Saturday, January 15, 2011

Roots/Routes to Choose: ‘The Other Wes Moore’

Review by Bill Doughty
Considered by many as one of the best U.S. nonfiction books of the past year, The Other Wes Moore is a story of choice.  Two men share the same name and neighborhood, same options.  One chooses education, service and freedom; the other falls into drugs, violence and life in prison.
What gave author Wes Moore an awareness of his freedom of choice?
At least one answer: books.
Moore’s enjoyment of reading and study was ignited in high school by a book about sports, a book that led to other inspiring works.

Posted here, with the permission of the publisher:

My mother, sensing my apathy toward reading, had bought me the Mitch Albom book Fab Five.  The book is about the Michigan basketball team led by Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard, a team with five freshman starters who made it all the way to the national championship game.  The Fab Five sported baggy shorts, bald heads, and a swagger I recognized from the streets of the Bronx, all reflective of the way the hip-hop generation was changing the face of sports, and college basketball in particular.  I was riveted by that book.  The characters jumped off the page, and I felt myself as engulfed in their destiny as I was in my own.  I finished Fab Five in two days.  The book itelf wasn’t what was important -- in retrospect, I see that it was a great read but hardly a work of great literature -- but my mother used it as a hook into a deeper lesson: that the written word isn’t necessarily a chore but can be a window into new worlds.
From there I leaped into every new book with fervor.  My fresh love of reading brought me to the transformational writers who have worked their magic on generations of readers.  I explored Spain with Paulo Coelho.  I listened to jazz on the North Shore of Long Island with F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I was reminded by Walt Whitman to think of the past, and I awaited “The Fire Next Time” with James Baldwin.  But there was a more recent author and public figure whose work spoke to the core of a new set of issues I was struggling with: the Bronx’s own Colin Powell.  His book, My American Journey, helped me harmonize my understanding of America’s history and my aspiration to serve in her uniform.  In his autobiography he talked about going to the Woolworth’s in Columbus, Georgia, and being able to shop but not eat there.  He talked about how black GIs during World War II had more freedoms when stationed in Germany than back in the country they fought for.  But he embraced the progress this nation made and the military’s role in helping that change to come about.  Colin Powel could have been justifiably angry, but he wasn’t.  He was thankful.  I read and reread one section in particular:  “The Army was living the democratic ideal ahead of the rest of America.  Beginning in the late fifties, less discrimination, a truer merit system, and leveler playing fields existed inside the gates of our military posts more than in any Southern city hall or Northern corporation.  The Army, therefore, made it easier for me to love my country, with all its flaws, and to serve her with all my heart.”

The canon of black autobiography sensibly includes scores of books about resistance to the American system.  For instance, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X -- a book that begins and ends in the madness and pathology of Americca’s racial obsessions -- is a rite of passage for young black men.  Malcolm never stopped pursuing truth and the right course, based on the best information he had at any given moment.  His response to the world he confronted in the middle of the twentieth century was profound and deeply felt, but he didn’t speak to my experience as well as Colin Powell did.  Powell, in his pragmatic way, wanted what I wanted:  A fair shot.  A place to develop himself.  A code that would instill discipline, restrain passion, and order his steps.  A way to change the world without first unleashing the whirlwind.  In the chaos of the world I grew up in, those were as appealing to me as Malcolm’s cry for revolution was to his generation.  I don’t claim that Powell had it all figured out:  American history bedevils the most earnest attempts to make sense of it.  And, of course, the problems of race that Malcolm confronted have not disappeared by any means.  But Powell gave me another way to think about the American dilemma and, more than that, another way to think about my own life.
Excerpted from The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore Copyright C 2010 by Wes Moore. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Wes Moore chose service in the U.S. military, became an Army paratrooper and served in combat in Afghanistan.  He became a Rhodes Scholar like former President Bill Clinton and worked as a special assistant to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as a White House Fellow.  The other Wes Moore chose a different path toward hate, murder of a police officer in Philadelphia and a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Tavis Smiley endorses Moore’s book with a “call to action” following the epilogue:  “My call to action, our call to action, is this: read these words but, more important, absorb their meanings and create your own plan to act and leave a legacy.”

Smiley spotlights the central message of The Other Wes Moore: “The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave.” 

This weekend Americans contemplate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his commitment toward nonviolence, civility and justice for all.  Here’s what King said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  -- MLK
As the world becomes even more connected and humanity more threatened with senseless acts of violence (as in Tucson last weekend), King’s observation provides inspiration and hope.  
So does The Other Wes Moore.

No comments: