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Bad Boy: A Memoir

Review

Bad Boy: A Memoir



Has anyone else noticed that memoir writing seems to have replaced
baseball and Monopoly as the Great American Pastime? Everybody ---
from popstars to pro wrestlers to the pizza delivery guy --- is
succumbing to the therapeutic (i.e., helping yourself) and
philanthropic (i.e., helping others) lure of memoiring. In the same
vein as the insufferable Boy-Band-Craze, the literary world is
being deluged with more than a few memoirs that are, well, to be
perfectly honest, not that good.


Thank God the YA community now has cause to hold its head high: Its
most recent contribution to the memoir genre, BAD BOY, comes from
the amazingly prolific, award-winning, critically acclaimed,
altogether extraordinary Walter Dean Myers.


Born into a rather confusing family situation (I shall not even
attempt to retrace the family tree), Myers grew up in Harlem during
the '40s and '50s. A cultural mecca for African Americans ---
crossing the paths of Langston Hughes or Jackie Robinson on the
city sidewalks was not an uncommon event --- Harlem had a long,
rich literary tradition, and a spirit of celebration of African
American heritage and identity seemed to effuse the air of Harlem
during those years.


However, there was little, if any, "celebration of identity" for
Myers...


Plagued by both a severe speech impediment that left him
perpetually frustrated and a plain old predisposition for
troublemaking, Myers was, to put it mildly, a "handful" --- more
specifically, he was highly energetic with a temper like a
mad-Irishman and a propensity for beating up his peers and breaking
his parents cherished possessions if he didn't get his way. Sure,
it was generally agreed that the young Myers was smarter than the
average child, but it was also unanimously agreed that he was a
gigantic pain in the...


Amid all the tempestuousness of his teenage years --- dropping in
out and of high school (Stuyvestant, to be exact; an elite public
school that takes only the best and brightest around New York),
becoming involved with a gang, getting in fights --- the one
constant in Myers life was a love of reading and writing. The
poetry of Dylan Thomas was a particular favorite, as was reading
Camus, Balzac, and Joyce in Central Park (in lieu of school, of
course).


Yet as much as Myers loved reading and was obviously a gifted
writer --- perhaps the only positive things his teachers ever had
to say about him --- his interest in these things did not offer him
solace from the ever-looming angst of adolescence as they would for
some teens. Rather, his passion for great works of literature was
one of the primary contributors to his ever-deepening identity
crisis.


As we all can attest to, the life of a teenager is fraught with
insecurity, self-doubt, confusion, disenchantment, boredom, and
loneliness (there are, of course, numerous other dismal
descriptives, but I believe the point has been sufficiently made).
For Myers, though, the typical existential questions facing a teen
--- Who am I? What am I going to do with my life? Does anyone
really understand me? --- were made infinitely more complex by the
fact of his race and cultural influences. What does it mean to be
black man? And does the fact that I like poetry and hope one day to
be a writer make me any less of man? Does it make me any less
black?


"I didn't see anybody defining a real man as somebody who paid a
lot of attention to books... When I thought of the major careers, I
thought of whites, not blacks. When I thought of maleness, I
thought of whites with political or economic power and blacks with
muscle. My definition of a black man was, except for the rare
exception, a man without an exceptional career, and a man who had
to define his maleness by how muscular he was."


Walter Dean Myers doesn't offer any easy answers. You won't come
away from reading this memoir saying, "Ah, yes, the "being black"
question is no longer a mystery to me." Rather, with BAD BOY Myers
uses his own life to poignantly illustrate a point that is so very
important it warrants repeating a million times over: Being an
African American teenager (any teenager, really) from a working
class neighborhood who likes playing sports and writing
poetry and reading James Joyce in the park does not make you an
abnormal freak, less of a man, or a sellout to your culture or
community. Coming to terms with this realization may prove
emotionally and psychologically tumultuous, but make no mistake,
these qualities can (and, frankly, should more often) peacefully
and productively coexist in one person.


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Reviewed by Sarah Brennan on October 18, 2011

Bad Boy: A Memoir
by Walter Dean Myers

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2001
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad
  • ISBN-10: 0060295236
  • ISBN-13: 9780060295233