Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: The Other Wes Moore

"The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his." Wes Moore

So I've decided that every now and then I might post a book review. Deal.

This weekend, I finished reading Wes Moore's The Other Wes Moore. I first heard about this book on NPR, around it's release as it was getting a fair amount of media coverage. I was instantly drawn in. Here's the brief "pull you in" paragraph from the book's website:

One name: Two Fates. Two kids with the same name, living in the same decaying city. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader. The other is serving a life sentence in prison for felony murder. Here is the story of two boys and the journey of a generation.

That paragraph really sums up the book's premise, which was what drew me in. The Wes Moore who authors the book discovers there's another Wes Moore from his childhood neighborhood who ends up serving a life sentence for murder. So he writes to him. Much to his surprise, the other Wes Moore writes back and they form a preliminary relationship which allows the author to be granted access to the other Wes Moore's story through his own words and interviews with his friends and family.

The similarities are striking. They both were born into the same city in low income families. Both struggle in school initially. Both of their fathers were missing from the picture. However, the differences that emerge are where the story is told. The Wes Moore who grows up to be the author was raised by a single mother because his father passed away due to a misdiagnosis. The other Wes Moore's father was not a part of his son's life by choice. The author's mother was a college graduate, prioritized education, and fought to find her son opportunities when she saw that he was struggling to find the right path. The other Wes Moore's mother never wanted her sons to end up involved in drugs and robbery, but is unable to meaningfully intervene.

The book is a fascinating, quick read that takes us through the journey of what it means to be an African American young man growing up in an urban area in the 80's and 90's. We see what it means as crack invades neighborhoods and participating in the drug trade becomes one of the few main ways to make money--and lots of it. We see how school systems fail the boys. The other Wes Moore skirts under the radar only to ultimately drop out, despite his intelligence; which we later learn about when he briefly "goes straight" to enter a job corps program and excels. (However, he abandons his new life as he is left making wages far too low to support his family.) Our author, on the other hand, whose mother placed him in private school, felt stuck between two words; his rich classmates and the kids in the neighborhood, never fitting in either (until he finds his place in military school.) We learn how the idea of hyper masculinity directly impacts the other Wes Moore's fate. We see, painfully clearly that the dominant idea of being a man is never backing down. If someone strikes you in the face, you raise them with a gunshot wound to the shoulder.

The book ends leaving you with mixed feelings of sadness and hope, for as the teaser description explains, there are two fates in the story. But one can't help but wonder if these fates are evenly distributed amongst young African American men. The statistics support the sobering reality that many more turn out like the other Wes Moore than the author. Time and time again in the story, we see how the systems in play worked against the other Wes Moore. No teacher championed him. No mentor showed him another life. And even when he worked to better himself, proudly completing his GED and job corps training, he was thrust into a world which compensated his trade well below what he was making on the streets.

The author himself claims that he is lucky. Not only did he have a mother who wouldn't accept anything less than excellence from her son, but he also encountered many positive male mentors who showed him what his life could be and opened many doors for him. I can't help agree with the description that the book is the "journey of a generation." Never before have black man accomplished so much. But how many more turn out like the other Wes Moore?

All in all, The Other Wes Moore is a wonderful nonfiction read, which I would recommend to anyone who has interest in issues of social justice, education, urban policy, masculinity, or African American studies. I would love to read the book a second time and further analyze how gender dynamics play out differently amongst the two Wes Moores' lives.

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