On Growing up "Bad" in America

8 Ball Chicksby Gini SikesAnchor Books, $23.95, 276 pp.The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoirby Wil HaygoodHoughton Mifflin, $24, 360 pp.In a nation traumatized by crime and sick of violence, there is a reluctance to extend second chances to those seen as the perpetrators. Yet in two disparate books, authors remind us that second chances can lead to productive lives. In 8 Ball Chicks, journalist Gini Sikes examines a problem that most law enforcement officials refuse to acknowledge: the presence of girls in gang activities.Police reports often write off girl gangstas as merely girlfriends and hangers-on to the hardcore male gang members. But Sikes jumps right into three different locales, getting to know some of the girl gangstas in L.A., San Antonio and her hometown of Milwaukee. What she finds isn't well-organized groups of girls committing heinous crimes against society. Rather, she discovers that these girl gangstas are attacking each other, just like their male counterparts. They're also oppressing themselves, whether it be through blind loyalty to dubious comrades or their submission to male gangs. While for the most part avoiding social theory, Sikes shows how histories of abuse and neglect contribute to the creation of girl gang members. Yet once accepted into gang society, women often face even more abuse. The segment of 8 Ball Chicks that deals with the San Antonio gangs is the most harrowing, as Sikes reports on the common occurrence of boy gangstas sexually abusing the girls. This abuse is so entrenched in gang lore that no gang member dares question it. The title 8 Ball Chicks here becomes a double entendre: not only is that the name of a San Antonio girl gang, but in a way, all of the denizens of girl gangland are "8 Ball Chicks," girls stuck in terrible situations with no exit. Helping hands that lead girls out of the darkness are few. "All around her the people she dreamed might save her instead deserted her," writes Sikes, as both family and society fail to provide a life preserver for a San Antonio girl.As grim as it may be, 8 Ball Chicks ends on a note of hope, detailing how one school counselor makes a pivotal difference to Shygirl, a member of L.A.'s Lennox-13 gang. Sikes stresses that we need more people like this in education, to actually pay attention to the problems of young people in trouble and to help them find solutions. This collection of detailed profiles vividly exemplifies the misdirected energy and wasted potential of a large segment of our culture.Wil Haygood wasn't much trouble as a child, from his recollections. In The Haygoods of Columbus, he portrays himself as a pretty straight, well-behaved kid whose biggest shortcoming probably lay in his inflated assessment of his basketball abilities. Haygood was obsessed with basketball, and smooth-talked his way onto teams up through college, even though you could probably hold your breath longer than the time Haygood spent on the court during games. After school, he moved to New York to become an actor, but ended up working at Macy's instead. When things didn't go well there, a sympathetic supervisor made Haygood reflect upon what he wanted to do with his life. It is at this point that he decided to become a writer. And with Haygood's talent, he certainly found the right vocation. Because someone took the time, Haygood was nudged in the right direction and found a job at which he excels.Haygood's reminiscences about himself are interesting, but his book really shines when it focuses on his half-brother Gary, aka Macaroni, a smooth-talking pimp. In his first appearance at the Haygood residence, he's barely there, because he's already on his way back to the slammer. Fortunately, by his last appearance, Macaroni is doing a more successful job of controlling his demons and begins preaching to church congregations about his downfall.Despite his criminal activities, Macaroni "sometimes made our family feel more like a family," says Haygood. It's this sentiment that we can't ignore. While neither of these authors hesitates to condemn wrongdoing, both Haygood and Sikes seek to develop in us a sympathetic understanding of those young people known as the criminal element of society.

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