Poet and journalist Michael Datcher recounted his journey of personal enlightenment and effort to build stable, committed relationships in his life in a 2001 memoir, Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story. In it, he recounted his own difficult youth and his struggle to become a responsible, emotionally available partner. Discussing the book with Tyrone Beason of the Seattle Times, Datcher noted that African-American men seem to find themselves trapped in a pop-culture-cemented reputation as tough or hard, but "what's hard is being vulnerable," he asserted. "What's hard is telling the truth. What's hard is not running away."
Datcher was born in 1967 in Chicago to a teenage mother who had been the victim of a sexual assault. She decided to give him up for adoption and was able to choose his adoptive parent, Gladys Datcher, who raised him in Long Beach, California. Datcher's earliest years were spent in a rough part of the city, but his mother's financial status grew, and she moved them to a succession of increasingly safer neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Datcher did come of age in a community marked by a near-total absence of positive male role models. "Of the thirty families that lived in our east-side Long Beach, California, apartment building during the mid-seventies, I never saw a father living in a household," he wrote in Raising Fences. "I never even saw one visit." The interactions he did see between adults were perhaps even more perilous to an impressionable mind: in a 1998 article he wrote that appeared on Salon.com, he recalled an episode between his aunt and her boyfriend after "she said something he didn't like. He reached back and slapped my aunt in the face so hard she flew out of her chair and onto the floor. The kids stood there, frozen. We were completely captivated. It was like a movie."
Datcher was a gifted student, and in the sixth grade was offered a chance to attend a magnet school. Every morning he boarded a bus that took him and other students cross-town to the new school, which was located in a neighborhood vastly different from his own. "The homes looked like houses on TV. They were big and brand new," he wrote in his memoir. "They had large, grassy front yards with basketballs, Big Wheels, bats, and bikes just lying out there…. I realized it wasn't just me who was excited about the whole scene. The bus was filled with mostly black kids who'd never seen an environment like this."
Despite the educational opportunities he enjoyed, Datcher was still pulled down by negative forces in his own neighborhood. As a teen, he committed acts of petty crime and endured some harrowing encounters with the police. He returned to a less self-destructive path as a young man, however, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1992; from there, he went on to the Los Angeles campus of the U.C. system to pursue a graduate degree in African-American studies. During this period, he learned his girlfriend was pregnant, and he was crushed by the idea that he would now join the ranks of single black men who were fathers of children raised in a household other than their own. "My dream is dead," he recalled thinking to himself, he told Beason in the Seattle Times interview. "A woman I do not love is having my baby," and he realized that he had unwittingly become part of "a stereotype, making black babies out of wedlock."
Datcher even dropped out of school for a time and began drinking. But in 1995, a year after the child was born, a blood test revealed that he was not the father after all. Revitalized, he returned to school and continued his involvement in a weekly poetry workshop at the World Stage, a jazz club in a southwestern Los Angeles neighborhood called Leimert Park. There, he met a fellow poet, Jenoyne Adams, and the two began dating. In a Los Angeles Magazine article he wrote a few years later, he described Adams as "such a fierce woman that she aroused in me a desire to be a more complete man." In February of 1997, he took the stage during the weekly poetry series and delivered a poem that was a marriage proposal, which Adams accepted.
In addition to Salon.com and the Los Angeles Magazine, Datcher has also written for Vibe, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and served as editor-in-chief for Image magazine before taking a position on the creative-writing faculty of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. His first published book, Tough Love: Cultural Criticism and Familial Observations on the Life and Death of Tupac Shakur, was co-edited with Kwame Alexander and appeared in 1997. His next work was the memoir Raising Fences, which earned a raft of critical accolades when it was published in 2001. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly asserted that "Datcher's memoir combines attitude, honesty and romance…. This triumphant tale is a stunning tribute to perseverance, courage and the power of positive thinking." Doug Jones, writing in Black Issues Book Review, also commended its candor, noting that many of those "caught on the pages of Fences are recognizable, human and encumbered by insecurities and fears that make them behave in cruel, selfish ways (Datcher included)."
The title of Datcher's memoir was a play on the phrase "white picket fence," a signifier for the homes he saw on that cross-town bus ride as an adolescent, where children were raised by two-parent families in crime-free neighborhoods. It was also a pun on the idea of "razing," or tearing down fences—by his generation of African-American men who were disinclined to build a family life that mimicked the white, middle-class world, but also by those who hoped to erase such the barriers between black and white America. In an interview with Val Zavala of KCET, a Los Angeles-area public radio station, Datcher argued that a desire for a stable home life was a universal one. "You raised the question … ‘Do black people really want to have families?’ That is typical of how black people are perceived," he reflected. "You know, black people are human as well. It's the demonizing of black people or the lack of an honest reflection of what black people are like."
At a Glance …
Born in 1967, in Chicago, IL; son of Gladys Datcher; married Jenoyne Adams (a writer), 1997(?). Education: University of California, Berkeley, BA, 1992; University of California, Los Angeles, MA.
b>Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Washington Post, Vibe, Essence, and Baltimore Sun, journalist; Image magazine, editor in chief; Loyola Marymount University, visiting assistant professor of creative writing; poet; World Stage Anansi Writer's Workshop, Los Angeles, CA, director of literary programs, 1993—.
PEN Center USA West (member of board of directors).
Office—Loyola Marymount University, University Hall 3854, 1 LMU Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90045-2659.
(Editor with Kwame Alexander) Tough Love: Cultural Criticism and Familial Observations on the Life and Death of Tupac Shakur, Alexander, 1997.
Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story, Riverhead Books, 2001.
Black Issues Book Review, May 2001, p. 56.
Dallas Morning News, April 9, 2001.
Los Angeles Magazine, December 2000, p. 146.
Publishers Weekly, January 8, 2001, p. 56.
Seattle Times, March 24, 2001, p. C1.
"Beat It," Salon.com,www.salon.com/news/1998/01/28news.html (February 20, 2007).
"Life & Times Tonight Transcripts: 3/28/01," KCET Online,www.kcet.org/lifeandtimes/archives/200103/20010328.php (April 6, 2007).
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