Kevin Powell gets real in ‘My Mother’
Essays on culture mix memoir, commentary
Kevin Powell’s is a deeply American story.
Raised by a single mother from South Carolina who struggled to eke out an existence in the hard-bitten North, Powell draws on his personal journey to reflect on the state of the nation in his latest work, “My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man” (Atria, 284 pp., ★★★☆).
In 13 heartfelt, at times searing, essays, Powell illuminates the nation’s fault lines of race, class and gender, often through the prism of his own experience, as well as his observations and encounters with prominent pop culture figures, from quarterback Cam Newton to legendary rapper Tupac Shakur.
Powell speaks firsthand about police brutality, describing how he was punched and bloodied by a local police officer when he was a 15-year-old youth growing up in Jersey City. He captures the taste of bigotry and loss in the story of how his mother worked land her family once owned, before it was stolen by resentful whites.
But Powell, who has been a prolific chronicler of hip-hop culture since becoming one of the first staff writers for the groundbreaking Vibe magazine, also pays homage to some of that genre’s iconic figures, from his paean to rap superstar Jay-Z, to his elegy for Prodigy, one-half of the legendary rap duo Mobb Deep who died at age 42 after accidentally choking to death while being treated for complications related to sickle cell disease.
Powell, who appeared on the first season of MTV’s reality show, “The Real World: New York,” had an especially strong bond with Shakur, whom he interviewed and wrote about before the rapper was murdered on Sept. 13, 1996. Powell’s reminiscences of their encounters, and the rapper’s importance to him and many other young black men, is especially moving.
Powell’s essays are written with a sense of urgency that is almost palpable. At times, his desire to educate can overwhelm his prose, with personal reflections jarringly spliced with long passages about the civil rights movement, Jim Crow and other aspects of American history.
But it is clear from his first essay “Letter to a Young Man,” written to a young admirer, that Powell realizes his rise from poverty to prominence resonates with many, and Powell is determined not to waste his power or platform.
His most poignant essay gives this collection its title as well as its coda.
In it, he pays homage to his mother, whose life was filled with disregard, disrespect and back-breaking work. Theirs is a complicated relationship, but ultimately as he cares for her in her infirm old age, it is a story of love.
The same might be said of Powell’s feelings for Barack Obama. He writes about being touched by the electricity that surrounded Obama’s candidacy, but also being wary of some of Obama’s policies and star power.
Finally, Powell notes that Donald Trump’s victory did not surprise him. He saw it as of a piece with a centuriesold desire by some whites to hold onto privilege at whatever cost.
Yet, even in the midst of such turbulent times, Powell says, he refuses to give up hope.
And given the many obstacles Powell writes about and has overcome, why would he?