The incident that defines Patrisse’s middle school experience is not about school, though it does relate to poverty, policing, and Blackness. At the end of sixth grade, Cherice tells her that Alton is not her biological father. He is her siblings’ father, but while they were temporarily broken up, Cherice fell in love with a man named Gabriel and got pregnant with Patrisse. Cherice ran into Gabriel recently and told him about Patrisse, which is why he has been calling the house. She asks if Patrisse wants to meet him and, though Patrisse wants everything to stay the same, she also wants to meet her father. So, she says yes.
Gabriel’s absence in Patrisse’s life is related to poverty and policing because, as Patrisse goes on to explain, Gabriel responded to being poor by starting to sell drugs and eventually went to prison for it. What may look like a man choosing to abandon his pregnant girlfriend, Patrisse suggests, is really a Black man trying to survive in the face of structural oppression.
Between this conversation and when Patrisse meets Gabriel a month later, she and Cherice do not talk about him. In that time, Alton comes to visit—as he has for six years since leaving—and adult Patrisse reflects that she didn’t yet understand how his disappearance was tied to larger social issues, such as losing his well-paying job at the GM plant and never again finding financial stability. Twelve-year-old Patrisse feels, instead, like she and her siblings must have done something to push him away. She loves and misses Alton, so when he comes to pick her up to get some food, she says yes.
Again, Patrisse analyzes Alton’s decision to leave their family as the result of structural oppression rather than personal responsibility. Patrisse’s believes that his inability to find a job and then disappearing due to the shame of not being able to provide for his family is not his fault—it’s the result of circumstances like economic downturn and poverty that are beyond his control. But 12-year-old Patrisse doesn’t yet understand this, so she blames herself.
They get tacos at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant nearby and, as they eat, Alton starts crying. He asks Patrisse if he is still her father, and she says yes, of course. He explains that he didn’t want Cherice to tell her about Gabriel because he didn’t want her to feel like she wasn’t fully his. Patrisse wishes she could say “I love you” a million times, but this is not how they talk to each other. So, she says nothing, and they eat in silence. She starts to feel guilty, like she is responsible for his tears, but she still wants to meet Gabriel.
Despite the fact that Alton has been an inconsistent presence in her life, Patrisse deeply cares for him. This sentiment will become part of Patrisse’s commitments as she becomes an activist: to accept and love people for who they are rather than turning away.
When Gabriel comes to pick Patrisse up, she notices how similar they look. He doesn’t have a car, so they take the bus to the movies. Though Patrisse feels awkward, Gabriel hugs and kisses her comfortably throughout the day. Gabriel explains that he’s in recovery from crack addiction and lives in a sober-living home. Patrisse knows about crack because everyone in her neighborhood seems to use it—there are no playgrounds, parks, theaters, or treatment centers, so what else is there to do? Patrisse’s brother Monte has even started selling Cherice’s things to buy crack and has started showing signs of schizoaffective disorder. This is the post-Regan generation, and “crack filled the empty spaces for a lot of people whose lives had been emptied out.”
When Patrisse writes that many peoples’ “lives had been emptied out,” she is referring to the way that policymakers and corporations chose not to invest in Black communities, leaving them without playgrounds, parks, theaters, or treatments centers. Ronald Regan—president of the U.S. in the 1908s—was known for reducing government spending, which led to fewer public amenities. Patrisse makes the case that, for poor Black people, using crack was a way to survive being treated like their lives weren’t worth investing in. People struggling with mental illness without access to healthcare (like Monte) had even more reason to turn to drugs.
A week after Patrisse meets Gabriel, Cherice takes her to Gabriel’s graduation from his Salvation Army treatment program. Gabriel’s extended family is there, and they greet Patrisse as one of their own, kissing and hugging her. Five of Gabriel’s nine siblings are there, and so is his mother, Vina, who is short like Patrisse. Vina is from Louisiana and had a white mother and Creole father. Patrisse later learns that when Vina was young, a white man raped her, and she gave birth to two daughters. No one speaks of it, an example of family trauma that is passed on and cannot heal. Patrisse loves Vina immediately. Patrisse also meets Gabriel’s 20-year-old son, and they hug.
Meeting her new extended family is a healing experience for Patrisse—though they don’t know her, they embrace her straight away. At the same time, Patrisse acknowledges that full healing cannot take place unless people share openly about their trauma and pain, which Vina does not. Vina’s experience of being raped twice by a white man is an example of the harm that can come from living at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood.
Gabriel’s family is poor, unlike Cherice’s family, who is middle class. (Cherice was kicked out of her community for getting pregnant before marriage and will never access middle-class safety again.) Gabriel’s extended family’s world is nothing like Cherice’s world, and Patrisse feels out of place, especially without her siblings. She starts to feel like she is two Patrisses—her mother’s daughter and her father’s daughter—and she doesn’t feel whole.
Here, Patrisse acknowledges that although both sides of her family are Black, they’re of different social classes—another way of showing that there is no one Black experience. Cherice’s experience of being disowned by her family also shows the unique experience of being a woman and a Jehovah’s Witness—she is punished for promiscuity in a way that a man likely would not be.
Patrisse listens to Gabriel’s graduation speech, about his healing and gratitude for his family. She will later question the way 12-step programs hold individuals responsible for their addictions rather than addressing external factors, like not having access to support or “the general sense that their life matters.” Still, she sees the power in public accountability. This is possibly the first time she’s heard an adult apologize. Alton never apologized for leaving, and GM never apologized for closing the plant with no support for him. Even Cherice is secretive. But Gabriel is being in honest in public, thanking his family for standing by him when he went to prison for his drug use. When Patrisse gets home, no one asks her about her time with Gabriel. She just goes to sleep, gets up, and heads to school.
Patrisse again questions the narrative of personal responsibility when it comes to addiction—she wonders how a poor Black man like Gabriel could be held responsible for using drugs when he was just trying to survive in a classist, racist world. But although she doesn’t believe people should be held individually responsible for their addictions, she does believe they should be publicly accountable for the harm they’ve caused to others. In this way, Patrisse’s relationship with Gabriel (unlike her relationships with Alton and Cherice) teaches her how to share honestly and heal in community.
Gabriel becomes very present in Patrisse’s life, picking her up every Friday to see their sports-loving extended family at Vina’s house. Patrisse sometimes worries what Alton and her siblings think of her being with her new family, but she also starts to feel like one of them. Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness, Patrisse never celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, or birthdays, and didn’t feel she was missing anything. But with her new Catholic family, she has fun celebrating and eating food, even though no one has money for gifts.
Patrisse continues to navigate being a member of two separate families without favoring one side over another or abandoning her loved ones. Spending time with Gabriel’s extended family is healing for Patrisse, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and was not allowed to celebrate holidays. Again, Patrisse shows that there is no singular Black experience.
Gabriel eventually buys a car and drives Patrisse and her friends around, something Cherice can’t do because of her work schedule. He drives them wherever they want to go—pizza, movies, and more. One day, he takes Patrisse to a small 12-step meeting and, though Patrisse is young and slightly overwhelmed by the attendees’ stories of harm they’d caused, she also loves everyone’s honesty. Still, she wonders why only individuals are held accountable when unemployment and police brutality are at play. The meetings—and going out to eat afterwards—help Patrisse feel closer to Gabriel. His honesty and openness start to change her, encourage her to want to be the same way.
Again, Patrisse questions the way that 12-step programs encourage addicts to see their choices as solely within their control rather than informed by context like the war on drugs and high unemployment. Still, she appreciates the honesty that she witnesses at the meetings and starts to develop her own commitment to being honest as a way to heal.
Patrisse also joins Gabriel at weekend barbecues where he plays baseball with their extended family. When there is conflict in the family, everyone goes to Gabriel, who listens and encourages them to forgive. His gentleness and big heart help Patrisse feel more at home in her own skin. But then, Gabriel suddenly disappears for weeks. After making some calls, Cherice tells Patrisse that Gabriel is going back to prison. Patrisse collapses, unable to picture her father in chains. She doesn’t ask what he has been reincarcerated for and wishes she had access to support groups. This was before any talk of criminal justice reform and “all we have is the shame of it, we who are the families.”
Patrisse juxtaposes descriptions of Gabriel’s gentleness and big heart with the image of him in chains to suggest that prison is not about protecting communities from violence or harm, but about punishing and controlling people—especially poor Black people. That Patrisse doesn’t have access to support groups and has to sit alone with her shame also points to how Black people and communities are treated as disposable.
As an adult, Patrisse will understand the contradiction in the U.S. being founded on addiction (alcohol, tobacco, sugar) and people now being imprisoned for it. But, as a teenager heading into 11th grade, Patrisse doesn’t have this context and asks herself, “If prisons are supposed to make society more safe, why do I feel so much fear and hurt?” This is the war on drugs era—between 1982 and 2000, the California prison population grows by 500 percent, jails swelling with Black and Latinx men. This will eventually be understood as a civil rights crisis, but not for many years. This is the generation of Black people being viewed as prisoners (including Gabriel and, eventually, Patrisse’s brother Monte).
Here Patrisse directly names the contradiction between prisons claiming to be about making society safe while leaving so many people feeling less safe. Patrisse uses the fact the California prison population grows by 500 percent—and the fact that Black and Latinx men are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates—to suggest that policymakers are actively using prisons to punish and control racial minorities. She sees how her family members are forced to become criminals to survive and then punished for it.
Patrisse reflects on how prisons are valuable: poor white people in rural communities can find jobs as guards, food vendors, and more, while prisoners—legally considered slaves—work for almost no pay making license plates and American flags. In the 1980s through early 2000s, prisoners mostly made products for companies like Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods, and Starbucks. The private prison industry will become the largest growth industry in the U.S. by the time Gabriel goes back to prison.
Patrisse adds nuance to her claim that prisons are about controlling and containing (poor Black) people by noting that prisons also actively exploit people by forcing prisoners to work for almost no pay.
There are no rulebooks for guiding Patrisse through losing a parent to incarceration, despite the 10 million children going through it in 1996. Michelle Alexander also hasn’t yet written The New Jim Crow, nor has Barack Obama reduced the federal prison population. No one has yet challenged the racist sentencing imbalance between crack and powder cocaine, and Angela Davis hasn’t written Are Prisons Obsolete? Young Patrisse hasn’t heard of any of this. She only knows her dad will miss her performances, birthdays, graduation. And she will miss holidays with his family and his embrace. She acts like she is fine but also feels she cannot breathe.
A lot has changed since Patrisse was growing up and losing her father to incarceration—between 1996 and 2016 (when she wrote the book), scholars like Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis published books that are very critical of the prison system, even comparing it to modern-day slavery. President Obama also actively reduced the prison population, showing that some policymakers have come to understand that mass incarceration was a problem.