There have been many great coming of age stories written by Black male authors, but none quite like Kevin Powell's new book, "The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood."
The violence Powell experienced as a young person, and the violence he inflicted, as an adult, are hardly new themes in Black coming of age stories- but the sensibility Powell brings to the narrative comes off as startling. Powell admits every bit of vulnerability and weakness in a way a way that brings to life what it means to be a child in environments in which childhood was a luxury denied both by a racist society and impoverished deeply wounded residents. A brilliant sensitive child in places where neither of these were welcomed; where weakness invited aggression, Powell somehow survived without developing the armor that most male children had to envelop themselves in. The result is a narrative of male powerlessness written with a feminized sensibility that I have almost never seen in literature of this kind. There are no masks. There is no bravado. Just the honest recollection of someone whose very survival was a miracle and who still lives with the damage inflicted on him every day.
Now remember who we are talking about here. A nationally known journalist, author, political activist, who has had an opportunity to meet and write about some of the most important figures in hip hop and African-American politics. Handsome, famous, accomplished yet still traumatized by everything he endured as a child, in his home, in the streets, in school.
You want to understand the impact of racism and poverty on a vulnerable child, read this book. You want to see how pain is transmitted from generation to generation, look no further. In a country where Black children are often denied the right to be treated as being sensitive, thoughtful, limitless in their potential, Powell puts you in the mind of a Black child who possess all of those traits, and you can not help but cry tears of pain and empathy. The writing is evocative, raw, and mercilessly self-reflective. You end up seeing the consequences of all this pain when Powell becomes an adult and engages in all kinds of self destructive behavior even as he finds a voice which inspires millions.
But it is the childhood portions of this book that make it unique. Think Richard Wright's "Black Boy." Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." Junot Diaz's "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Think of the best music of Tupac Shakur and Wu Tang Clan. There are no masks. No illusions. We see a racist, gendered society putting crushing burdens on young Black boys born into poverty. Powell speaks for them, not just the strong ones, all of them, with unmatched eloquence Because Powell leaves nothing out. No twinge of fear. No moment of weakness. No bout of rage and self-doubt.
I hope millions of people read this book. But not just alone, as I have. In classes, in study groups, in reading groups where people can make their own connections to what Powell puts before us.
Because all of us have been hurt. All of us carry childhood wounds. All of us have been afraid. All of us hurt the ones we love. Because Powell admits these things about himself, he pushes all of us to be equally honest and introspective.
What makes the book all the more remarkable is that as Powell admits, his adult life has not always been exemplary. Amidst all his achievements, he grappled with depression, paranoia and rage, leading him to physically assault co-workers, friends and romantic partners. Only therapy and a self-conscious effort to transform himself in line with principles of gender equality prevented him from being a person who accomplishments were dwarfed by a trail of destruction.
But Powell struggled, persevered, grew, and learned to share his traumas in a way that inspires other to do the same, turning his survival into an act of generosity more than selfishness.
At at time when some are trying to teach America that "Black Life Matters"-- Kevin Powell has written a book which shows that even Black lives which have the least promising beginnings can, to quote W.E.B Dubois, end creating products of intellect and art which will provide inspiration to people around the world. Was Dr DuBois thinking of a future Kevin Powell when he wrote the following:
"Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts."
"The Education of Kevin Powell" is a book that you will want to keep close to you as a reminder of the depth of human pain and inhumanity, and the possibility of transcendence and redemption.
But don't hold back the tears. Don't even try.