Although slim when compared to more elaborate legal thrillers, this debut novel takes on a heavy topic: the disproportionate and racist impact of the criminal justice system on black teenage males. Written by a lawyer, “Endangered” gives the reader a glimpse into that system, and it is not a flattering portrait.
Fifteen-year-old Malik Williams lives with his mom, Janae, in Philadelphia’s inner city. Their lives are thrown into disorder when Malik is arrested for the murder of a friend on a street corner where drug dealing was taking place. The only evidence is that the two boys were seen together and that Malik’s clothing matched an anonymous caller’s description to the police.
Unfortunately for Malik, the incident is the latest in an epidemic of murder in the city. Everyone wants the killers curbed, so the police and prosecutor’s office have no sympathy for murder defendants like Malik. Despite his age, the authorities plan to try him in adult court for first degree murder.
As is true with most novels involving the court system, the plot of “Endangered” relies on a few coincidences or key events that don’t happen in the real world. One is that, without first talking to Malik or Janae, renowned human rights lawyer Roger Whitford of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights notifies the judge that he will be filing a motion to represent Malik. Janae works as a cashier and has no money for a private lawyer.
Attorney Whitford is willing to represent Malik pro bono, hoping to establish his innocence in the criminal case but also intending to challenge the biased nature of the justice system in a civil class action contending that black teenage males are protected by the Endangered Species Act. At their first meeting, not surprisingly, Janae reacts emotionally, accusing the attorney of seeing her son as an animal. She suspects that Roger lacks real understanding of what people like her and Malik face.
The boy’s father has never been involved with his life, and Janae has no one she can turn to for help. She wishes “she were not alone; alone like every other woman she knew.” It has always been Janae and Malik “against the world.” However, Roger is able to convince her that his motivations are based on what will best serve Malik and other kids being raised in the same circumstances.
The other principal character is Calvin Moore, “an anomaly”— a black man who has escaped the challenges of growing up in the ghetto to get an Ivy League education and a job as a lawyer in a prestigious law firm. The founding partner of his firm, who is also Whitford’s best friend, wants to give Calvin leave to work with Roger on Malik’s case. Calvin is reluctant to go along, fearing that his plan to become a prominent lawyer and establish his own law firm could be derailed by the publicity the case will generate.
But Calvin’s Grandma Pearl, who raised him and “loved him out of the grasp of local gangs,” reminds him that “the most honorable thing you [can] do with your law degree is help your own community.” She looks at a folder of statistics Roger provided and tells him, “I hope you know that you didn’t make it out of here just for yourself.” After letting his grandmother’s comments sink in, seeing Janae’s determination and observing the quality and passion of Roger’s first court appearance, Calvin decides to join the fight.
In a TV interview, Roger summarizes the endemic deprivations of youths raised in the inner city and what he characterizes as “the real threat of extinction of black boys in our culture.” Thirteen percent of all black males 18 and older have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions. The lack of education is directly linked to crime, and more than 60 percent of black males in major urban areas drop out of school. Those who stay in school are disproportionately placed in special education, suspended or expelled. One third of all black males between 16 and 24 are awaiting trial, in prison or on probation or parole. The leading cause of death for black males 15 to 34 is homicide; the third leading cause is suicide, the rate of which has tripled in the past decade. Roger leaves the interviewer in stunned silence.
As the plot develops, Janae’s strengths emerge and complement Roger’s and Calvin’s legal skill. The challenges are to keep the case in juvenile court, assigned to a judge with liberal political views and, at the same time, to defend the case against a skeptical press. Their collective determination bears fruit when two witnesses come forward: one, a crack addict who witnessed the murder; the other, the mother of an 11-year-old who was shot and killed on their front porch.
A literary critic might conclude that “Endangered” is not a great novel. A reader looking for an intricate procedural thriller might be advised to choose another book. But this novel’s importance goes beyond its use of language or an intricate plot. It illuminates the assumptions we all make about others based on race and class and educates the reader about the endangered status of black teenage boys. Author Jean Love Cush creates real characters and addresses an issue of critical importance. And she offers a good read, besides.
Book Review - Endangered: A Novel by Jean Love Cush