In this electric debut, essayist and organizer Shakur turns an unflinching eye to the realities of growing up queer and Black amid the racialized violence and political backlash of recent decades. Coming-of-age as the son of Jamaican immigrants in Ohio in the early aughts, Shakur was haunted by his father’s absence and wounded by familial homophobia. While college brought opportunities for political action and fellowship forged by common values, Shakur details that it also stoked a more painful awareness of social injustice. “If America could not deliver me what I deserved as a young and curious Black person,” writes Shakur. “I deserved to try to find it where I could and not be overpowered by the kind of son or citizen I needed to be.” Recounting travels that take him from Costa Rica to the Philippines, as well as Ferguson, Mo., and Standing Rock, in the Dakotas, to protest, Shakur traces the perspective he gained while untangling the cords of trauma brought by microaggressions he weathered along the way. What emerges is a moving portrait of the artist as a young activist, powered by Shakur’s captivating prose, “the plywood, nails, and sails that sent me off into a world of my own making.” The result is a searing account of self-discovery in the face of structural oppression. (Oct.)
"Wrestles with the seemingly impossible task of fighting injustice globally."
"Engaging—a tribute to resilience, and to building a better world."
"Moving, illuminating, occasionally gorgeous and often powerful."
"Powerful. . . . both intellectual and deeply emotional. . . . His memories, presented here with grace and care, will likely help others."
"This memoir of trauma, identity, and race will move you. Move you to tears. Move you to action. Shakur’s exploration of self is revelatory. He is the voice for readers forgotten by publishing."
"As inspiring as it is detailed. . . . Intelligently explores the complicated yet straightforward relationship many men of all colors deal with: the subject of race."
"A story that combines so much—sociocultural criticism, religion, and politics while centering on the microcosm of one Jamaican family and the aftermath of two male relatives’ untimely deaths. . . . Commands a tension and doesn’t release you well after the last sentence."
"One of the most moving books of the year, a poignant story of trauma and identity."
"In this autobiography, Shakur, a queer, Jamaican American essayist and activist, charts his political journey as he reckons with his identity, his family’s immigration from Jamaica, and the intergenerational impacts of patriarchal and colonial violence."
"Clear-eyed and unsentimental, an insightful, beautifully written memoir of family and identity."
"Shakur writes from a place of honesty that is both searing and poignant in its transparency. His story will resonate deeply for those who hold hidden stories of sadness and grief tightly behind a smiling public mask."
"An intimate view of a young Black man entering a world of pain but coming out the other side with wisdom and hope."
"Unflinchingly honest. . . . a deeply layered creative nonfiction work."
"An artful debut."
"Explores his childhood as a queer child of Jamaican immigrants in 2000s Ohio, his travels in response to America’s failure to ‘deliver me what I deserved as a young and curious Black person’ and his reckonings with colonial and patriarchal violence."
"Demonstrates a talent for self-examination, not to mention literary prowess. . . . His confidence and self-awareness enable him to identify life lessons in the moment."
"A daring coming-of-age memoir. . . . Shakur claims visionary thinkers and writers right alongside the people in his neighborhood, his family, friends, and comrades as his intellectual and emotional companions, establishing intimate, playful, heartbreaking, and powerful connections across all boundaries. I know we will be hearing much more from this irrepressible new literary voice."
"In When They Tell You to Be Good, Prince Shakur attempts to make sense of being born into, flung into, both the maw of American violence and the legendary lures and pressures of Babylon. While reckoning with the history of the murders of family members in Jamaica alongside the American state’s history of murdering its Black beings, Prince charts a path through his queerness, his family history, films, literature, the Black radical tradition, as well as his own twin cultures, until an activist, a rigorously-fought-for sense of morality, and the contours of a lucid self comes into view. This is how I’ve come to locate myself in time and space and legacy, Prince seems to say, while unraveling a map of his own life. With When They Tell You to Be Good’s evergreen pairing of both finesse and confidence, it’s miraculous to witness Prince assert that he is his own best cartographer."
Through a nonlinear recounting of his own childhood memories, travels, and political work, Hurston/Wright Crossover Award winner Shakur tells a much larger story of what it means to be queer and Black, prods at the definition of family, and investigates his experiences in grassroots organizing with fervor. As a Jamaican American immigrant, Shakur grapples with intergenerational trauma brought on by colonialism and patriarchy and examines the profound effects on his family and self. The way he interrogates his experiences at Standing Rock and organizing Black Lives Matter protests serves as both self-reflection and sociopolitical commentary. The memoir also skillfully depicts complex familial dynamics, particularly Shakur's relationship with his mother, with gut-wrenching transparency. Ultimately, upending family secrets in this memoir allows the author to reckon with his identity, in stylistically stunning and impactful prose. VERDICT Shakur delivers an evocative, intimate, and also analytical exploration of self and various political landscapes. This beautifully written memoir is an absolute must-read.—Grace Caternolo
A Jamaican poet and activist debuts with an unflinching memoir.
“To be Black is to weather pain,” writes Shakur. “To use some of the same devices used against us in the plantation fields. Our families must break some part of us to make us less breakable when the world, hungry for Black flesh, tries to break us too.” By age 15, the author had already lost five close male relatives to murder, and he dedicates much of the book to reckoning with their violence (“the men of my family and of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora are products of masculinities crafted by an unjust society”) and chronicling the forging of his own path. Facing relentless homophobia, he recognized early that being gay meant that he must be prepared to die. He found solace in writing, where he channeled his wounds, and he became an activist in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown in 2014. Protesting in Ferguson, he realized, “If we fought together, then our Blackness could mean far more than what we had been told it was our entire lives.” Like early adulthood itself, some of the text lacks a coherent structure. The author writes about his extensive travels during and after college, during which he experienced prejudice like he often did at home. Born in 1994, Shakur attempts to create in-the-moment art in relation to his traumas, but the narrative would have benefitted from further reflection. In the standout sections, focusing on his childhood, he demonstrates that he has enough distance from the events to create more nuanced perspectives. In reconciling the anguish he experienced after an uncle was killed by police, Shakur writes, “the lesson is not about our ability to fantasize about self-actualization. The lesson is, instead, what we are willing to face to actualize the deepest and hidden parts of ourselves.”
A scorching, nonlinear journey through a Black man’s search for self.