Passage is set in 1993 New York but, pointedly, could be set now for all that has changed in the treatment of male black youth. Seventeen year-old Warrior (whose given name is Akan – a West African name meaning ‘warrior for one’s people’), or Wawia as his little sister calls him, is our everyman hero. Devoted to, and loved by, his family but haunted by the memories of friends he has lost, he traverses a New York – Harlem, Brooklyn, Manhattan – that hums with violence and fear. Even the simplest of journeys across town are fraught with terror; racism is rampant amongst the ‘blue soldiers’ (police) as well as the general public. These journeys become a pilgrimage in which mere survival is a full-time occupation:
“So what have you been up to?” his father asked.
“Not much, just survivn’, what about you?”
Author Khary Lazarre-White co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) – a now nationally renowned youth organisation – in 1995, two years after Passage is set. Issues raised by the novel, especially in the treatment and stereotyping of young black men, have progressed somewhat, but not enough. In her LA Times’ review of Passage, Eisa Nefertari Ulen writes:
To be black in the United States is to be in a perpetual state of liminality… is to know there is no such thing as time. Even 156 years is not long enough to count the sustained violence against black bodies, as the passage from the first cries for return to Africa to the rallying cry that Black Lives Matter is 398 years long, and we are still counting.
A short, stark and eerily beautiful novel, Passage is set in a past, and yet somehow dystopian, New York in which there are giants, ghosts and wolves which howl and stalk the streets whilst drums sound. Figures from mythology and folklore – ancestors and gods – emerge and interrogate Warrior. These spirits are an integral part of life – “The air is filled with voices, if you know how to hear.” The streets are barren and uneasily quietened by snow, which covers the city, but cannot quite smother the always-simmering tensions between police, public and black communities.
As a young man Warrior has the rawest of deals – the young women are “also filled with pain, but… seemed to be able to handle it so much better than he could… girls were surviving this form of violence, but not the boys” – and is painfully aware that this anger he feels is grievous but entrenched. His father, a musician, identifies this and sums up the essence of Lazarre-White’s message:
“You’ve come up with a angry generation, son. Angry at broken promises, and angry at the situation you found yourselves in. It’s a righteous anger, but it’s gotta be harnessed, directed, or else it’ll take hold a you, and get inside you like death.”
Bro/Sis did just this. It gave the real life Warriors a (bit more of a) chance. Passage is an extension of this work, an artfully accessible message to the next generation of young people (the children of Warrior’s peers) as well as a blunt reminder to those who lived through the 90s. It took twenty years after the events of this novel for Black Lives Matter to form, and it is a movement every bit as necessary and relevant now as then: just as Passage is.