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5/19/2010

The Arts

The roads Wes traveled
Author explores his possible double life

 

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates
(Spiegel & Grau, 256 pages)

An African-American in his early 30s writes a book about growing up and succeeding in a white world. A father figure disappears from his life in early childhood. Thanks to the support of a strong mother and middle-class grandparents, he overcomes distractions and starts to achieve. And in a world where self-definition is muddied, he finds a story to tell. But in part, it’s the story of someone else with the same name.

It’s hard to read The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (Spiegel & Grau) without being reminded of Barack Obama’s 1995 Dreams From My Father. The book’s photo section doesn’t discourage the comparison: You see Moore on the INVESCO Field video screen in Denver, speaking on the afternoon of Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for president. Obama has the edge on literary flair, but there is a severe line of truth in Moore’s 256-page book that is equally thought-provoking.

Moore traces the concept of this book to late 2000. The Baltimore Sun featured an article on Moore – “Local Graduate Named Rhodes Scholar.” But the news hole had been monopolized by another Wes Moore, almost the same age, who was being sentenced for the shooting of off-duty Baltimore Police officer Bruce Prothero. One Wes Moore was packing his bags for Oxford, the other in Jessup on a life sentence without parole. Wes Moore the Rhodes Scholar began to exchange mail with Wes Moore the lifer, and the information gleaned through these letters and interviews held at Jessup gave him the material to come up with two very different narratives.

Wes Moore isn’t coy about his résumé, and he has a few items on it that Dreams From My Father’s author would have envied. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Johns Hopkins University, a college football star, a combat veteran in Afghanistan and – although he says altitude sickness stopped him from reaching the top – a climber of Kilimanjaro. He also was a White House Fellow and named one of Ebony magazine’s “Top 30 Leaders Under 30” in 2007.

Yes, altitude sickness could become a problem. Even Obama chronicles a few years spent lounging around at Occidental, getting blow when he could afford it. In a tantalizing moment in the afterward, Moore hints that things haven’t been perfect for him since the book’s story ended, but – and maybe he learned this from Obama – he doesn’t specify. That, and the fact that he doesn’t mention his career as an investment professional at Deutsch Bank and Citigroup in the book itself, may be a sign of political aspirations.

The thought behind the book’s subtitle, One Name, Two Fates, is that one Moore could have become the other: They lived a few blocks from one another in Baltimore. That is technically true, but this is by no means the story of two men growing up in the same neighborhood. When Moore the author lived in Baltimore, he was a Hopkins undergrad and Maryland College Football Hall of Fame player; at the same time, the other Wes Moore was living in a separate universe on the 2700 block of North Calvert Street.

Moore writes that the tragedy is that one could have easily turned into the other. In the introduction he writes: “This book is meant to show, for those of us who live in the most precarious places in this country, our destinies can be determined by a single stumble down the wrong path, or a tentative step down the right one.”

Possibly, but the differences are glaring. Born in 1978, one Wes spent his early years in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. His father William Westley Moore was a well-known radio journalist at WMAL-AM radio. Wes’ father and mother, Jamaican-born Joy Thomas, were college graduates. There are plenty of struggles, which follow the death of Will when Wes was only 3, but the family ties and the middle-class social infrastructure help them prevail through economic difficulties.

The other Wes Moore, meanwhile, was born in 1975 in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill to a single mother, Mary Moore, and an alcoholic father who never lived with them. His half-brother Tony, six years older, was being sucked into the world of Murphy Homes – where his father lived. His mother, meanwhile, was fighting a losing war on poverty. She enrolled in the Community College of Baltimore while working as a Bayview Hospital nurse, until cutbacks on Pell grants forced her to drop out. By 14, Wes had been absorbed into the drug trade, and at 15 he had been charged with an attempted murder – his first. And he was a father.

Moore the Rhodes Scholar moved up, but it took much more than a tentative step. While living in the South Bronx with his mother and grandparents, he attended Riverdale, the private school where John Kennedy was educated. At 13, when the street’s attractions appeared to be pulling him in the wrong direction, his mother hustled him off to Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge Military Academy, where discipline and competitive zeal gave him the boost he needed.

Despite the writer’s efforts, the barrier between the two Moores is stubbornly in place. The final exchange between the prisoner and the Rhodes scholar speaks for itself. The prisoner for life: “If they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we end up too. … At some point you lose control.” The Rhodes Scholar: “True, but it’s easy to lose control when you were never looking for it in the first place.”

It’s a gulf that Obama deals with in his own book when, as a Harvard Law graduate, he finds himself in Chicago, facing what he calls the “unspoken settlement we had made since the 1960s, a settlement that allowed half of our children to advance even as the other half fell further behind.”

Obama made his way to the pinnacle and, by all appearances, Wes Moore is moving up. But if there was a path that could have led the other Wes Moore from Cherry Hill to a career in global finance at Citigroup, it’s not here. In the book’s final section, Wes the lifer has spent a year at Job Corps Laurel and picks up a few job skills, but returning to Baltimore, he finds himself back in the wasteland.

“Wes watched as, across the street, a young man no longer older than sixteen pulled out a wad of cash, held together by a rubber band, and began showing it off to a friend. Lines of heads circled the block looking for their next hit. Some of the players had changed, but the positions were the same.”

The Other, ultimately, is a bleak testament to a generation that is being ripped apart by an ever-solidifying division between two worlds: one with infrastructure and one with nothing at all.

(This review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper.)

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