The Perkins Perspective | Reviews | Autumn 2012
The Other Wes Moore
By Scott Panitz
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates
Spiegel & Grau (reprint edition 2011) 271 pp.
At Jessup Correctional Institution, two men rise from a table following visiting hours. Both of them are named Wes Moore, yet their situations could not be more different. One man makes his way back into the free world; the other waits for a guard to usher him back to his cell. This dichotomy is emblematic of a book that is uplifting and tragic, prescriptive and cautionary.
Using hundreds of hours of interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances, author Wes Moore weaves together his own story with that of another African-American man of the same name, but who had a more statistic-adhering outcome. In this book, the author details the similarities in their environments ― and the different systems of support and divergent personal decisions that shaped their lives.
The 33-year-old author’s qualifications are almost embarrassing. He was an intern for Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke while studying at Johns Hopkins, a Rhodes Scholar, Army captain, special assistant to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and an investment banker, among other things. In fact, Moore once shared a stage with Barack Obama, warming up the crowd at the 2008 Democratic National convention before the then-Illinois senator accepted the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Other Wes Moore is a statistic. As a 25-year-old, he joined 8,462 fellow black men* to be deemed a homicide offender. He is currently serving a life sentence for his part in the murder of an off-duty police officer.
Author Wes Moore first became aware of the man who shared his name in late 2000, when The Baltimore Sun was in the midst of running a series of articles about the botched robbery of a jewelry store that culminated in the murder of the store’s security guard, off-duty police officer Sergeant Bruce Prothero. One of the suspects in the murder was Wes Moore, a name that, unsurprisingly, caught Moore’s attention.
After returning from Oxford University, with the coincidence still haunting him, Moore impulsively made the decision to send the prisoner a letter. The Other Wes Moore responded and they began a correspondence that elevated to visits, and eventually a realization that the scholar and murderer’s lives hadn’t always been so different. “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his,” Moore writes.
Similar Situations, Divergent Paths
Moore tries to draw as many parallels as possible between his and The Other Wes’ upbringings, such as growing up fatherless in an inner city, early run-ins with drugs, encounters with the police, and trouble in school. Yet the author points to several pivotal moments in his life when he, with the guidance of family and mentors, chose to do the right thing, whereas The Other Wes, when faced with similar situations, made choices that led him astray.
The most defining decision Moore cites is his choice to buckle down and put his full effort into military school after being caught trying to run away during his first week. He eventually settled in at Valley Forge Military Academy and excelled, learning discipline, responsibility, and leadership. There, he also met men who pushed him and provided an example for him. The confidence he gained at Valley Forge allowed him to envision his own future and potential for success.
"It was a different psychological environment [than the streets], where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized," Moore writes.
The Other Wes Moore’s mother, lacking any support from her son's father and working multiple jobs to support her family, couldn't afford to send her child to a boarding school. Her long hours meant The Other Wes was too often left alone from a young age.
The Other Wes’ brother, Tony, who had long ago dropped out of high school to deal drugs, was always his role model. It is no surprise, then, that The Other Wes, craving new gear to fit in with his peer group, turned to selling drugs for quick cash, impregnated his girlfriend (and then another girlfriend), and ended up in juvenile detention for six months for attempted murder.
Environment and Decisions
While the book doesn’t absolve The Other Wes Moore of blame, it does humanize him. It shows that he wasn’t simply too dumb for school or naturally a bad person, but a product of an environment and poor decisions that led him to the jail cell.
It is in this way that Moore means their situations could have been flipped. The Other Wes Moore had the potential to do great things, but he could never achieve them with mindset that he cultivated. If the author’s success is colored by support, discipline, and expectation, The Other’s Wes’ tragedy is that he was never burdened with people pushing him toward things that they believed he could achieve. His fate is his own, but his failure is on the shoulders of not only himself but the institutions — family, community, schools — that neglected him.
This neglect shapes Moore’s final plea to communities: “give our young people a chance to make the best decisions possible by providing them with the information and the tools and the support they need.” He hopes to inspire young men to make the decisions that will allow them to live up to their potential, and the back of the book contains 47 pages of organizations designed to help youth do just that.
Moore asks us to work toward a country that is able to transform those Other Wes Moores into the vibrant, productive citizens he believes they can be.
*According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics
Scott Panitz is a 2012 graduate from the University of Washington with a BA in journalism. He is interested in issues of civil rights, particularly the criminalization of the black male in America and the "War on Drugs."He is soon to set out for New Zealand, where he will spend a year working, backpacking, and experiencing new cultures and environments.
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