Those Bones Are Not My Child

by Toni Cade Bambara

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Those Bones Are Not My Child dramatizes the plight of one inner-city African American family in Atlanta, Georgia, during and after a period from roughly 1979 until 1982 when some forty African American children were kidnapped and murdered. Marzala “Zala” Spencer is the mother of three children, the eldest ofwhom, Sonny, disappears in mid-1980 without explanation. Zala begins a quest to find her child with the help of her then-estranged husband Spence, the child’s father. She quickly becomes aware of and involved in the frustrations and agony of other inner-city African American families whose children have either turned up dead or are missing—or whose lives are dominated by the fear that such a fate is impending.

Marzala and Spence gradually realize that the city officials, the local police, the federal authorities, and Atlanta’s business leaders are more interested in placating angry relatives and keeping a positive image for the city, for purposes of economic development and tourism, than they are in actually solving the cases of the missing and murdered children. In fact, the leaders and police agencies seem to be more involved in turf wars among themselves than anything else. They therefore ignore the growing evidence of connections among the murder victims and perpetrators that hint at an organized effort to exterminate African American children based upon racial hatred, drug-cult violence, sexual exploitation, or some combination of these and other factors.

After realizing with the help of Kenti, Marzala’s youngest child, that the routes along which the murders have occurred form the shape of a boot when connected, Marzala, Spence, and other interested citizens begin to patrol the boot and shadow suspicious individuals, groups, and organizations. These efforts generate evidence of right-wing paramilitary or Ku Klux Klan involvement in the murders that creates significant public pressure on federal and city officials. The progress made by the citizens’ group is stymied, however, by the arrest of a single alleged murderer, a young African American man named Wayne Williams, who is subsequently convicted of two of the murders by a predominantly African American jury. The Spencers and most of their associates believe that Williams is just a scapegoat, not the real murderer of the children.

Soon after Williams’s arrest, Marzala and Spence are contacted about a boy who has been found wandering in a daze on a highway near Miami, Florida, barefoot, badly beaten and brusied, emaciated, and virtually naked. The child turns out to be their son, missing for almost a full year. After extensive convalescing of the child at his grandmother’s home in Alabama, the Spencers return to Atlanta. Although Sonny never tells them who kidnapped him, he hints at sexual exploitation, including rape, and continually makes wax keys that lead Spence to believe that he knows more than he has revealed. Through the wax keys and by following his son, Spence learns that Sonny has been visiting a suburban home and that the owner is the Spencers’ landlord, who had Sonny kidnapped and made him part of a child pornography enterprise. The novel ends with the Spencers having rescued Sonny from the landlord’s control but without any clear resolution of the child murders. Wayne Williams remains a scapegoat to quiet the city and conceal the identity of the real murderers.

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