If you follow me on Instagram, you might know that I chose the book "The Other Wes Moore" by Wes Moore as my first social justice book club read! A few years ago, I saw Wes speak at The Connecticut Forum and I was so impressed with him, so when I saw this book sitting on the shelf at The Strand about a month ago, I knew I had to read it. It's pretty short, just under 200 pages and it was quite an easy read. It's not full of facts and data but rather tells a story in a flowing narrative manner.
As you may have guessed, this book is about two boys, both named Wes Moore, both black, who grew up mere blocks away from each other in the city of Baltimore. One of them ends up a decorated veteran, Rhodes Scholar, and influential person in society, while the other is currently serving a life sentence in prison for an armed jewelry store robbery that ended in the murder of a security guard.
Wes, the author, discusses how, when he was in college, he heard about the other Wes Moore and was struck by their similarities, so he wrote him a letter in prison. The two Wes's began corresponding and eventually meeting at the prison. They told each other the stories of their lives and what they had gone through growing up. I can't imagine it was easy for either of them to learn what the other had experienced.
Their stories are quite paralleled, both lost their fathers at an early age, one to a sudden death, one to abandonment. Both experience run ins with law enforcement, although one more often than the other. Both struggle in school, skipping class and failing grades. Both argue with their mother's, siblings, and family members. But they ended up with two such different fates.
One of the most poignant parts of the book, in my opinion, was in the author's discussion of race and law enforcement. He writes, "the relationship between the police and the people they served and protected changed significantly during the 1980s. For almost as long as black folks have been 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" (p. 81). He discusses how "the war on drugs" essentially created an excuse for police officers to target, question, search, and arrest people of color, particularly, men of color. Clearly, given recent events, this policy still affects policing practices.
Recently, I have been listening to the podcast "Undisclosed: The Killing of Freddie Gray", which is a detailed retelling of and investigation into what happened to a young black man who was killed by police officers in Baltimore in April 2015. Although not directly related to "The Other Wes Moore", it was really interesting to draw parallels to the Baltimore of 1980 and the Baltimore of today, which still has quite corrupt police practices. The city of Baltimore is racially segregated, where many black individuals live in housing projects, as did Freddie Gray and one of the Wes's. The drug scene was and is rampant in many areas and Wes got caught up in this scene way too early.
One Wes (the author), moves to the Bronx with his family to be closer to his mother's parents. I really enjoyed reading Wes's take on the Bronx because that is where I am going to be working come September. The Bronx was similar to Baltimore in that it was very segregated and some parts were riddled with drug activity and crime. Moore states, "in 1990, there were 2,605 [homicides in the city]. Those murders were concentrated in a single demographic: young black men. In some neighborhoods, the young men would've been safer living in war zones" (p. 51). This statistic is astounding as well as disturbing.
What I learned most from this book is the difficulty that young black men face while striving to find their identities and places in society. Author Wes describes how, at his private school in the Bronx, he never felt "white" enough, but in his neighborhood he never felt "black" enough. He eventually found his place in the military and at Johns Hopkins. However, the other Wes really struggled throughout his life to find himself. As someone who had served multiple stints in prison, it was very difficult for Wes to get a job and feel like a valued member of society, so he further turned to illegal activities to try to find his place.
If any of the things I have talked about in this post are of interest to you, I would highly recommend this book, as what I've written is only a tiny snippet. As I said, it was a quick, easy read that left me critically thinking about a lot of aspects of our society that need to be changed. It definitely helped my understanding of the background of many of the clients who I am going to be working with when I start my job next month.
I look forward to reading my next book for the Social Justice Book Club! Now, I just have to decide which one!