My 11-year-old daughter is a prodigious fiction reader and a good book will make her cry. Countless times, I’ve looked over and seen her face reddening accompanied by an incongruous joyous smile, as tears hang from her eyelashes until falling on the page. Before this past month, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the last time a book made me tearful. I can now. I cried reading the new memoir The Education of Kevin Powell, written by the best-selling author and journalist. I cried so much, you’d think I dropped the book in the damn bathtub. Powell, who is perhaps best known as an original “cast-mate” from MTV’s The Real World Season One, or in the 1990s as Vibe’s chronicler of Death Row Records, Tupac Shakur, and Biggie Smalls, has written a devastating memoir. It’s tangentially about a man’s life, but at its core, this is a book that explores poverty, pain, and the redemptive power of the written word.
To understand The Education of Kevin Powell, start with the title. Powell is conversant in both hip-hop and academic texts, and the name is a reference to three classics that touch both of those worlds: the 1933 book by Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro, and the 1998 genius album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The change from “miseducation” to “education” speaks to the running thread throughout Powell’s hard-knock life story. Whether navigating the byzantine public school system in Jersey City as a child, or trying to teach himself about black history as a scholarship student at Rutgers (which calls to mind another memoir, 1972’s The Education of Sonny Carson), or learning from feminist thinkers about how to conquer his own destructive anger towards women, Kevin Powell has been guided through a perilous life by the wisdom to be found in books. The greatest obstacle to this innate quest was the poverty of his youth, and Powell speaks of this physical poverty so viscerally, you understand why he writes that nightmares of rats and cockroaches haunt him to this day.
As he writes,
I did not know what I was and I did not know who we were. We were just there. In this place called “the ghetto” where I felt trapped forever. And my child mind I began to call the ghetto a concrete box. We lived in, and we’re trapped in, a concrete box. There was no escaping this. This was as good as it would ever get. I was born here. I would live here. I would die here. It would only be a matter of time.
He also speaks about the emotional poverty of being raised by a single mother whose fierce and fearful love was often expressed through physical abuse.
Powell’s mother gets more attention than MTV or The Real World and you leave grateful to Powell for that choice. She emerges as a figure both damaged and heroic: a woman with an eighth-grade education who came to Jersey City with her sisters from rural South Carolina to try to make a life. When Powell’s father abandoned them, she fought tenaciously to make sure that there could be a path out of poverty forged by education—while holding deep doubts about the probability of those dreams’ being realized. She embodied for me something I once heard from New York City education-activist Brian Jones, who said, “Despite the ugly slander said by bigots that black families don’t care about education, I would argue that no other group of Americans have fought so persistently and so long for access to high quality schooling. For several hundred years, Americans of African descent, more than anyone else, have equated education with liberation.” This is Powell’s mother. She’s not a reader or a writer. But she fought to make sure that her son would learn those skills in as safe an environment as possible.