the Other Wes Moore (2010), p.1Wes Moore
For Mama Win, Mommy, Nikki, Shani, and Dawn
the women who helped shape my journey to manhood
PART I: FATHERS AND ANGELS
1. Is Daddy Coming with Us?
2. In Search of Home
3. Foreign Ground
PART II: CHOICES AND SECOND CHANCES
4. Marking Territory
Photo Insert 1
PART III: PATHS TAKEN AND EXPECTATIONS FULFILLED
7. The Land That God Forgot
Photo Insert 2
A Call to Action by Tavis Smiley
This is the story of two boys living in Baltimore with similar histories and an identical name: Wes Moore. One of us is free and has experienced things that he never even knew to dream about as a kid. The other will spend every day until his death behind bars for an armed robbery that left a police officer and father of five dead. The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his. Our stories are obviously specific to our two lives, but I hope they will illuminate the crucial inflection points in every life, the sudden moments of decision where our paths diverge and our fates are sealed. It's unsettling to know how little separates each of us from another life alogether.
In late 2000, the Baltimore Sun published a short article with the headline "Local Graduate Named Rhodes Scholar." It was about me. As a senior at Johns Hopkins University, I received one of the most prestigious academic awards for students in the world. That fall I was moving to England to attend Oxford University on a full scholarship.
But that story had less of an impact on me than another series of articles in the Sun, about an incident that happened just months before, a precisely planned jewelry store robbery gone terribly wrong. The store's security guard--an off-duty police officer named Bruce Prothero--was shot and killed after he pursued the armed men into the store's parking lot. A massive and highly publicized manhunt for the perpetrators ensued. Twelve days later it ended when the last two suspects were apprehended in a house in Philadelphia by a daunting phalanx of police and federal agents. The articles indicated that the shooter, Richard Antonio Moore, would likely receive the death penalty. The sentence would be similarly severe for his younger brother, who was also arrested and charged. In an eerie coincidence, the younger brother's name was the same as mine.
Two years after I returned from Oxford, I was still thinking about the story. I couldn't let it go. If you'd asked me why, I couldn't have told you exactly. I was struck by the superficial similarities between us, of course: we'd grown up at the same time, on the same streets, with the same name. But so what? I didn't think of myself as a superstitious or conspiratorial person, the kind who'd obsess over a coincidence until it yielded meaning. But there were nights when I'd wake up in the small hours and find myself thinking of the other Wes Moore, conjuring his image as best I could, a man my age lying on a cot in a prison cell, burdened by regret, trying to sleep through another night surrounded by the walls he'd escape only at death. Sometimes in my imaginings, his face was mine.
There's a line at the opening of John Edgar Wideman's brilliant Brothers and Keepers about the day he found out his own brother was on the run from the police for an armed robbery: "The distance I'd put between my brother's world and mine suddenly collapsed... Wherever he was, running for his life, he carried part of me with him." But I didn't even know the other Wes Moore. Why did I feel this connection with him, why did I feel like he "carried part of me with him" in that prison cell? I worried that I was just being melodramatic or narcissistic. But still, I couldn't shake it. Finally, one day, I wrote him a simple letter introducing myself and explaining how I'd come to learn about his story. I struggled to explain the purpose of my letter and posed a series of naive questions that had been running through my mind: Who are you? Do you see your brother? How do you feel about him? How did this happen? As soon as I mailed the letter, the crazy randomness of it all came flooding in on me. I was sure that I'd made a mistake, that I'd been self-indulgent and presumptuous and insulting, and that I'd never hear back from him.
A month later, I was surprised to find an envelope in my mailbox stamped with a postmark from the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. He had written back.
"Greetings, Good Brother," the letter started out:
I send salutations of peace and prayers and blessings and guidance to you for posing these questions, which I'm going to answer, Inshallah. With that, I will begin with the first question posed ...
This was the start of our correspondence, which has now gone on for years. At the beginning of our exchange of letters--which was later expanded by face-to-face visits at the prison--I was surprised to find just how much we did have in common, aside from our names, and how much our narratives intersected before they fatefully diverged. Learning the details of his story helped me understand my own life and choices, and I like to think that my story helped him understand his own a little more. But the real discovery was that our two stories together helped me to untangle some of the larger story of our generation of young men, boys who came of age during a historically chaotic and violent time and emerged to succeed and fail in unprecedented ways. After a few visits, without realizing it, I started working on this project in my mind, trying to figure out what lessons our stories could offer to the next wave of young men who found themselves at the same crossroads we'd encountered and unsure which path to follow.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered was that through the stories we volleyed back and forth in letters and over the metal divider of the prison's visiting room, Wes and I had indeed, as Wideman wrote, "collapsed the distance" between our worlds. We definitely have our disagreements--and Wes, it should never be forgotten, is in prison for his participation in a heinous crime. But even the worst decisions we make don't necessarily remove us from the circle of humanity. Wes's desire to participate in this book as a way to help others learn from his story and choose a different way is proof of that.
To write this book, I conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Wes and his friends and family, as well as my friends and family. The stories you will read are rendered from my own memory and the best memories of those we grew up with, lived with, and learned from. I engaged in extensive historical research and interviewed teachers and drug dealers, police officers and lawyers, to make sure I got the facts--and the feel--right. Some names have been changed to protect people's identities and the quiet lives they now choose to lead. A few characters are composites. But all of the stories are painstakingly real.
The book is broken up into eight chapters, corresponding to eight years that had a decisive impact on our respective lives. The three parts represent the three major phases in our coming of age. Opening each of these parts is a short snippet of conversation between Wes and me in the prison's visitors' room. It was very important to me that we return again and again to that visitors' room, the in-between space where the inside and the outside meet. I don't want readers to ever forget the high stakes of these stories--and of all of our stories: that life and death, freedom and bondage, hang in the balance of every action we take.
The book also features a resource guide listing more than two hundred "Elevate Organizations" that young readers, their caregivers, and anyone who wants to help can use as a tool for creating positive change. One of the true joys of this project has been learning about and creating bonds with some of the organizations that are on the front lines of serving our nation's youth
It is my sincere hope that this book does not come across as self-congratulatory or self-exculpatory. Most important, it is not meant in any way to provide excuses for the events of the fateful day February 7, 2000. Let me be clear. The only victims that day were Sergeant Bruce Prothero and his family. Rather, this book will use our two lives as a way of thinking about choices and accountability, not just for each of us as individuals but for all of us as a society. This book is meant to show how, 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.
This is our story.
Fathers and Angels
Wes stared back at me after I'd asked my question, letting a moment pass and a smirk flicker across his face before responding.
"I really haven't thought too deeply about his impact on my life because, really, he didn't have one."
Wes leaned back in his seat and threw an even stare at me.
"Come on, man," I pressed on. "You don't think about how things would have been different if he'd been there? If he cared enough to be there?"
"No, I don't." The lower half of his face was shrouded by the long beard that he'd grown, an outward sign of the Islamic faith he'd adopted in prison. His eyes danced with bemusement. He was not moved by my emotional questioning. "Listen," he went on. "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."
This was one of our first visits. I had driven a half hour from my Baltimore home into the woody hills of central Maryland to Jessup Correctional Institution to see Wes. Immediately upon entering the building, I was sternly questioned by an armed guard and searched to ensure I wasn't bringing in anything that could be passed on to Wes. Once I was cleared, another guard escorted me to a large room that reminded me of a public school cafeteria. This was the secured area where prisoners and their visitors came together. Armed guards systematically paced around the room. Long tables with low metal dividers separating the visitors from the visited were the only furnishings. The prisoners were marched in, dressed in orange or blue jumpsuits, or gray sweat suits with "DOC" emblazoned across the chests. The uniforms reinforced the myriad other signals around us: the prisoners were owned by the state. Lucky inmates were allowed to sit across regular tables from loved ones. They could exchange an initial hug and then talk face-to-face. The rest had to talk to their families and friends through bulletproof glass using a telephone, visitor and prisoner connected by receivers they held tight to their ears.
Just as I was about to ask another question, Wes interrupted me.
"Let me ask you a question. You come here and ask me all these questions, but you haven't shared any of yourself up with me. So tell me, what impact did your father not being there have on your childhood?"
"I don't know--" I was about to say more when I realized that I didn't really have more to say.
"Do you miss him?" he asked me.
"Every day. All the time," I replied softly. I was having trouble finding my voice. It always amazed me how I could love so deeply, so intensely, someone I barely knew.
I was taught to remember, but never question. Wes was taught to forget, and never ask why. We learned our lessons well and were showing them off to a tee. We sat there, just a few feet from each other, both silent, pondering an absence.
Is Daddy Coming with Us?
Nikki and I would play this game: I would sit on the living room chair while Nikki deeply inhaled and then blew directly in my face, eliciting hysterical laughs on both sides. This was our ritual. It always ended with me jabbing playfully at her face. She'd run away and bait me to give chase. Most times before today I never came close to catching her. But today, I caught her and realized, like a dog chasing a car, I had no idea what to do. So, in the spirit of three-year-old boys everywhere who've run out of better ideas, I decided to punch her. Of course my mother walked into the room right as I swung and connected.
The yell startled me, but her eyes are what I remember.
"Get up to your damn room" came my mother's command from the doorway. "I told you, don't you ever put your hands on a woman!"
I looked up, confused, as she quickly closed the distance between us. My mother had what we called "Thomas hands," a tag derived from her maiden name: hands that hit so hard you had to be hit only once to know you never wanted to be hit again. The nickname began generations ago, but each generation took on the mantle of justifying it. Those hands were now reaching for me. Her eyes told me it was time to get moving.
I darted up the stairs, still unsure about what I'd done so terribly wrong. I headed to the bedroom I shared with my baby sister, Shani. Our room was tiny, barely big enough for my small bed and her crib. There was no place to hide. I was running in circles, frantic to find a way to conceal myself. And still trying to comprehend why I was in so much trouble. I couldn't even figure out the meaning of half the words my mother was using.
In a panic, I kicked the door shut behind me just as her voice reached the second floor. "And don't let me hear you slam that--" Boom! I stared for a moment at the closed door, knowing it would soon be flying open again. I sat in the middle of the room, next to my sister's empty crib, awaiting my fate.
"Joy, you can't get on him like that." My father's baritone voice drifted up through the thin floor. "He's only three. He doesn't even understand what he did wrong. Do you really think he knows what a woman beater is?"
My father was in the living room, ten feet from where the incident began. He was a very slender six foot two with a bushy mustache and a neatly shaped afro. It wasn't his style to yell. When he heard my mother's outburst, he rose from his chair, his eyes widening in confusion. My mother slowly reeled herself in. But she wasn't completely mollified.
"Wes, he needs to learn what is acceptable and what is not!" My father agreed, but with a gentle laugh, reminded her that cursing at a young boy wasn't the most effective way of making a point. I was saved, for the moment.
My first name, Westley, is my father's. I have two middle names, a compromise between my parents. My father loved the sound and meaning of Watende, a Shona word that means "revenge will not be sought," a concept that aligned with his gentle spirit. My mother objected. Watende sounded too big, too complicated for such a tiny baby. It wasn't until later in life that she understood why it was so important to my father that Watende be a part of me. Instead, she lobbied for Omari, which means "the highest." I'm not sure what was easier or less lofty about that name, but I was well into elementary school before I became comfortable spelling either.
My parents' debate continued downstairs, but their words faded. I went to the room's only window and looked out on the world. My older sister, Nikki, and I loved to look through the window as families arrived at the swap market across the street. Our home was on a busy street that sat right on the border of Maryland and Washington, D.C., stuck confusingly between two different municipal jurisdictions, a fact that would become very significant in the near future. I pulled back the thin diaphanous curtain that covered the windows and spotted my friend Ayana outside with her mother. She was half Iranian and half Italian, with long, dark hair and warm eyes that always fascinated me. They were light green, unlike the eyes of anyone else I knew, and they twinkled as if they held stars. I wanted to tap on the window to say hello as she walked past our house to the tenement building next door. But I was afraid of making more trouble for myself, so I just smiled.
On the dresser by the window sat a framed picture of me with Nikki. I sat on her lap with my arm wrapped around her neck, a goofy smile on my face. Nikki is seven years older, so in the picture she was nine and I was barely two. Colorful beads capped the braided tips of her hair, a style she shared with my mother, and large, black-framed eyeglasses covered half of her face.
At the time, I couldn't understand my mother's anger. I mean this wasn't really a woman I was punching. This was Nikki. She could take it. Years would pass before I understood how that blow connected to my mom's past.
My mother came to the United States at the age of three. She was born in Lowe River in the tiny parish of Trelawny, Jamaica, hours away from the tourist traps that line the coast. Its swaths of deep brush and arable land made it great for farming but less appealing for honeymoons and hedonism. Lowe River was quiet, and remote, and it was home for my mother, her older brother Ralph, and my grandparents. My maternal great-grandfather Mas Fred, as he was known, would plant a coconut tree at his home in Mount Horeb, a neighboring area, for each of his kids and grandkids when they were born. My mom always bragged that hers was the tallest and strongest of the bunch. The land that Mas Fred and his wife, Miss Ros, tended had been cared for by our ancestors for generations. And it was home for my mom until her parents earned enough money to bring the family to the States to fulfill my grandfather's dream of a theology degree from an American university.
When my mom first landed in the Bronx, she was just a small child, but she was a survivor and learned quickly. She studied the other kids at school like an anthropologist, trying desperately to fit in. She started with the way she spoke. She diligently listened to the radio from the time she was old enough to turn it on and mimicked what she heard. She'd always pull back enough in her interactions with her classmates to give herself room to quietly observe them, so that when she got home she could practice imitating their accents, their idiosyncrasies, their style. Words like irie became cool. Constable became policeman. Easy-nuh became chill out. The melodic, swooping movement of her Jamaican patois was quickly replaced by the more stable cadences of American English. She jumped into the melting pot with both feet.
the Other Wes Moore (2010) by Wes Moore / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes