Thursday, August 26, 2010

Black Men, High School and the new book The Other Wes Moore

The Schott Foundation for Public Education recently released some very disturbing information on the high school graduation rates for young African American men. In a sentence, the headline was that less than 50% of young black men graduate from high school setting off a fresh round of questions about race, opportunity, school performance, economics and individual responsibility. While all of these are areas that deserve discussion and the finger of blame can fairly be pointed in many directions, I recently read a book which, I think contributes much to the discussion. The book is the The Other Wes Moore: One Name Two Fates and it tells the story of two young African American men who lived briefly in the same neighborhood in Baltimore-- but grew up to live vastly different lives.

You might have seen Wes Moore the author on Oprah talking about his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar, decorated Afghanistan veteran and White House fellow. The man who shares his name is serving a life sentence for his role in the murder of a Baltimore police officer. Both men had their share of troubles as boys--and both had scrapes with the law. Both were largely unmotivated in school, and both were raised by their mothers. But it is there that the similarities end, because although both grew up without fathers the reasons behind their fathers absences were very different.

One Wes Moore's parents were married; his father died when he was very small. When the difficulty of raising her family alone became too much, one Wes Moore's mother moved the family to New York City and into the home of her parents, who offered the boy additional family support and stability while she worked several jobs to send him to private school. Even more, when it became clear that "street life" might engulf young Wes, his grandparents mortgaged their home to help his mother send him to a military high school. He graduated.

Meanwhile, the other Wes Moore's mother and father never married. The boy met his father only a couple of times: both times the man was violent and drunk. His mother had little to no family support--she had fled her own abusive family situation at a young age. His mother had little education and often worked multiple jobs just to pay the rent, but she did her best to remove Wes from an environment where she knew his options would be limited. Still Wes sold drugs, became a father himself at 16 and struggled to break free of the lure of the street. He dropped out of high school.

It's easy to determine which Wes Moore is which. The differences of family support and financial resources-- and the options they provide--make it easy enough to predict which Wes Moore becomes a Rhodes scholar and which ends up in jail. But Wes the felon offered an important distinction on the fatherlessness of the two boys and the impact it had on his life. He said to Wes the author during a prison interview: "Your father wasn't there because he couldn't be. Mine wasn't there because he didn't want to be."

In addition to economics, environment and a system that seems to prefer incarceration over education, there is something to be said for the link between family composition and school performance. Numerous studies have shown again and again that children do best with two parents--whether those parents are two mothers, two fathers or a mother and a father-- regardless of the race of the child. It also helps that the parents were married-- even if they don't stay that way. Once again, this is true regardless of the race of the child, or the parents. The commitment of marriage brings a benefit for children--not only in resources but in self-perception. Those findings have called into question not only families like Wes the felon's who are headed by a single female by default, but also those of single women who opt to get pregnant by sperm donor, too. A parent who is absent by choice tells kids something about their value that they take with them into other areas of their lives-- not the least of which is the classroom.

Family composition certainly isn't the only factor that contributes to the alarming drop out rate of African American young men-- but it is a factor. Family is the foundation of our lives. As we go about the process of trying to solve some of our culture's most complex problems, it makes makes sense that we spend at least a little inquiry on family structure, on the impact of out of wedlock births, and on the importance of fathers to their sons and daughters--before branching out to the responsibility of our culture at large.

There's a movement afoot to change the mindset about the acceptability of out of wedlock births called "No Wedding No Womb"... and I'll be talking more about it in the weeks to come. In the meantime, if you haven't already, pick up The Other Wes Moore. It's an interesting story with much to teach us.


  1. Thanks so much for your support for "No Wedding No Womb," and sharing the compelling story of the two Wes Moores. I'm looking forward to seeing your future articles on the subject.

  2. Karyn, I was fortunate enough to have seen the interview with Wes Moore on Oprah earlier this year and I have to say that although the 2 Wes Moore's grew up in the same communities, their lives and fates couldn't have been further apart in outcomes.

    The single thing that stood out about the more successful Wes Moore was his support unit. It wasn't that he was somehow all that different from the other Wes Moore in attitude, because he too had become somewhat of a trouble-maker himself, but that his mother and extended family were willing to do just about anything to keep him from going down a bad road. This I think was the major difference, between him and the convict Wes Moore. Also, the successful Wes Moore, although he begged to be allowed to come back home, his mother refused his request and over time he came to realize that he needed to take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for himself and his education (his life)as so many people had invested so much into him and it's outcome. I think that perhaps a lot of children are not being taught personal responsibility by their parents. As children we learn personal responsibility through emulation and observation. So, if this is not something that a child is observing and emulating on an ongoing basis, how will they learn to incorporate it into their lives? The successful Wes Moore had 2 grandparents and a mother to observe and emulate, the other did not, I believe that that was the "key" to the successful Wes Moore turning his life around and becoming the success that he is.

  3. Hi Willie and Christelyn,

    I agree: support and personal responsibility were critical to "successful Wes". I would argue though that both were available to him because of his grandparents were a married couple who had pooled their resources to get what they had-- and modeled their commitment to each other to him and to his mother. His mother, as the product of a two-parent home, modelled those same values when she got married to Wes' father. she knew exactly what successful Wes would be missing in the loss of his dad-- and provided the positive role models of her own father and brother in attempts to fill that gap. You are quite right: they were willing to do ANYTHING to save him. But they also had resources to offer toward that end. Convict Wes' mother had nothing: no family role models, no resources, no support. She had nothing to give, so Wes and his brother got nothing.

    What I want to understand is why we aren't more realistic about our young people and sexual activity-- enough to make sure that young women like convict Wes' mom don't have children before they and their partners are willing and able to support them. I'm serious: I want to know why. Is it simply the expense of birth control and the lack of clinics that provide those at low or no cost? Or is it more of a mindset that prefers not to acknowledge young people's sexuality?

    As everyone knows, I have a teen daughter. The second she mentions "boyfriend"-- off to the doctor we go. Do I have resources for that? Absolutely. But you don't have to be educated to know about sex-- or birth control. I'm just not understanding this phenomenon where women have babies rather than take measures to prevent pregnancy.

  4. Karyn--Thanks so much for sharing information about this book and the story of the 2 Wes Moore's. I think it really illustrates the effects that fatherless has on our children and community at large. I look forward to reading more of your commentary on out of wedlock births for the No Wedding, No Womb Initiative coming up.--Afua

  5. Unfortunately, it's not a lack of knowledge about contraception that results in these ill-fated OOW children. The girls and the often older men than impregnate them actually desire to have children. I have a cousin who had a baby at 17, that child is now 18 and has 2 kids. She had to have known how hard it was for her mom, however she just wanted something that would love her and couldn't imagine any other existence. At this point I'm starting to think that we should decrease the amount of societal support for people who choose to reproduce irresponsibly. I don't like starving children anymore than the next person but there has to be some type of accountability. Like if you need assistance to provide basic needs for your children, you have to be on a contraceptive until you're self-sufficient. Or something like that. What we're doing now isn't working.

  6. Zoopath, you said: What we're doing now isn't working.

    That's the motivation behind us banding together for No Wedding, No Womb.