The Guardian Angels: Performative or Sincere?

Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta explores, among many things, trusting adults. What is also explored is how communities react to abducted children. Parents in Atlanta mobilized when more children vanished. Tasha’s mother sends Tasha to a house after school filled with children, so she and DeShaun would not be home alone while Mama and Daddy are working. A search party is created to find Jashante after he goes missing. When public services shrink, the community action has to grow to make up for the rest of the effort. The Guardian Angels are a volunteer organization of unarmed crime prevention. Reiko Hillyer, a professor at Lewis & Clark University researched organization’s impact in the 70s and 80s, particularly in New York City, culminating in her article “The Guardian Angels” Law and Order and Citizen Policing in New York City.” The group formed out of a “calling upon self-reliance within poor communities of color” (Hillyer 888) and “by 1981, the group grew to approximately 700 volunteers, about 85 percent of whom were black or Latino from poor neighborhoods” (887). As with any position or group of power, that power will soon be abused by “contribut[ing] to the conservative agenda of law and order politics” (898). During the novel’s third and final section, Octavia and Delvis encounter a white Guardian Angel:

‘Y’all got any black Angels?’

I couldn’t believe Delvis. Ten minutes ago, he was scared to cross the street, but now he got right in the man’s face, asking him if he was prejudiced.

The Angel kept smiling. ‘That’s a good question. Young people need to ask smart questions. The answer is yes. The Guardian Angels is a multiethnic organization.’

‘So y’all got black ones?’

Delvis was going to get himself in trouble mouthing off like this to this Angel. ‘We better hurry up,’ I said. “The twins are hungry.’ I jerked Darlita’s arm a little bit trying to get her to whimper or something. But since we got to this side of the street the twins acted like they ain’t got a tongue between them.

The Angel help his hand up. “Just a moment.” He looked at Delvis in the face like man-to-man. ‘Yes, young man, there are a lot of black Guardian Angels.’

‘Well,’ Delvis said, ‘that’s who I want to save me.’ (Jones 162).

            Octavia and Delvis’s encounter with the Guardian Angel is now about seeing oneself in older people. Without this historical contextualization, this white Guardian Angel could easily be compared to a carpetbagger coming to the South to “fix” communities. We, now, know that this white Guardian Angel is in the minority relative to the general demographic of the Guardian Angels. If 85 percent of the Guardian Angels are Black or Latinx, then why did Jones decide to make this Guardian Angel white? Delvis’s line of questioning points to him not trusting white people to save him. His last line further emphasizes by explicitly stating that he wants to be saved by a Black Angel. Families are outraged that Black children are missing and that the police have not found who is doing this. This pattern of talk from parents can trickle into a child’s mind and Delvis may be proof of this operant conditioning. At first glance, the terminally smiling white Angel may seem patronizing towards the children calling them “young man” and talking about the need for curious young people. Rather, this Angel could be lending his support in a place he may know nothing about since many of the Angels were sent from New York City. There is a sense of recruitment in this passage. The Angel is selling Delvis on the organization because it is “multiethnic.” This recruitment can be thought of when we go back to Hillyer’s article on the Guardian Angels in how the “Angels’ complexion did not necessarily change the public’s views of youth of color as a whole; the Angels were the exception that proved the rule” (Hillyer 896). Delvis can become part of that exception and, possibly and hopefully, become the mainstream and no longer an exception to prove a racist rule.

Discussion Questions:

-Have we seen other instances of “exceptions that prove the rule” in other books we have read? Looking back on Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Pet Negro” discussed earlier in the class, do the Guardian Angels fit this archetype?

-Is Delvis being recruited by this performative Angel? Futhermore, is the Angel performative like a salesperson or sincere in his actions and words?

Works Cited

Hillyer, Reiko. “The Guardian Angels: Law and Order and Citizen Policing in New York City.” Journal of Urban History, vol. 43, no. 6, 2017, pp. 886-914.

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