"Those Bones Are Not My Child" by Toni Cade Bambara
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
" Those Bones Are Not My Child is a staggering achievement: the novel that Toni Cade Bambara worked on for twelve years until her death in 1995 - - - a story that puts us at the center of the nightmare of the Atlanta child murders. It was called 'The City Too Busy To Hate,' but two decades ago more than forty black children were murdered there with grim determination, their bodies found- - - in ditches, on riverbanks- - - strangled, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Bambara was living in Atlanta at the time, and Those Bones Are Not My Child is the result of her painstaking first-hand research, as she delved into the murders and the world in which they occurred. Evoking the culture of the late 1970s and early '80s with a keen eye- - - the Iranian hostage crisis, disco, Travis Bickle of 'Taxi Driver'- - - Those Bones Are Not My Child powerfully dramatizes the story of one black family surviving on the margins of a seemingly prosperous city. On Sunday morning, July 20,1980, Marzala Rawls Spencer awakens to find that her teenage son has gone missing, even as the Atlanta child abductions are beginning to be reported. As she and her estranged husband frantically search for their son, the story moves with authority through the full spectrum of Atlanta's political, social, and cultural life, illuminating the vexing issues of race and class that bedevil the city. "
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Toni Cade Bambara, a writer, documentary filmmaker and screenwriter, gives True Crime readers a unique viewpoint of the real Atlanta Child Murders. Bambara mostly writes from the eyes of Marzala, a mother of three whose oldest son goes missing during one of the worst murder sprees in Atlanta's history. Marzala and her family were not actual people during this time- - - all of them are based off of parents and siblings of the real victims. Not soon after Marzala does everything she can with the police to find her son, she joins a group of African-Americans that are outraged by the lack of progress to catch who is killing Atlanta's black children. This group forms what is called STOP (a citizen-run task force). For the majority of the book, Marzala with most of the black community in the area typed out letters to prominent government officials asking for help to stop the murders, also using Vietnam vets in the area to use their tracking skills to keep an eye on suspects, and investigating buildings that police refused to believe had anything to do with the childrens' disappearances and/or murders, which Bambara did an amazing job putting all the real facts together of the actual community members that were involved with this at the time. This story is upsetting, but enlightening on how politics may have caused so many children to be murdered. This is a story no reader will ever forget.
Bambara writes not in a normal narrative - - - just telling a story from specific viewpoints, but she often breaks off into smash poetry to depict a character's state-of-mind, which, sometimes can be off putting for the reader, breaking the flow of the story. Yet, the use of smash poetry combined with the era and the heart breaking subject at hand, separates Those Bones Are Not My Child from every True Crime book I have ever read. But a note for fans of True Crime, this story is from the view point of the victims' families and the search they went through to try and catch the murderer(s), unlike most TC books, which follow the police through the investigation leading to, usually, the capture of the perpetrator. From living in Atlanta during the time of the murders, Bambara was able to reconstruct the life of a black family in 1980's Georgia, while focusing on the effect these terrible crimes had on the surrounding community. Bambara did an amazing job on what most writers cannot.
The amount of characters, specifically the fictional ones, are very well created. She describes just enough to give readers the ability to tell them apart, showing every now and then from their own viewpoints. Out of all the characters, I came to really like Zala's two other children: Kenti and Kofi. One particular scene shows the strain of Sonny's disappearance on their family: " Zala parked the comb again and sat back. 'Listen, you two.' Kofi dropped down onto his knees. 'The police and the newspapers don't know what the hell is going on, so they feel stupid, because they're supposed to know, they're trained to know, they're paid to know. It's their job. Understand? But it's hard for grown-ups to admit they're stupid, especially if they're professionals like police and reporters. So they blame the children. Or they ignore them and fill up the papers with the hostages in Iran. Understand? And now... Jesus... they've got people calling those kids juvenile delinquents.'
'Don't cry.' Kenti tried to lean into her lap and got pushed away.
'They don't know a damn thing and they act like they don't want to know. So they blame the kids 'cause they can't speak up for themselves. They say the kids had no business being outdoors, getting themselves in trouble.'
'You let us go outdoors.'
'Of course I do, baby. We go lots of places, 'cause a lot of people fought hard for our right to go any damn where we please. But when the children go out like they've a right to and some maniac grabs them, then it's the children's fault or the parents who should've been watching every minute, like we don't have to work like dogs just to put food on the table.'
Kofi walked on his knees towards the bed, but he didn't lean on her like he wanted 'cause she might push him away. So he just put his hand on the mattress next to hers."
During the Atlanta Child Murders, victims were random, except for that they were children from the same neighborhood, and they were African-American. At first, police didn't believe a serial murderer was going around abducting children, but rather that 'poor, broken' families were killing their own. In the Prologue, Bambara shows that the victims' families and private detectives came up with more ideas of the motive than the police did:
" White cops taking license in Black neighborhoods.
The Klan and other Nazi thugs on the rampage.
Diabolical scientists experimenting on Third World people.
Demonic cults engaging in human sacrifices.
A 'Nam vet unable to make the transition.
UFO aliens conducting exploratory surgery.
Whites avenging Dewey Baugus, a white youth beaten to death in spring '79, allegedly by Black youths.
Parents of a raped child running amok with 'justice.'
Porno filmmakers doing snuff flicks for entertainment.
A band of child molesters covering their tracks.
New drug forces killing the young (unwitting?) couriers of the old in a bid for turf.
Unreconstructed peckerwoods trying to topple the Black administration.
Plantation kidnappers of slave labor issuing the pink slip.
White mercenaries using Black targets to train death squadrons for overseas jobs and for domestic wars to come. "
All of these theories are explored with evidence in Those Bones Are Not My Child. One scene in Part III, Zala's cop friend, B.J. shows up to her house to tell her to stop bringing attention to the investigation, " 'That Eubanks woman - - - your husband's friend? - - - she said you were bringing in the TV networks to blow the case open. I thought we had an agreement to keep each other informed. This morning I find out through the grapevine that you parents got a medium stashed in a hotel here in town, some woman who's been making headlines up north with cases that supposedly have the authorities stumped. If you knew how much work has been done on this case - - - no, listen, don't interrupt me. Then I find out - - - and not from you - - - that some of you parents are planning to tour the country cracking on the investigation. That's not too smart. And you should have told me.' " These two may have been fictional characters, but in Bambara's Acknowledgments, she states that all scenarios were true, and that she made B.J. to tell about the actual police officers who were involved with the investigation.
The tension between the police and the public is felt throughout the entire story. Despite all of the work the citizen task force put in, police arrested a man named Wayne Williams for the murder of two adult victims (who, due to their mental age, which was stated to be that of children, were placed on the victims' list of the Atlanta Child Murders): " Wayne Williams, charged with the murder of twenty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Cater and implicated in the murder of the other adults and children on the official list..." Zala, having worked for almost a year at the STOP offices, she, along with most of the community, doubt that Williams was a lone killer or even the killer at all. Williams never stood trial for the childrens' murders, but the police informed the public that he did it, case closed - - - although, after Williams' arrest, children were still being abducted and their bodies were still being found. Even after Williams' trial and the guilty verdict for two adult victims, some people stuck around to continue to investigate and claim Williams a 'scapegoat' of politics: " There were still pockets of interest and people who wouldn't let the case go. James Baldwin had been coming to town off and on; a book was rumored. Sondra O'Neale, the Emory University professor, hadn't abandoned her research, either. From time to time, TV and movie types were in the city poking around for an angle. Camille Bell was moving to Tallahassee to write up the case from the point of view of the STOP committee. The vets had taken over The Call now that Speaker was working full-time with the Central American Committee. The Revolutionary Communist Party kept running pieces on the case in the Revolutionary Worker. Whenever Abby Mann sent down a point man for his proposed TV docudrama, the Atlanta officials and civil rights leaders would go off the deep end. " At the end of it all, the questions still remain: did Williams kill all of those children by himself? Was he part of a pornographic cult that killed the children? Or is Williams completely innocent, and the murderer(s) are still out there? In Those Bones Are Not My Child, I guarantee you will be left questioning if the police were right.
All in all, the writing transitions can become confusing sometimes, especially the interludes of smash poetry, but I highly recommend this book to people who like the True Crime genre, especially of any interest in this specific case.