Jamel Brinkley’s “A Family” starts on a note that immediately raises concerns in the reader. Curtis, a convict who spent twelve years in prison, is discreetly following what appears to be a single mother with a teenage son under the pretext of being interested in the son. The two are the family of the protagonist’s best friend, which gives him an excuse to pursue them. The opening pages also highlight his sexual frustration from years of prison and an inability to find a sexual partner once released. However, the story develops in an entirely different direction once the woman notices and recognizes Curtis. The real objective of the story is to discuss the difficulties that black men have to deal with, the conflict between their expectations and reality, and the bonds they form to combat these troubles.
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Despite the implications made at the beginning of the story, Curtis is not sexually attracted to Lena, the widow of his friend Marvin. Brinkley mentions that overtly at several points in the story, and at the end of the story, he confirms that the two could never love each other. This claim suggests that Curtis’s claims that his desire to be close to Lena and her son Andre is motivated by an obligation to help his best friend’s family are valid and truthful. However, this conclusion raises the question of why Curtis did not approach the family directly but chose a roundabout and suspicious method instead. In the end, Lena has to take the initiative and start the relationship that eventually results in him moving in. The reason for this choice is revealed as the relationship between Curtis and Marvin is explored in more detail.
Curtis and Marvin are described as brotherlike in their mutual affection at several points in the story. However, Curtis believes that their relationship was much closer than that, to the point where Marvin falling in love with Lena caused a rift that never healed. The affection Curtis felt for his friend was likely not sexual, though he finds it difficult to frame it to Andre in terms that avoid this implication (Brinkley). Regardless, Curtis refused to reconnect with Marvin despite the latter’s attempts at reconciliation. The two’s last conversation, which happened shortly before Marvin’s death, involved him asking for money only to be ignored. Following it, Curtis realized how much he still adored his friend, and the resulting guilt and sadness caused the descending spiral that ended in him running a woman over and going to prison.
In prison, Curtis developed an appreciation for Walter Mosley’s detective novels, which convinced him that Marvin committed suicide because of his mounting debts and the refusal of his best friend to help. The resulting guilt causes the protagonist to seek out Lena and Andre only for his idea to be debunked. He ends up moving in, regardless, only to become dependent on Lena because he cannot find work due to his convict status. Marvin’s issue was much the same; before his death, he lost both his construction job and his side source of income, falling further into debt. Brinkley may be associating these problems with racism, mentioning Curtis’s belief that he would have been imprisoned for much longer had he killed a white woman. Regardless, it is difficult for men of Curtis’s and Marvin’s backgrounds to succeed in society, as they are relegated to low-paying jobs and struggle to hold them.
This difficulty in succeeding financially contributes to the greater theme of black men’s expectations and their contrast with the reality that is explored in the story. Marvin had a dream of settling his mother’s debts and buying her a house, at which he failed despite his hard work. Curtis is dependent on his elderly mother and then Lena at thirty-five because he cannot find steady employment due to his status. As a result, he cannot consider himself a successful man, which is why, despite wanting to provide advice on manhood to Andre, he cannot do so when he tries. Despite the expectation that the men would become family providers, women ultimately have to support them while also playing the traditional female roles. The story ends with Andre expressing similarly lofty dreams, but the topic of whether he will be able (or unable) to break out of the pattern is left vague.
“A Family” raises the problem of the difficulties black men face when trying to succeed in their lives. They are raised with ideas that evoke the American Dream, where hard work leads to success and the fulfillment of one’s dreams. However, they are then faced with the reality of failure, unable to rise out of their social class and likely to sink lower. As a result, they never mature mentally or financially, remaining dependent on their mothers and then wives. They then drag those women down, straining them but never improving themselves. The relationship still makes them happy, but it is dysfunctional, especially if it is prevalent in the community. Brinkley’s story explores this family arrangement and shows how it is harmful but stable, leaving the reader wondering how this problem may be addressed.
Brinkley, Jamel. A Lucky Man. E-book, Graywolf Press, 2018.
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