime?
11. Is there any crime or act you consider unforgiveable? If so, what is it, and why?
12. In the epilogue, we see Maxine carrying out her own version of justice against Pastor Jones. Do you think it’s ever acceptable to carry out vigilante justice against a person who never paid for his or her crimes? Why or why not?
13. In what ways does Mama’s Boy explore the nuances of morality—religious, legal, political, and personal? What happens when people interpret everything in terms that are black and white, and absolute?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Through the power of social media, racially motivated violence has been brought to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. With your book club, select a recent police shooting of a black person that’s occurred within the last five years and analyze it. What legalities existed that allowed or did not allow the police officer to shoot? How did social media impact the way the case was handled? Do you think there’s ever a justification for shooting someone who’s unarmed?
2. Have you ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time? Take turns describing an incident where misfortune led you down a certain path. How would your life be different if it hadn’t happened?
3. Have each book club member share a plan to reduce juvenile crime rates within their city as if they were mayoral candidates. Make sure they address socioeconomic and racial disparities within the community. Vote for your book club “mayor” based on the best plan.
4. Visit the author’s website, http://www.reshondatatebillingsley.com, and select another Bilingsley book for your reading group. Compare and contrast characters and themes against Mama’s Boy.