By Greg Donaldson
The 2010 U.S. Census recently reported a steep rise in multiracial households across the nation, which makes particularly timely Greg Donaldson’s Zebratown: The True Story of a Black Ex-Con and a White Single Mother in Small-Town America (Scribner). The title refers to a neighborhood in Elmira, one of New York’s many upstate cities noted for rusting factories and a big prison, where “mixed-race couples and their children abound.”
Every year about 325,000 black convicts are released from prison. Donaldson, a professor of communications and theater arts at John Jay College, has chosen to follow one of them, Kevin Davis, a product of Brownsville in Brooklyn, who was released from Elmira’s prison, “The Hill,” in 2000 after seven years behind bars. His long rap sheet made him a celebrity on the inside and earned him the nickname KK, for Killa Kev (he was involved in a murder but evaded prosecution).
Donaldson spent eight years (and dozens of trips to Elmira) soaking up KK’s life story and that of his white single-mother girlfriend, interviewing many of the criminal justice officers who crossed his path, not to mention many relatives and bad dudes from his past and present.
To call the tale of Zebratown gritty and forlorn is to put it mildly. Down and Out in Elmira would have been an apt alternate title, but Donaldson’s hope is that KK’s story will wake up “an American society at best uninterested” in the rehabilitation of black ex-cons and “at worst hostile to that possibility.” He also set out to offer “an authentic account of one recent trend of the African-American experience, the interplay of the big-city former gangster with small-town America.”
Why Kevin Davis? A bizarre story in itself. In 1993 Donaldson was finishing up his study “The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America” and trekked (with an armed escort) to Brownsville hoping to get a vivid jacket photo.
A rough pack truculently denied permission to snap a photo, then a car backfired, they scrambled, and the photographer got his shot of them. When detectives saw the book’s cover, they spotted a “person of interest,” used it like a wanted poster, and arrested Davis.
“The Ville” helped put him in prison, but when his release neared, he reached out to Donaldson, saying he had no hard feelings. When he first met the short, massively-muscled former boxer at a restaurant near Columbus Circle in 2002, Donaldson found this “über-thug” intriguing, and his narrative instincts kicked in. Perhaps in the beginning he imagined an inspirational tale of adversity overcome and a heart-warming re-entry into society.
That KK’s story will not have a Hollywood ending is indicated by the fact that Davis’ is the only real name in Zebratown. All others need their privacy protected. Indeed, Donaldson acknowledges he has “recreated” some conversations recalled by his informants and often insinuates splendid creative-writing flourishes like this one in the final darkening pages: “Broad-backed gulls are skimming over the swollen Chemung [River], tilting their white wings, searching the shadows.” Zebratown is a novel of real, if persistently unfortunate, life.
Being a road manager for a white rapper named Johnny Blanco looks good for a while, but in a rage Davis decks a superior. Then he’s pushing a “bitch-ass cart” down the halls of a care facility, then pouring material for large vanity tops. Mostly he’s out of work, yet somehow driving a Lexus (confiscated by the police) or a 13-year-old Mercedes-Benz.
Home life with Karen, his girlfriend, involves her live-in mother, whose Social Security helps pay the rent, and her young daughter by an absent jerk of a father. Then Davis is arrested for being (he says) “in the wrong place at the wrong time” during a drug deal. It takes a year for the case prosecutor to fold his cards.
Karen, unemployed most of the time, is then arrested for possession of crack, which she was not very smartly holding for a third party. After months of ominous courtroom drama the judge sends her to prison. Unfortunately, by then she is pregnant by Kevin, and sent to the only New York prison with a nursery, the maximum-security facility at Bedford Hills. The baby girl is 11 months old when Karen is released.
Attention to the landscape and sociology surrounding all this going-nowhere enlivens Zebratown. We learn that Elmira’s name was changed from Newtown by a judge smitten by an innkeeper’s daughter, and that it was the site of one of the Civil War’s most notorious northern prison camps, nicknamed Hellmira. Davis visits a black fraternity party in Binghamton (his closest brush with higher learning), and Donaldson tells us he is amazed by the “step dancing, pure folk art, passed down from generations of black college men and based on rhythmic tradi-tions of Africa.” Davis remarks, “Those [expletive] have too much time on their hands.” (No expletives are deleted in Zebratown.)
In the end, Davis plays the role of anti-hero all too well. He “believes that if a woman begins to feel too good about herself, she will be trouble.” For a guy with a short fuse, his life-long rule of abstaining “from both complaint and negotiation” proves serially disastrous. He is denied a visit with Karen and his baby at Bedford Hills when an ion scan reveals drug residue; he blows up, committing three misde-meanors. Then he begins to absent himself from his family to hang in Elmira’s projects, scant improvement from those he left in Brownsville.
We leave these hapless pilgrims in a slough of despond. Near the end Davis ignores an order of protection and assaults Karen while she is in the company of another man. He’s bailed out only when the grandmother of a local woman who has borne him a son and is pregnant by him again steps in.
In the last paragraph of a final postscript, we learn, “On October 26, 2009 … Kevin Davis was convicted of criminal contempt in the second degree for violating an order of protection and assault in the third degree.” Several years earlier, Davis was attacked in a roadside bar hanging out with the wrong crowd. Suddenly he was attacked with a knife and a hammer. Most of his front teeth were shattered. Now, heading to prison one more time, those teeth are still missing.
One of the few moments in Zebratown when “sweet” and “bitter” almost balance out is near the end, when “screams fly from a house across the street and distant car horns sound from both sides of the Chemung.” It is the night of the 2008 election, and Kevin hoists up his baby daughter, whose life began behind the eight ball, and points to the television set. “That’s the first black president. This is history in the making, baby. Don’t forget — Obama is magnificent.”