Tag Archives: wes moore

The Education of Kevin Powell by Kevin Powell

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Ever choose a book to read based only on its cover? This was one of those. I was shelving holds and came across this adorable little boy (look at that outfit!) and wanted to read his story, even though I had never heard of Kevin Powell and had no idea why I should. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can tell you that the reason to read this book is that he’s a human, and he has something to say, and he is in a constant process of learning from his own mistakes, which makes him interesting.

Anyway, now I know who Kevin Powell is (I can’t believe I didn’t, but then I went through a period in my life where I didn’t watch TV, listen to new music, or read magazines much). He is a writer, a political organizer, a reality TV star, and a (so far) failed state congressional candidate. Most famously, he wrote for Vibe magazine and was one of the first people to write about Tupac Shakur. But the details of his life (which reads like a who’s who of American pop culture at times – this guy knows everybody) are less important than the insight he provides into a generation of African-American men who were steered strongly by their parents to get a good education and a better life, but simultaneously pulled away from that goal by circumstance, random choices, and the culture of their schools/ neighborhoods. Powell’s life story reminded me somewhat of both Wes Moores (The Other Wes Moore – reviewed earlier) – each of these men wanted badly to succeed, but each was constantly tempted down other paths or manipulated by systems in our society that many people don’t even see. For all of those people out there who don’t think that society is skewed to discriminate against people of color and poor people of all colors, this book (and The Other Wes Moore) will make it obvious that poor young people of color suffer a great deal more than their white, middle-class counterparts when a setback occurs. One poor choice, one bad grade, one random accident that a more affluent young person could overcome easily can completely derail a young person who has no safety net.

Warning: you might not actually like Kevin Powell at a few points. He is learning to manage his anger, and learning to let down his guard a little, but there’s no denying that for most of the book he is a very angry, defensive man who doesn’t like himself very much. He has some definite misogynistic leanings, and doesn’t like white people very much either. But what redeems him is that he knows these things about himself, and he’s working on it.  You can’t ask for more than that.

 

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The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

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The book tells the story of the author, Wes Moore, and another man with the same name who grew up around the same time in the same area. The two men had eerily similar early lives: both were raised by single mothers in and around Baltimore, both had early childhood brushes with the law, and both struggled in school. Somehow, Wes Moore the author became a Rhodes Scholar, the other Wes Moore got sent to prison for life in 2004. When the author first heard about the “other” Wes Moore, he became so fascinated that he wrote him a letter, and their subsequent exchanges became this book.

I thought when I started the book that it would be easy to figure out where the other Wes Moore went wrong, and where the author Wes Moore chose correctly – but it is actually very difficult to determine. Both of them worked to improve their lives through what educational opportunities they could find, but what worked for Wes Moore the author failed the other Wes Moore miserably. If we can trust the author and assume he isn’t being self-deprecating, he often got lazy and squandered the opportunities he had, while the other Wes Moore seemed to try harder and more consistently when given a chance. Why did he fail? Was it the difference between going to military school and going to vocational school? Was it the difference between their mothers and extended families? Was the other Wes Moore more desperate because he had children to support, and therefore more likely to resort to crime? We can speculate, but we’ll never know.

I would recommend this book to anyone who liked the HBO series The Wire, because it’s like a nonfiction version. (I found myself picturing characters as their TV analogues.) It’s also great for book clubs – mine discussed it to death. If it has a fiction read-alike, I would pick Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. The time period is all wrong, but the story of a young man trying to make it in a world set up against him is reminiscent.