Another of the books I picked up at bargain prices in the waning hours of Borders’ existence was The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. I first saw the book last winter on the front display table at the massive Barnes & Noble in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s a bestseller, so you may already know about it, but in case you’re unacquainted it’s the story of two guys with the same name, both from Baltimore, both raised by single mothers, both African-American. But their lives have turned out drastically differently, and it’s essentially an exploration of the whys behind that. Rather than summarize the story, which really deserves to be read all the way through, I’ll just make a couple of comments about the thoughts that have stuck with me since reading it.
The title intrigues me. The Other Wes Moore is written by Wes Moore, the businessman, Army veteran, TV commentator, White House Fellow, and Rhodes Scholar. So maybe the title refers to the other Wes Moore, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. But I’m not sure. Could Wes Moore the author be saying that he himself is really the other, the exception to the rule? Perhaps; the ambiguity may be intentional.
The book also brings to mind the tired right-left debates over whether one’s social environment or one’s family upbringing is to blame for such ills as poverty and violent crime in America’s cities. There are those who’d contend that the environment of the inner city serves to condition (condemn?) children like these Wes Moores to become criminals and unproductive members of society. Meanwhile others argue that it’s the breakdown of the nuclear family that’s to blame; the lack of a father figure in the lives of both Wes Moores and so many others is the defining factor in their lives. I happen to think it’s more of a both/and — the crushing environment of the inner city and the lack of family cohesiveness mutually enforce each other (for what it’s worth, John Perkins, whose words matter a great deal more than mine, shares this integrated view). More than anything, I think the either/or, right/left approach to these questions may get plenty of people fired up, but in the end it leaves the situation in inner cities mostly unchanged.
So what conclusion does he come to at the end of the book? Why did his story turn out so much differently than that of the other Wes Moore? He knows better than to boil it down to a formula, to a few simple steps. Real life doesn’t work that way. But what he does show is that when given a second chance, and maybe a third and a fourth and a fifth, boys like him might just become men who make their mothers proud. And he shows that for others, sometimes all it takes is a moment to derail things forever.
I think the book is important for his honest, first-person portrayal of the kind of life so many of us haven’t experienced but are quick to diagnose. And more than anything, it’s important for the empathy and compassion with which Wes Moore writes, reminding me and all of us that there, but for the grace of God, go I.