“Out of the Red: My Life of Gangs, Prison and Redemption” by Christian L. Bolden. Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2020). 216 pp., $29.95.
By Daniel S. Mulhall | Catholic News Service
Christian L. Bolden grew up in a mixed-race family in a trailer park in San Antonio. His father was absent most of the time. While his mother worked two jobs at times, the family remained in poverty.
Attending school in a wealthy neighborhood, he experienced feelings of being unwanted and unworthy. He found his support within the gang culture that thrived in his San Antonio neighborhood in the 1980s and ’90s.
His gang involvement landed him in the Texas state prison system with an eight-year sentence; he was paroled after five years.
Always an intelligent person, although disinterested in school during his early years, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate in sociology after leaving prison and overcame the stigma of being a convicted felon.
“Out of the Red: My Life of Gangs, Prison and Redemption” tells of Bolden’s home life, his life in gangs and in prison, and how he was able to overcome difficulties to achieve his academic success. The book is well written and engaging throughout, and Bolden never shies away from speaking frankly of gang life, his own anti-social behavior and attitudes, and his fear-inducing experiences in prison.
Being from a poor family wasn’t much of a problem for Bolden while in elementary school, as all of his friends and schoolmates were in the same situation. That changed when he went to middle school in a wealthy neighborhood and could start to understand his plight.
When he experienced verbal abuse from his classmates, Bolden defended himself the only way he knew how: with his fists. This got him labeled by teachers and administrators as a troublemaker, a moniker that stayed with him into high school and in prison.
Bolden’s insights are eye-opening and of great value.
On page 17, he writes, “Middle-class kids are raised with the values and standards that situate them for success in middle-class schools and equip them to directly seek help from teachers,” while poor kids like him didn’t trust authorities and had had to learn “to figure out the world on our own” and were unaccustomed to asking for help.
On page 152, he writes, “The penitentiary experience further diminishes self-esteem and self-worth, reinforcing the idea that an individual is worthless,” the attitude that often led to the person’s problems in the first place.
On page 166, Bolden writes about the struggles he had getting employment and an apartment when released from prison: “There is a social tendency to treat people with criminal records as if criminality is part of their essence.”
The book’s weakest section is when the author explains the gang situation in San Antonio in his day. Unless you are interested specifically in the gangs during this time period, learning about all the myriad gang names and leadership in ample detail and who split from whom bogs down the narrative. The various charts of gangs are informative but don’t add to Bolden’s story.
That said, the interviews with former gang members help to round out Bolden’s remembrances.
I found this to be a far more honest and compelling book than J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” another book about overcoming an unstable family background. Bolden doesn’t make excuses for the things he did to land in trouble but does offer a sociologist’s insight as to why he became attached to gangs in the first place.
Daniel S. Mulhall lives in Louisville, Kentucky.