I have been on a memoir kick lately. Perhaps because the current state of my own life is such a mess, I’m in need of a little perspective or solidarity- that whole misery loves company thing. It’s quite an experience, reading the details of another’s life, and I am always in awe of these individuals who so bravely share their stories with us. A few months back I read The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood and this book has stuck with me. I have been wanting to write about it but I have put it off because, well, I don’t feel I’m very adept at writing reviews and I think this particular book deserves more reverence than my limited words will allow. It is also difficult for me to write about this book because it struck a nerve with me. Some of it hit close to home, even if our life experiences are not all that similar. Still, I think this book is deserving of attention, so here’s my paltry synopsis.
I am only mildly embarrassed to admit that I first learned of Kevin Powell many years ago when that little show on MTV, The Real World, first began. My mom and I would watch it together, and aside from it filling what was (apparently) a need to pry into the lives of strangers, I was fascinated by this Kevin guy. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to make of him. He seemed so mad all of the time, but I frequently found myself agreeing with what he said. Or yelled. I couldn’t decide if he was courageous or crazy, but I knew I had never encountered anyone like him in my own life. When I learned all these years later he had written a memoir, I could not wait to get my hands on it.
Here’s the thing about Kevin Powell’s story: it is drenched in sorrow. He recounts his years of abuse and neglect in great detail, and vividly illustrates what it was like to grow up with nothing, his most basic needs having barely been met. Reading about his childhood made me weep, and not just for what he went through, but also because I know his upbringing was unlikely to play out any other way. This is what poverty does. This is what happens to people when we keep them entrapped in this loop of racism and classism, and force them to be victims of their own lives.
After the details of his traumatic childhood were covered, I felt like I was caught in a game of emotional Ping-Pong. Reading about his experiences as a young man was nothing short of frustrating. Just when I would think he was about to move beyond his past, something else would happen, sending him back into despair. Sometimes these events occurred through no fault of his own, other times they were self-inflicted, as he repeatedly allowed his anger to control him. I found myself sometimes desperately wishing someone had been there to protect him and hold him, to whisper, “You are so much better than what you believe about yourself.” Other times, his actions enraged me, and I would find myself shaking my head in utter disappointment.
Ultimately, Kevin Powell finds his way to self-acceptance. Moreover, he comes to take responsibility for his actions with complete honesty. It may sound trite to praise someone for this, after all, isn’t that just part of growing up? While that may be so, he has confessed to some repugnant acts, and I believe it is significant that he learned to forgive himself, refusing to allow his mistakes to define him. Admirably, he uses some of his most negative experiences as a catalyst for reflection and growth, and also as a way to give voice to populations who need it most.
On a more personal note, there is a theme throughout this book that really resonated with me. I could not help but be aware how often Mr. Powell seemed to be struggling with his innate abilities and talents countered by how he knew he was “supposed to be.” I am familiar with this struggle. Based on my personal history, I should have had a very different outcome. Someone with my background is not supposed to have a life this good. And Kevin Powell was not supposed to be intelligent, successful, and influential. It’s a subtle but constant question for those of us who have been marginalized: how much of what the world tells us about ourselves do we have to believe?
I am hesitant to put too much attention on his accomplishments, even though that is what makes Mr. Powell’s story so incredible. I fear focusing on his victories becomes some sort of proof of this lie we are told, this idea that we can all somehow go on to do amazing things. We are made to believe it is our own fault if our lives don’t mirror American ideals when nothing could be further from the truth. It’s completely arrogant and dismissive to believe good fortune is simply a matter of choice. I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons Kevin Powell’s life unfolded the way it did; perhaps it was the perfect combination of determination and luck. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the work he has done and continues to do, and grateful that he shared his story.