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
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 emotions—lust, 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 threats—that'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
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
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
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.
* * *
update 17 May 2009