“The Other Wes Moore” explores the lives of two young Black men coming of age during the same era, in similar neighborhoods, and with the same name. (What are the odds?) They both experience adolescent bumps and bruises. But, their lives diverge setting one on the path to prison and the other to becoming a Rhodes Scholar. To keep things simple, I’ll refer to the author as NY Wes and the other Wes Moore as MD Wes.
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The thing that struck me was that both boys grew up without their fathers. Yet, what seemed to make a major difference was the reason for their father’s absence and the males who stood in as their role models.
NY Wes’s mother and father were adults living pretty normal lives at the time of his birth. Their presence and solid relationship provided a stable foundation for Wes’ early life. Also, both of his parents were college grads which provided some degree of stability, if not security. Wes lived with his decades-married maternal grandparents for part of his childhood. The book doesn’t provide much info about Wes’ paternal family but it seems that both of his parents came from stable homes.
MD Wes’ mother and father were teenage parents who weren’t in an actual relationship before his birth. His conception took place a few months after they met and his parents had broken up by the time he was born. Wes’ father made one drunken effort to insist on seeing and bonding with his son and gave up when things didn’t go according to plan.
The instability of MD Wes’ life began with the lack of thought that went into his conception. His parent’s example of sex and relationships paved the way for him to also haphazardly father children as a teen with women that he mostly viewed as sexual conquests.
NY Wes’ father, Westley, passed away when he was very young. Yet, he positive male role models surround and guide him as he matures. They held him accountable, discouraged him from doing wrong, and tried to instill a sense of discipline.
He had moments in his adolescence that seemed to foreshadow a problematic adulthood. Yet, his mother made hard decisions and huge sacrifices when he began getting into trouble. Her direct intervention resulted in NY Wes leaving an environment that might have swallowed up his potential as he got older.
On the other hand, men who are alcoholics and/or involved in criminal activity surround Wes. His older brother, Tony, tried to encourage him to keep on the right path but did so with a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Tony’s dad was a criminal and in living with him, he became involved with criminal activity. Living the street life exposed Tony to the harsh realities of the drug trade but also attracted girls and gave him the material trappings of being a drug dealer.
Tony tries to teach Wes how to be a man but his ideology is dysfunctional and will obviously lead to problems. He has good intentions but being a teen himself, he is unable to maturely communicate to Wes why he should avoid the streets. Tony beats Wes up when he’s disappointed in or upset with him. He also has Wes fight the neighborhood boys as a way to toughen him up and encourages Wes to become vicious at the least sign of perceived disrespect. This teaches Wes that as a man it’s acceptable and even expected that disagreements with other men are best resolved through violence.
Male acquaintances hid Wes’ his early scrapes with the law rather than holding him accountable. MD Wes’ family wants him to do better than the men around him but there are few examples for how this is done. It was obvious that Wes yearned for a father of his own as shown by the admiration he had for his childhood friend’s relationship with his dad.
MD Wes’ mother, Mary, was a decent woman who made some poor decisions in her teens that had long-lasting effects. She was very hard working but trying to support two kids as a single woman on a low salary meant that she wasn’t home much. Mary was also very young when she had her kids and still partied and dated while they were growing up. As a result, by the time Wes reached school age, he had limited supervision and was free to go and come as he pleased. MD Wes’ mother and older brother tried but failed to fill the role that Wes’ father should have been playing in his life.
NY Wes is under constant supervision so when he starts going off track his mom and other adult family members intervene. Mary is naive and fails to notice when Wes gets involved in the streets. She is also either at work or asleep when Wes begins sneaking girls into the house. She believes his flimsy explanations of how he obtains clothing that she’s not buying. And even when Tony confronts her with the truth about Wes, she refuses to believe him.
A major theme in “The Other Wes Moore” is the importance of positive male role models in the development of Black boys. Yet, the story of these two boys also shows the impact that access to resources can play in diverting kids from the prison pipeline.
“The Other Wes Moore” is a quick and easy read. Yet, it would be a great book for Black adolescent boys and fathers. There’s a lot going on here with regards to fatherhood, machismo, family, and Black manhood. “The Other Wes Moore” could also offer some insight into the Black male experience for women.
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