At once heartrending and unflinchingly honest, RAISING FENCES is the memoir of an African American man who spent his youth committing thefts, experimenting with sex, and developing a mortal fear of the police. Like many young black men, at the heart of Michael Datcher’s childhood stood the gaping hole left by an absent father, and out of that hole grew the fervent desire to fulfill a dream that seemed almost a fantasy: to leave the streets behind, build a family, and become what he had wanted so badly—a good father. Breaking out of his self-destructive habits and taking responsibility for his mistakes, however, would take him to his breaking point and bring him face to face with the threat of becoming what he feared most.
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Read an Excerpt
in the beginning
When I pull the letter from the mailbox, my heart starts jackhammering. I return to my second-floor Leimert Park apartment, leaping two white stairs per stride. Sit down at the heavy wooden desk. Tight-fist the letter opener butcher knife-style to steady my trembling hand:
STATE OF ILLINOIS
CERTIFICATE OF LIVE BIRTH
There I am in Box 3, "Child's Name: Michael Gerald Cole." I've never seen Cole attached to Michael Gerald before. I stare like it's the first time. "Single" is marked in Box 5A, not "twin," "triplet," or "quad." Years of thinking maybe I was a separated-at-birth twin ends there at Box 5A. Born at 5:49 P.M. The box below: "Mother's Full Maiden Name: Mariam Cole. Age: 17." So young, I0think. Just a girl. Pregnant at sixteen. But this really isn't about her, it's about Box 7: "Father's Full Name: Legally Withheld." I'm not really sure what I'm expecting to see. I'm hoping for some hint. Some clue. Eye color. Hair color. Height. Initials. Anything. Box 9: "His Age: Unknown." Box 10: "His Birthplace:" blank. Box 11A: "His Usual Occupation:" blank. Box 11 B: "Kind of Business or Industry:" blank.
The blanks blur together on the page. I don't know who my father is. Don't know one thing about him. This truth seeps through the spaces between my rib cage, straitjackets my lungs. I am not going to cry this time. I slide out the top drawer of my black metal file cabinet. Under "Medical," I file the birth certificate, his punk ass, and all theblank spaces in my life. I slam the cabinet shut.
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.
When the picket-fence motif was in vogue, only a few of us could get in the game. The swelling ranks of those who couldn't (the Perpetual Second Team) were forced to the sidelines, scowlingand pretending we didn't even want to play.
The bastard children of these Second Teamers stalk the same sidelines. We rarely sit on the bench. Too restless. We can't figure out if we want to beg to play or raise a stiff middle finger. Sometimes we do both. But usually we strike a cool pose. Hide Huxtable-family dreams in the corner: Can't let someone catch us hoping that hard.
We know few people believe in us. We struggle to believe in ourselves. So we pose. We have gotten good. We can pose and cry at the same timeno one sees. We can pose and cry out for helpno one hears. We are the urban ventriloquists.
* * *
Of the thirty families that lived in our east-side Long Beach, California, apartment building during the mid-seventies, I never saw a father living in a household. I never even saw one visit.
There were lots of boys in the neighborhood: Ricky, Dante, Pig Pen, Curt Rock. We rarely talked about our missing fathers. Instead, we poured our passion into our skateboards, our marbles, and our mothers. Yet the unspoken sparkled from our eyes whenever any neighborhood men showed us attention. Once in their gaze, we worked to outperform one another, trying our best to keep the manlight from straying.
"Watch this! I can do a back flip off the curb.... Heh, betchu a quarter I can make a shot from the free-throw line."
It's likely one of these men laid the seed that sprouted into a back-flipper before them. Neighborhood rumors have a way of falling off grown-up kitchen tables and splattering on ghetto playgrounds.
We flipped, pop-locked, and did the Robot for them, but we were knowing: Men weren't to be trusted. Even when our mothers didn't speak these words, their tired lives whispered the message.
I knew many of these men had kids. Where were they? Why were they watching me spin instead of their own children ? No, these men were not to be trusted. How could I accept their advice when their personal lives screamed, "I'm lost toooo"? There was too much fatherhood failure around. The disease seemed to be contagious given the epidemic in our neighborhood. These men could watch me spin, but I couldn't let them get close enough to breathe on me.
The ghetto irony: Many of my generation's young spinners have become the twenty- and thirty-something men who can't be trusted. Making children who will grow up to hate them.
Circumstance, suspect choices, and fear have ways of disfiguring urban hopes with surgical precision. A four-ounce bottle of baby formula becomes much heavier than a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor. Having five women becomes easier than having one.
What People are Saying About This
Heart-rending and beautiful, an odyssey through family and love, through heartbreak and desire.
With this unforgettable memoir, Datcher brings honor, commitment, and soul back to the orphaned American dream....
...a powerful narrative...I read this book...with gratitude for Datcher's brutal honesty, humor, and poetic probes....
Raising Fences is a stirring, insightful, compelling account...Honestly told...Datcher's narrative is deeply moving, poetic, wise and much needed today.
Reading Group Guide
DISCUSSIONQUES:Question: Of the thirty families who were Michael Datcher's neighbors in a Long Beach, California, apartment building in the mid-seventies, Datcher writes, "I never saw a father living in a household. I never even saw one visit." Disappointed at having been abandoned by their fathers, Datcher and his friends fell into a macho sort of posturing to protect them from their hurt feelings. Discuss the many manifestations of this in the neighborhood and in Datcher himself. How does Datcher link this "epidemic of fatherhood failure" to the lack of hope that arises in the inner city?
Question: The ghost of the father he never knew haunts the author throughout these pages. Datcher writes about his longing for marriage, fatherhood, and a stable family, but his actions are not always consistent with these goals. Why do you think it is so difficult for him to become the responsible man that he wants to be?
Question: Discuss the way in which Datcher's first brush with the law forms his feelings toward police officers. To what extent do you think that our prejudices are formed in response to other people's biases? Do you feel it is a cycle that is doomed to continue?
Question: Discuss the role of community in Datcher's life. What are some of the communities to which he belongs during his childhood and adulthood? Are their influences positive or negative? How does each contribute to his sense of identity?
Question: Why do you think Datcher became so intensely involved with the Church of Christ? What did the Church give him that had been lacking in his life? What conflicts did Datcher's Church membership create? Did you come to see the Church as a cult or a religion? Did the Church of Christ serve a constructive or destructive purpose in Datcher's development as a man?
Question: In an argument with Datcher over whether or not to get an abortion, Camille says, "You tryin so hard to get me down to the clinic so you can protect your little dream. Well, I have dreams, too." Did you take sides in this argument and, if so, did your feelings change when Nicole's paternity was revealed? Why do you think Camille lied to Datcher about her baby's paternity? Do you think that anything positive resulted from her lie?
Q>Datcher's friendships with other men play an important role in his life. In Raising Fences, he describes a number of close male friendships he has had at different times in his life. Name a few of Datcher's closest male friends and discuss the lessons he learned from each of them, both positive and negative. How has following their examples made Datcher "a better human being," as he claims on page 234? At the World Stage Writer's Workshop, the male participants have rare moments of catharsis and talk openly about their lives. Do you think that a group like this would benefit men you know? Why or why not?
Question: Datcher describes coordinating the World Stage Writer's Workshop as his "chance to turn some of the hurt into art." Discuss the role poetry plays in Datcher's life and in the lives of the other men and women who participate in the Workshop. What does poetry give them other than an outlet for difficult emotions? Why do you think Datcher decided to propose to Jenoyne with a poem, in front of their friends from the World Stage?
Question: Tyrone Tillman has overcome his disadvantaged background and is, at age twenty-seven, considered a "wunderkind" by Datcher and his friends. He is rich, smart, successful, and generous. He appears to have everything-and yet his accomplishments are shadowed by a violent and cruel side to his personality. How do you reconcile Tillman's anger with his generosity? What do you make of the following lines, from Datcher's poem about Tillman:
"this is where he is safest./ where beauty is in the black eye/of the beholder./ manhood is easy here."?
Question: At the end of Raising Fences, although Datcher refers wistfully to the father who will never come to show him how to be a man, there is a sense that he has "outgrown the dervish of want and need" through determination and desire. What kind of man has Datcher become by the end of the book? Will fatherlessness continue to define him? Or, in marrying the woman he loves, has he broken the cycle of abandonment he feared?