Kevin Pow­ell gets real in ‘My Mother’

Es­says on cul­ture mix mem­oir, com­men­tary

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Charisse Jones

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?

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