ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
God the father is the Child Support Enforcement system.
This God . . . tends to have the face and character of a woman.
Post-Modern Fugitive Slaves Or Playing the Father Role
A Review of Child Support by Ralph E. Johnson
By Rudolph Lewis
Living on the edge is an apt metaphor for the life of the poor within civil society. This may indeed be especially true of America’s black poor. Their living in the world is exceedingly fragile, financially as well as spiritually. Theirs indeed may be a life as senseless and meaningless as that of the heroine in the plot of Marquis de Sade’s Justine. There is no God in the Marquis’ world. Virtuous Justine, as the story is told, sinks down slowly, farther downward as mishap after mishap visits her until she is struck by lightning and killed. In contrast, her less than virtuous sister, however, acquires wealth and status in society, and lives happily ever after.
For many, black reality is a living in the world that has been flipped over, like a turtle on its shell back. Poverty and powerlessness, like gravity, multiplies exponentially in counterforce. Impoverished black souls struggling to rise to fulfill dreams of success, their anguish only increases. They are the eternal scapegoat. Virtue is not rewarded and evil is not punished. Though there is structure, there is really no order. The societal system terrorizes the black poor, scatters and misdirects their energies.
Worse, there is no ultimate cause, at least, no benign one. One might say all results from a roll of the dice. Disaster, hurt, pain, anguish are not plotted. They rather result from the randomness of nature or worst the unswerving, irrational harshness and prejudice of societal legislation in its pretense of righteousness and justice.
Characters, Plot, & Vision of Child Support
A great sliver of de Sade’s distorted perspective can be found in Child Support, a recent novel written and published (2001) by Ralph E. Johnson, Jr., the present editor of the Baltimore bi-monthly The Informer. His characters waver between dreams of success and personal disaster and dread. Mr. Johnson’s view of the life of the black poor emphasizes a world of base emotionslust, envy, anger, and revenge; and the simple undermining pleasures of sex, intoxicants, and children. His estimation of black life and culture is extremely truncated–above, below and on all sides.
Mr. Johnson’s vision of the poor unfolds through the prism of Baltimore’s Child Support Enforcement system. It monitors and directs the material and spiritual reality of this black world. Lacking depth, breath, or height, the novel’s black men and women live in a narrow, enclosed, isolated world. Neither family, friends, church and its ministers nor ancient cultural values beyond bodily pleasure intervene to salvage the troubled relationship of young lovers and parents.
There is not one healthy clear-thinking individual within the whole of the book’s cultural universe. This estimation of Mr. Johnson’s characterization applies equally as well to the narrator, who lacks any critical sense of a world beyond the madness and oppression of the world he omnisciently relates.
Separated with child and children, these black parents over generations, inevitably, head down a path of anger, envy, jealousy, and revenge. Impoverished and powerless, black males in the world of Child Support are generally and especially incompetent and irresponsible. They do not know how to play the System. Their irresponsibility sometimes occurs without conscious intent, as is the case with Wayne Adams, the sentimental hero of Mr. Johnson’s novel.
Often as a result of arguments about the lack of money or how money is spent, the lovers with child or children separate. They have not yet learned how to discipline their passions. That separation brings on, however, further impoverishment with fierce and more fierce passions on all sides. Revenge is thereafter sought. This limited vision of the tenor of the lives of the black poor generates the plot of Mr. Johnson’s Child Support.
The Real Defender of Black Children
In this world of irresponsible and incompetent black males, it is the Child Support Enforcement system that incorporates rather the true image of the father. It metes out blessings and curses. It directs and judges. It provides the mother and child with relief, its manna. For the mother and child to receive its monetary assistance, however, Child Support Enforcement requires that the mother, the black woman, to brand her man, her lover, the enemy.
Clearly, for the author, the church plays no spiritually healthy role in these personal disasters, the tearing apart of the community’s familial structure and cooperative spirit. If this work indeed possesses a religious center, one would be forced to point to Chapter 17, page 147, a courtroom scene. The tragic hero of this tale, Wayne is in court for failure to pay child support. In utter anguish, he observes the ongoing trial of Reverend Wesley Williams who stands before Judge Swain for failure to make his payments to an unwed mother, namely, Miss Tamika Brown.
This scene intended as comic relief, in effect, mocks the role the church and its ministers play in the lives of the poor. Several paragraphs of Mr. Johnson’s imaginative inventiveness, I believe, will make evident the prejudicial view of the novel’s omniscient narrator.
The old, sly, television evangelist’s charm had no effect on Judge Swain. “Mr. Williams I’m looking in your file and it states that you agreed to pay Miss Brown four hundred and fifty dollars a month in child support, and I don’t see anywhere in your file indicating that you honored your obligation in the past eight months. What seems to be the problem sir?” Judge Swain humbly inquired, revealing the quiet before the storm.
“First of all Your Honor, I give praise to Almighty God,” Rev. Williams proclaimed attempting to create an image of benevolence. “Judge, I told Tamika I would bring her and the child into the house of God and take care of them, for this is the duty of the most high. But the donations I receive from my love offerings are only enough to pay the bills to keep the doors of glory open,” Rev. Williams stated, then momentarily halted his defense by wiping the heavy perspiration from his face.
“I admit Your Honor, that I fell from grace when I dipped my soul in sin, but I promised the Lord I would always bear my burdens. I’ma take care of Tamika and the child but right now it’s extremely hard,” Rev. Williams appealed. Judge Swain looked at him as if he had lost his goddamn mind. Before she decided to educate him on the definition of contempt, she wanted to hear Miss Brown’s side of the story first.
In this novel of the black oppressed, God the father is the Child Support Enforcement system. This God in Mr. Johnson’s imaginative world tends to have the face and character of a woman. For Wayne Adams the “most high” is Judge Swain who controls and decides the fate of black men who fail “to play the father” to their child or children. Women dominate this system of collection and enforcement. They judge, defend, and prosecute; they lie, cheat, and deliver men into the jaws of this cruel, blind, merciless, and monstrous system.
Thus in this drama of the poor, the black communities are divided along gender lines. “Deadbeat dads” are the villains and impoverished mothers the heroines, however deceitful and wretched their existence. This way of living (this black existence), according to the author, “snatches you into a world where psychological warfare is tenaciously fought to support one’s theory of defense of justice or injustice. This special, spiritual encounter frees you presently yet incarcerates your future. A vulnerable moment of love, lust, and OOPS!” This spiritual life of Mr. Johnson’s characters limits itself to sexual pleasure and release.
Are these the real young black men and women we encounter each day in our communities or are these fixations, stereotypical realizations of Mr. Johnson’s “mind?” And that indeed is the rub. All the characters of this novel are trapped and overwhelmed by the “OOPS,” by their bodily desires and functions. There is a certain inevitability and impregnability about Mr. Johnson’s world in Child Support.
Conflict & Insecurity of Black Love
Impoverished young men and women are incapable of sustaining their personal relationship spiritually or financially. Wayne Adams and Deloris Mitchell, the two central characters of Child Support (in years about eighteen or so), are caught up by the “OOPS.” Both unmarried and inexperienced they move into a house together at the birth of their child, Damon. They are truly in love, as love goes.
Child Support simplifies its plot and isolates its two main characters. The quarreling and jealous tension between the two increase until they separate. Willfulness (or pride) coupled with the lack of money (or poverty) become a devastating combination. The base nature of man and woman exposes itself in deceit, betrayal, lust, jealousy, and revenge.
In Child Support, the Serpent in the garden of Deloris and Wayne is personalized in the form of Deloris’ cocaine-sniffing friend, Bunny. She is demonic, addictive, and infectious. Her sinister intrigue, her hatred of men seemingly absolute, drives the plot forward. She becomes Deloris’ expert on the ways and means of how to use Child Support Enforcement to destroy black men.
Donald, her daughter Lesha’s father, multiplies Bunny’s bitterness by flipping the system on her. Because Bunny was found to be a drug user, a result of Donald’s intrigue, the child is taken from her and given to Donald. In a reversal, Bunny is thus required to pay Donald the money he had once paid her. This scene Mr. Johnson pawns off as poetic justice. Helpless before a greater power, Bunny exacts her revenge by undermining Deloris’ estimate of Wayne, the father of her son Damon.
In the narrator’s view, Wayne, is simply innocent of deceit and duplicity. In a manner, he is a picaro. It is through Wayne’s eyes that we discover the cruel, merciless world of Child Support. It is through his experience, the reader is guided through the hellish world created by the the judicial discipline exacted by the System.
Though separated, Wayne still loves Deloris and Damon. He gives her money on a regular basis, though insufficient from Deloris’ point of view, and spends considerable time with his son. But with two separate households, there is never enough money, nor enough understanding to sustain respect and integrity.
All is going well for Wayne. From the novel’s female view, he is having his cake and eating it too. He has money for sport, a job with UPS, an apartment (a babe pad), and a car. From a material perspective, his life is heavenly. Deloris, however, who sees herself raising a child alone, suffers, especially, from ennui (watching the stories) and lacks money for basic bills and pleasures. Her dreams and hopes seem permanently frustrated.
This situation leaves her open for the influential advice of Bunny, the ball buster. Deloris thus revenges herself on her former lover, Wayne. Until the very end, she is determined to make him pay. She files for child support and claims that Wayne gave no support for his child. So that her son’s father would be unable to contest her claim, Deloris gives the Child Support Enforcement system a fake address for Wayne.
The Gender Reversal of Fortune
As Deloris’ fortune rises that of Wayne falls. The checks from the Department of Social Services (DSS) begin to arrive. She receives not only money from the DSS but also money from Wayne. Then her new lover, Demetrious, adds additionally to her financial security and physically to her comfort. Deloris’ DSS deception continues for seven years with Wayne unaware. The back payments balloon.
Ignorant of the warrant on his head, Wayne is suddenly arrested on his UPS job for failure to pay child support, “to play the father role.” The suspicion is that Bunny “dropped a dime” on him. Wayne is shocked, shamed, and embarrassed. Wayne is jailed and marched up before Judge Swain and he is placed under pretrial supervision. He is thirty thousand dollars in arrears. Because of the warrant and the arrest, Wayne loses his job with UPS. Believing him potentially a drug addict, the System requires of him regular drug tests. His sense of self is diminished, his confidence shattered.
He settles for a job as a security guard which pays considerably less than the UPS job. (The starting salary of UPS in the late 1990s was probably between $9 and $10 an hour.) In the interim before he appears before Judge Swain the second time, Wayne seeks and finds solace in the arms of another beautifully sexy black woman, Sandy, who has two kids by two different men. Sandy and Wayne fall in love and become financially dependent on each other.
Impoverished further by the lost of his high-paying job, Wayne receives two eviction notices. More and more he becomes financially desperate. He moves in with Sandy. Because of his deceit, she however is ignorant of his financial and personal difficulties.
In his second trip before Judge Swain, the court orders Wayne to pay thirty thousand to Child Support Enforcement, five thousand within six months and four hundred dollars a month to Deloris. For Wayne, a poor black male without broad influence, this mountain is impossible to climb. The narrator does little with this horrendous decision by the judge, except for empty shibboleths that describe emotional reactions. As when the sympathetic narrator makes this observation, Wayne “felt robbed of his manhood and labeled by society as incompetent. He could hardly walk on legs that were weakened by bitterness and uncertainty” (155).
In order to continue materially to impress Sandy and sustain his lies, Wayne meets Phil, an old buddy in the crime life, at a club in Fells Point and borrows a thousand dollars to buy Sandy a thirty-six inch TV and to pay his pressing bills. There is, however, in Child Support, little consideration of the “quality of hurt.”
As one financial disappointment occurs after the other, the relationship of Wayne and Sandy becomes more and more strained, especially after Child Support Enforcement seizes Wayne’s tax refund check. In what maybe his emotional low point, Wayne yelled out into the night, “Hell no, fuck that bitch! I ain’t taking care of her ass and her no good boyfriend too. Fuck you Deloris, I hate your fucking ass!”
Wayne senses that Sandy is being exhausted by their relationship. Frustrated and having to carry Wayne’s financial weight, Sandy considers reuniting with Walt, the father of one of her children. Out of a money necessity, Sandy tosses Wayne aside and moves Walt in, primarily because Walt’s financial stability is more evident and predictable.
When he comes home early one afternoon, Wayne views from the window Sandy’s children getting out of a white Lincoln Town Car. It is Walt, according to the narrator, exhibiting mere “hollow success.” Then Sandy arrives moments later in a cab. The deceptions come to light. Sandy and Wayne argue; insults fly. Wayne packs his bags in a plastic bag, leaves Sandy, and slams the door behind him.
Wayne retreats to his sister Joanne’s place as a temporary residence. He visits his mother who has a summons for him tucked under her pillow. Her sentimental defense of her son mirrors that which the narrator sustains. She counsels him to meet his financial responsibilities and informs him of an Amnesty for those who have warrants on them for non-payments to Child Support Enforcement.
Hundreds, if not a thousand, had gathered at Clarence Mitchell Courthouse when Wayne arrived, like himself, seeking a reprieve from arrest and incarceration. This gathering of fugitives provides the reader a panoramic view of black life caught up in the System. Wayne is nearly overcome by the smell of black male oppression in which all are leveled, their humanity diminished, lower than a snake’s belly.
The stench in the air was the result of a combination of expensive colognes and a wide variety of pure unwashed ass. The human fumes were so unreal they were borderline toxic. From Trump Towers to skid row, from Ralph Lauren suits to Salvation Army. All the men had one thing in common; they were fugitives from the law until they signed on the dotted line. No one was exempt from the torturous process one had to endure to obtain amnesty.
Wayne even noticed that there were a few women in the midst of all the madness. Later on he found out that most of them were liable for child support because their kids had been taken away from them for various reasons and put into foster care or placed in the custody of relatives. Some of the women had gotten hooked on drugs, went to jail, or had even lost custody of their children in court to their spouses (189).
Black men and women–all have allowed their passions to get the best of them. The government is thus required to exact discipline, however harsh. It has no mercy and regard for black men, whatever their condition, who can not meet financial obligations and familial responsibilities. Emotionally relieved, Wayne discovers no warrant has been issued for him.
A Tearful Resolution of Conflict & Oppression
To this point in the story, with his theme and plot, Mr. Johnson created a whirlwind of fire and heat. Yet nothing is resolved satisfactorily by his exposition. His resolution drowns the flame with watery sentiment as thin as paper. Here is how the author begins tying together the strings of his plot.
Moving beyond the Courthouse, Wayne stops for food at a hotdog stand and bumps into his old nemesis, Bunny, the driving force of the plot. Her vengeance against Wayne has rebounded fiercely on herself. Bunny too has come to the Courthouse to seek reprieve from a warrant. The narrator concludes, “It was evident by her horrific appearance that cocaine had seized her soul” (195). Both in the same torturous stew, Bunny and Wayne, however, part as friends.
The author ties up one more string of his plot. Phil, the Gangster, from whom Wayne borrowed a grand to buy Sandy a TV, comes to the house of his sister Joanne looking for him. He is accompanied by his thugs and they are fully armed, Phil with a .357 magnum. There are threats of murder and mayhem, though Phil has only love for Brother Wayne. The guns and the threatsthat’s just business. The narrator suggests that for the black male substantial assistance is only available from the crime world.
That crime world can be as merciless and deadly as the judicial powers of the state. Fortunately, Wayne had saved a thousand dollars from working overtime on his security police job. At his upcoming trial, his plan was to present the thousand dollars to Child Support Enforcement to show his good intent. He is forced, however, to fork half of that over to pay his debt to Phil.
Mr. Johnson’s novel Child Support ends in the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse in downtown Baltimore. Again Wayne appears before Judge Swain. Unsurprisingly, he does not have the five thousand dollars. Nor does he have papers to show that his pay check and his tax return had been garnished. Wayne is a defenseless idiot. He thus throws himself on the mercy of a judge whom he has believed to this point was cold and merciless. Instead of three years, Judge Swain, however, sentences Wayne to one year and five months in the Maryland Department of Corrections. Hands handcuffed behind his back, the sheriff’s deputies escort Wayne from the courtroom.
Mr. Johnson’s plot resolution is further shaped into a neat, sentimental bundle. Wayne confesses to the judge he is where he is as the result of “nothing but stupidity and anger.” On hearing his sentence and handcuffed, all of Wayne’s emotions of fear, anger, and revenge are dissipated. Having come even with Bunny and Phil, Wayne is ready to reconcile with all, even Judge Swain, whom he feared and hated as the “enemy.” “Wayne waited for Judge Swain to glance back his way so that he could thank her with a gentle smile” (225).
Deloris described by the narrator in the Seven-Eleven scene as a “bitter, vindictive soul” also receives a soulful reprieve. “Through his eyes he let her [Deloris] know that he wasn’t angry with her and that everything would be all right” (225). Yet in the parking lot of the Seven-Eleven scene, Deloris, however, refuses Wayne a moment with his son Damon and, according to the narrator, Deloris tries “to squeeze his [her son’s] love for his father out of him.” In the Courthouse, after the sentencing, Deloris reverses her view radically of her former lover. Deloris breaks from the arms of her new lover Demetrious and runs after her son’s father “to let Wayne know how sorry she was, and that she still loved him’ (226).
In the final chapter, for some inexplicable reason, Sandy happens to be at the Courthouse and observes the handcuffed Wayne escorted by the Sheriff’s deputies to a holding pen. She calls out to him and he discovers it is the love of his life. In tearful passion she reaffirms her love and promises to “be there” for him when he gets out. Deloris observes this parting love scene. She is satisfied Wayne has someone to care for him. Wayne and Sandy’s expressions of love and commitment “wiped her concerns away.” The novel ends on these words.
An Overall View of Child Support’s Inadequacy
In Child Support, Ralph E. Johnson, Jr. exhibits extraordinary skills and talent. I am awed and impressed exceedingly by the dialogue and the writing of the UPS scene that includes Wayne’s arrest; also his slick exposure of Reverend Williams in court before Judge Swain; the homeboy scene of Phil and his thugs in a Fells Point bar; and the Amnesty courtroom scene. But this novel, which reads like a fictionalized treatise, has major problems.
The major flaws in this work result, I suspect, from the lack of an editor. Child Support, self-published by Mr. Johnson, would have never reached the public in its present form if it had undergone editorial scrutiny. First, it would have been a chapter shorter and it would not have had such a sociological and limiting title as Child Support.
The first chapter relates the story of Jack Falcon and his double murder of his white girlfriend and her mother in a parking lot in Glen Burnie. By itself, the Falcon story probably would make a good long short story. But for the sake of his main story, this opening chapter should have been excised. This opening drama has the most tenuous of connections with the story of Wayne and Deloris. They simply view the report of Falcon’s murder on TV and nothing further is done with the story by the characters or the narrator.
The ending of Child Support is also troublesome. The resolution of the conflict with the Child Support Enforcement system and between Wayne and his female friends and acquaintances seems exceedingly false. It is as if the author became as exhausted as his sentimental hero Wayne and gave up the struggle. The brutality and mercilessness of the System remain. Out of jail after a year and a half, the thirty-four thousand dollars will have further ballooned to nearly forty thousand dollars, Wayne must face his own poverty and lack of skills to obtain a well-paying job. The impossibility to clear away such a monstrous debt will haunt and terrorize him. The likelihood that he will end up back in debtor’s prison is great.
In that the author made his topic and title “child support,” his exposition simply becomes an idle complaint, an opportunity to give fruitless and mindless vent to frustrations. Wayne’s acceptance of his imprisonment does not in any way ameliorate the cruelty and mercilessness of the System, castigated and condemned throughout the book by numerous characters and also by the narrator/author. Mr. Johnson falters in his critical analysis of the role of social welfare in contemporary society.
After all the clatter Mr. Johnson concludes that the fault is not in the System but in the individuals who are forced to deal with the System. The author falls back on the position that it is “nothing but the stupidity and anger” of black men that lead them to their dread and personal tragedies. Less skilled than Bunny’s Donald and Deloris’ Demetrious, Wayne does not know how to play his cards.
The reader is thus left befuddled and overwhelmed by this author’s short-sighted perspective of black life. The omniscient narrator of Child Support, like his characters, seems extremely limited in his view of the larger world in which black people live. Too much identification exists between the narrator and his main character Wayne, who is merely another persona of the narrator/author. In effect, the reader ultimately finds the narrator untrustworthy in his account of the emotions and motives of his primary characters, Wayne and Deloris.
Mr. Johnson lacks a critical view of the world in which black men and women live. He seems to lack any understanding or consciousness of the larger world of black oppression in America and how black men and women have historically and culturally responded to such adversity. His novel’s exposure of black poverty and repression might have been enhanced by a reading and analysis of Richard Wright’s Native Son. His ethnic humor might have gained in point by a reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Lacking the resolve of such literary masters, Mr. Johnson has taken the low, easy road.
Though informative, Child Support has little light, no philosophical or theological insights into the world in which black humanity is forced to live out its existence. The novel’s passions rise no higher than the solar plexus. Mr. Johnson directs his angst more often towards black women than the System that oppresses. Child Support thus falls short of true creative black expression. Though at times entertaining, this novel regrettably fails, lacking critical balance, as a work of art.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 17 May 2009