I have the privilege of teaching Dual Credit Composition I at my school this year through our local community college. One of the projects the other teacher and I planned for students was a book club of common reads typical on college campuses.
A group in her class and a group in my class each chose The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore.
This book was not on my radar before this project, but I’m glad it is now.
The Other Wes Moore is part autobiography and part biography. That sounds weird, but that’s one of the unique things about this book.
The premise is that Author Wes Moore and Other Wes Moore were both born in Baltimore, Maryland during the 1980s at the height of the rise of cocaine as well as the War on Drugs.
I started to think, maybe we ought to consider this drug problem a public health problem rather than a criminal justice problem56
But, like so much in Baltimore, even this beautiful house was bloodstained20
‘Fuck God,” he said, drawing in a lungful of smoke. ‘If He does exist, he sure doesn’t spend any time in West Baltimore‘140
Both came from humble households. Both are African American. Both are men.
Both felt fatherless.
Author Wes lost his father at a young age; Other Wes met his father, but did not have a father in his house as he grew up. Both young men made choices that led to disciplinary action. Each man believes the absence of their father is part of what shaped their own trajectories.
‘Your father wasn’t there because he couldn’t be, my father wasn’t there because he chose not to be. We’re going to mourn their absence in different ways‘3
After an arrest for graffiti, Author Wes’s mother forced him to attend military school, where he initially feels alone and isolated. Other Wes sold drugs and ended up in jail.
Many governors projected the numbers of beds they’d need for prison facilities . . . by examining the reading scores of third graders. Elected officials deduced that a strong percentage of kids reading below their grade level by third grade would be needing a secure place to stay when they got older. Considering my performance in the classroom thus far, I was well on my way to needing state-sponsored accommodations54
Boredom in teenage boys is a powerful motivation to create chaos87
From there, these young men’s paths diverge in very different ways. Author Wes discusses how military school “saves” him and propels him down the trail of prestigious college, travel, a military career, a happy marriage, and healthy relationships with his family.
This uniform had become a force field that kept the craziness of the world outside from getting too close to me, but I wondered if it was just an illusion118
But, Other Wes Moore, despite his best efforts to get out of the drug trade, stay out of jail, get out of poverty, be a good father, still finds himself part of a robbery where an officer gets shot. Other Wes Moore finds himself in prison again.
Because of their extremely similar backgrounds and name, Author Wes Moore learns of Other Wes Moore. He decided to meet him in person by visiting him in prison. Author Wes felt determined to figure out how two African American young men begin life so similarly, with the same name even, but go in such different directions.
This impulse seems to stem from a fear of Author Wes that his life could just as easily have been the one to derail.
It’s unsettling to know how little separates each of us from another life altogether”xi
‘Do you think we’re all just products of our environments?‘
His smile dissolved into a smirk, with the left side of his face resting at ease. ‘I think so, or maybe products of our expectations.‘
‘Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?‘
‘I mean others’ expectations that you take on as your own.‘
I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
‘We will do what others expect of us,” Wes said. “If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. If they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up, too. At some point, you lose control.‘
I sympathized with him, but I recoiled from his ability to shed responsibility seamlessly and drape it at the feet of others.
‘True, but it’s easy to lose control when you were never looking for it in the first place‘126-27
He sets the book up in the introduction to suggest that he discovers the answers to his questioning. But, by the epilogue, he admits that he has more questions than answers. He still wonders what specifically led to the split between his life and Other Wes, but he also has questions about how this country treats young men of color and how those attitudes, why fathers are so important in the rearing of sons, and what detriment our justice system enacts to those who funnel into the system.
Ultimately, The Other Wes Moore is a story of manhood, specifically what it is like to be a man of color in the United States right now.
‘When did you feel like you’d become a man?’
‘When I first felt accountable to people other than myself. When I first cared that my actions mattered to people other than just me.’67
In both places, young men go through a daily struggle trying to navigate their way through deadly streets, poverty, and the twin legacies of exclusion and low-level expectations But, they are not entirely unequipped — they also have the history of determined, improvisational survival, a legacy of generations who fought through even more oppressive circumstances170
The students and I found this, on one hand, unsatisfying. We wanted answers. But, so did Author Wes.
I liked that there weren’t answers, ultimately, because, that’s real life! Take this moment in time, for example! So many of us don’t have answers about how our life will change because of COVID19’s arrival in the United States, or our country. This change on a daily, hourly basis and so many people feel overwhelmed.
‘About your question. I don’t know the answer‘107
‘What made the difference?’
And the truth is that I don’t know. The answer is elusive. People are so wildly different, and it’s hard to know when genetics or environment or just bad luck is decisive179
Very few lives hinge on any single moment or decision or circumstances182
It’s comforting to remember right now that all aspects of life have their moments where there are not answers. We need to remember that sometimes, we don’t need answers, that the question is what’s really important. We need to keep questioning, even if there are no answers.
The basketball court is a strange patch of neutral ground, a meeting place for every element of a neighborhood’s cohort of young men. You’d find the high school phenoms running circles around the overweight has-beens, guys who’d effortlessly played above-the-rim years ago now trying to catch their breath and salvage what was left of their stylish games. You’d find the drug dealers there, mostly playing the sidelines, betting major money on pick up games and amateur tournaments but occasionally stepping onto the court, smelling like a fresh haircut and with gear on that was fine for sweating in. But even they couldn’t resist getting a little run in — and God help you if you played them too hard, or stepped on their brand new Nike Air Force Ones. You’d find the scrubs talking smack a mile a minute and the church boys who didn’t even bother changing out of their pointy shoes and button-up shirts. You’d find the freelance thugs pushing off for rebound and the A students, quietly showing off sickly jump shots and then running back downcourt eyes down, trying not to look too pleased with themselves. There would be the dude sweating through his post office uniform when he should’ve been delivering mail, and the brother who’d just come back from doing a bid in jail — you could tell by his chiseled arms and intense stare, and the cautious smile he offered every time a passing car would honk and the drive yell out his home, welcoming him home. We were all enclosed by the same fence, bumping into one another, fighting, celebrating. Showing one another our best and worst, revealing ourselves — even our cruelty and crimes 00 as if that fence had created a circle of trust. A brotherhood.
The relationship between the police and the people they served and protected changed during the 1980s. For almost as long as black folks have lived in this country, they’ve had a complicated relationship with law enforcement — and vice versa. But the situation in the eighties felt like a new low. Drugs had brought fear to both sides of the equation. You could see it in the people in the neighborhood, intimidated by the drug dealers and gangs, harassed by the petty crime of the crackheads, and frightened by the sometimes arbitrary and aggressive behavior of the cops themselves. On the other end of the relationship, the job of policemen, almost overnight, had gotten significantly tougher. The tide of drugs was matched by a tide of guns. The high stakes crack trade brought a new level of competition and organization to the streets81
When it is time for you to leave school, leave your job, or even leave this earth, you make sure you have worked hard to make sure it mattered you were ever here133
I hear you, but it’s not the process you should focus on; it’s the joy you will feel after you go through the process170
Trigger Warnings: child neglect; absent parent; death; drugs; loss of a parent; racial profiling; incarceration; terrorism; war