Ten years ago, a prisoner finishing a seven-year term in a northern New York State prison sent an e-mail to John Jay College professor (and former New York investigative journalist) Greg Donaldson.
The prisoner had read a book Donaldson published in 1993 which chronicled the lives of young African-American toughs like himself (and featured his picture on the cover), and wondered whether the professor would like to tell his story.
The result was one of this year's most unusual books: Zebratown: The True Story of a Black Ex-Con and a White Single Mother in Small-Town America.
Donaldson spoke recently with The Crime Report's Julia Dahl about his relationship with the ex-inmate, Kevin Davis, and about Davis' troubled efforts to build a “normal life” for himself after prison in the industrial city of Elmira, NY.
The Crime Report: Kevin had to track you down and convince you to write about him. What was it about him and his story that made you say yes?
Greg Donaldson: I spent a lot of time in really rough neighborhoods for my book about (the) Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn (ED NOTE: The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America) In that book, I chronicled the lives of people who lived there; and always hovering in the background were these alpha males, these tough guys, who often live in an illegal manner, and they affect everybody in the community. Kevin was one of them, and you very rarely get a chance to look inside the head and see the motivations and the actual feelings of a guy like this.
Kevin's profile is also one that is romanticized greatly in our culture through gangsta rap. Kevin is the person they're rapping about, one of these zero-tolerance, violence-first people. These thugs have almost become like the American cowboy. Kids want to be like them. They talk like them; they walk like them; they dress like them. The other thing was his determination to reinvent himself. He wanted to change not only his lifestyle, but where he lived. So what would it be like to one of these swaggering street thugs to reinvent himself in small-town America?
TCR: After seven years in prison, Kevin is determined to stay out, but it's not easy. What were his biggest obstacles?
Donaldson: Kevin had internal and external obstacles. Externally, he was unable to get certain kinds of jobs because of his conviction. He couldn't even get a job at the Kennedy Valve factory upstate that the New York Times had written about as being the third circle of hell, where people died regularly. He couldn't even get into hell. But his internal issues made it hard, too. Kevin had to – still has to – come to terms with who he is. In Brooklyn, and in prison, his reputation as a fighter made him a celebrity, but in Elmira he had responsibilities. Not where you show up and behave fatherly on occasion, but you do it every day all day.
Kevin came to visit one my classes recently and one of my students asked a wonderful question. He asked, do you think the existence of this book will make it harder for Kevin to change into a person that could accept the everyday life of an average man rather than the star he had been used to in the streets and prison? Kevin didn't answer the question, but it is an interesting question: whether Kevin, in the long run, can accept the life of just a husband and a father, an every-day Joe. The book, the celebrity it has afforded him so far and may afford him in the future, is what he's looking forward to and if that doesn't happen, I don't know what's going to happen.
TCR: Do you think that Kevin's obstacles are common among men, specifically men of color, after being released from prison?
Donaldson: That's one of the reasons why I wrote the book. Kevin is a unique individual, but he's also representative in some ways. The economic and other collateral punishments are exactly similar [for other ex-inmates]. I hope that people who are in charge of re-entry programs or educational programs for inmates will read the book, and learn something about this. Kevin [like many others] is not the ideal ex-inmate who is ready to go and can make all the adjustments easily. [These] people have challenges, as we all do, and I think this book points out some of those challenges.
TCR: The book is also about the community of Elmira, aka “Zebratown,” where poor black men from New York City find kinship with poor white women from upstate. Were you surprised to discover this dynamic?
Donaldson: I was amazed when I first got up there. New York City is thought of as a super diverse place, but you don't see interracial couples walking all over the place, and you do in Elmira. It's a tradition there. Partly, it's because there is a prison [nearby] and men get out, see how much easier life is outside the big city, and stay. But a lot of the connection has to do with economics. Karen and her friends, they've been locked up, their boyfriends have been locked up, white and black. Economics, social class, education–what Kevin and Karen had was very similar. They talk and interact very naturally. Race is not that big a factor there.
TCR: Kevin often shoots himself in the foot: he wants to stay on the right side of the law, but he drives a flashy Mercedes that makes him a target for police. At the same time, he is vigilant about maintaining control over his temper, which is what got him locked up in the first place. Did he ever ask you for advice? Did you ever give it?
Donaldson: Yes. My partner asked me recently, When will we be done with Kevin? I said, 'Never.' Kevin and I are joined at the hip. For years, I'd be sitting at [his] dinner table when family fights broke out. I couldn't help but get involved. Our relationship is not 100 percent writer to subject, but it can't be that over eight years. I think the strength of this book was that it allowed me to get as close and as deep into a person as you possibly can get. That's why you get all the nuance, all those contradictions. One of the reasons why the book is not a natural sell, why you don't see me on Oprah, is that Kevin is not an inspirational character, and he's not a villainous character. He's human with all his complications and nuances. It doesn't make for inspirational literature, but I think he makes for an authentic portrait.