Them that's got shall have
Them that's not shall lose
-Billie Holiday "God Bless the Child"
It begins in blood. A young, beaten, bruised and flattened African-American is dragged to a pitch dark parking lot. He silently prays for his life as he absorbs one merciless kick after another. "The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want," he whispers to himself. His eyes are swollen. His Face is a bloodied landfill. He takes another piercing boot to the ribs and thinks to himself "This is how I die."
But this is not how he dies.
It is how he is reborn.
The Education of Kevin Powell is the voice of "the other" breaking through the "concrete box" and reaching the surface. The stacked deck is identified. The light is turned on. And the volume is pumped up in a language that combines the political urgency of Malcolm X with the raw, urban honesty of Tupac Shakur and the eloquence of Langston Hughes.
Powell's memoir chronicles his path from his hopeless beginnings in a Jersey tenement to becoming a cast member on the first season of MTV's the Real World, senior writer for Quincy Jones' Vibe magazine, and one of the most prominent activists of his generation. It is a survivor's tale that begins with an impoverished, fatherless African American child who feels like a "sad empty Coke bottle getting kicked down the Jersey City pavements." He longs for his absent father to return. For the roaches and rats to be banished. For the frightful struggles with his abusive mother to be no more. He dreams of a mad escape to a better fate.
Powell's background of covering the world of rap and hip-hop for Vibe magazine in the 90s serves him well in capturing the rhythm of anger, desperation, frustration and struggle of a childhood spent eternally hungry amongst the rats and roaches and a revolving door of social workers to reach higher ground. But this is not a feel-good book. It offers no simplistic answers to the complex Powell's background of covering the world of rap and hip-hop for Vibe magazine in the 90s serves him well in capturing the rhythm of anger, desperation, and brutal frustration and struggle of working through and rising above a childhood spent eternally hungry amongst the rats and roaches and a revolving door of social workers to reach the higher ground.
It is book filled with questions.
The kind of questions our current 24/7 news cycles with their endless feeds of white police officers fatally beating African American teens, tear-gassed, burning cities and heartbroken mothers weeping in the ashes to ask. The Education of Kevin Powell hits that pause button to remind us that in-between that black and white there is a lot of gray. He is someone raised in low-income African-American tenements. Someone who was relocated to a white neighborhood and played stickball with middle-class suburban white kids and absorbed their nonchalant racial taunts. Someone who helped bring Louis Farrakhan to Rutgers University. He knows white privilege. He knows black rage. He does not yearn for an unreachable utopia. He yearns only for a society that provides a level playing field and "the opportunity to have an opportunity" regardless of race, gender or class.
While Powell's memoir deals heavily with race it is not solely about race. Gender equality plays as prominent a role in Powell's book as racial equality. The final portion of The Education of Kevin Powell is primarily devoted to Powell's own personal failings and evolution on gender issues. Like Samuel Coleridge's albatross-laden mariner Powell is compelled to share his violent altercations and dehumanizing sexual objectification of women in the hope that others may learn from it.
Powell's journey is one that cuts through the defining issues of race and gender as it breaks the heart, heals the scars and lifts the spirit.