The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore, Book Review
The Other Wes Moore is a non-fiction story that chronicles the lives of two young African-American men that share the same name: Wes Moore. The story compares and contrasts the lives and decisions of the two men and brings to light the social factors that drove them to have completely different lives. The book begs the question: Are people products of their environment, or do they make their own paths? Race, religion and relationships each have a tremendous impact of the paths of each of the men.
These factors change the circumstances of the men’s lives and lead to forks in the road, where a decision must be made; in turn, these decisions piece together to create a lives that lead to opposite ends of the spectrum of success. The race, religion and relationships in each of the men’s lives began nearly identical, but the way that they were handled ultimately decided the outcome of the two lives.
I will use the name ‘Moore’ to describe the author and the name ‘Wes’ to describe the other Wes Moore in the story.
The two men come from a very similar beginning. Each of them was born in Baltimore, Maryland, each grew up without a father, each grew up as a black man, and the two men were the same age. The book was comprised of the authors recollection of his own life and decisions, while the other Wes Moore is featured through meetings with the author. The two men meet and discuss their lives through a glass window in prison. The goal was to work collaboratively to create a book detailing their lives and the differences in their choices.
The story unfolds in three main parts. Part one is about how the two men each grew up with the absence of a father. However, the reason for the absence was different. Moore’s father passed away when Moore was still very young; he died suddenly of a virus called acute epiglottitis, which causes suffocation. Wes’s father, on the other hand, was absent in his life from a young age by choice. Wes claims that this did not have much of an impact on his life.
The second part of the story is a discussion about maturity. The story of the two lives continues, and the paths begin to separate. Wes notices his older brother, Tony, collecting a large wardrobe of expensive clothing. Wes, now 15 years old, follows his brother and begins to sell marijuana illegally. Later, he gets one of his “many” girlfriends pregnant and drops out of school. He also is involved in a shootout with one of his girlfriends boyfriends, and gets sentenced to six months in juvenile prison. Moore has also found himself in some mischief; he was caught spraying graffiti and he was handcuffed, but nothing came of the incident. Moore was naturally intelligent, but his social life at home and in school led his grades to slip. After threatening repeatedly, Moore’s mother, Joy, sends Moore to Valley Forge Military Academy, where after a slow start, Moore excels at the school.
The final interlude of the story is a discussion about whether or not the men are products of their environment. Wes now has two children with two different women. He earns his GED, but even after being caught selling drugs in the past, Wes gets back into the dealing game. The final chapter in Wes’s story ultimately decides the fate of his life. Wes, his brother Tony, and two other men enter a jewelry store armed and they loot over $400,000 worth of merchandise. In their escape, security guard Sergeant Bruce Prothero follows the men, and is shot and killed in the chase. After hiding out for over a week, Wes and Tony are captured and Wes is sentenced to life in prison. Meanwhile, Moore has continued to excel at school and eventually finds himself as the recipient of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship. He continued to succeed and eventually learned about the other Wes Moore, and he wanted to learn about what led them to two opposite sides of life.
The first factor that differentiates the two lives is family; the family environment can be a support system or a bad influence. It is clear that Moore’s family acted more as a support system, while the toxic nature of drug abuse and violence influenced Wes negatively. Moore’s mother Joy obviously wanted the best for Moore when she enrolled him into Riverdale, but she underestimated the social consequences of a black child in a white school. This is described when Moore says: “My mother saw Riverdale as a haven, a place where I could escape my neighborhood and open my horizons. But for me, it was where I got lost.” (Page 42) Wes’s mother Mary was very upset when she found out Wes was dealing drugs, and although Wes’s older brother Tony was a dealer, he did not want Wes to go down the same path. However, it is so common in family structures to see the younger siblings follow the lead of the older ones, and that is what led Wes to get into the drug game. Another example of relationships affecting the paths of the two men are their friends. Moore was mostly surrounded with men like Captain Hill and Mayor Kurt Schmoke, whereas Wes had Woody, who attempted to influence him positively, but was also surrounded by the drug gang, which only pushed him further down the wrong path. It is by no means the fault of the family that caused Wes to make the decisions that he did, they only elevated existing tendencies to choose the easy way out. Moore suggests that sometimes the people that we choose to associate with exemplify our own beliefs and behaviors, and this can push us more towards our view of ourselves, whether positive or negative.
Race is a key trend in this book that comes up several times. Institutional racism comes in many different forms and pops up in the most unlikely of places. One of the key similarities of the two Wes Moore’s is that they are both black. Each of them deals with racism and discrimination from society, and it hinders both of them. “He lifted all eighty pounds of Wes off the ground, slamming him face first on the trunk of the police cruiser. Wes’s chest collapsed against the trunk of the car, sending pain throughout his entire body… he tried to plead his case to the police officer as he closed the second cuff on Wes’s eight-year-old wrists.” (pages 37-38) This is the first instance of brutality that took place against Wes after he was involved in a violent fight. It came across like the officer in the story was treating Wes like an animal, and that can instill a bad influence on an eight year old child. Throughout Moore’s time at Riverdale, he was one of the only black children attending the school. He was harassed by the other students for being different, and this caused his grades to slip. Another example of racial harassment to Moore was when he and Dalio were walking through town and a group of drunk teenagers verbally and physically harassed them with racist motives. It’s not a coincidence that the odds were stacked against both of the men; the real life accounts of abuse in the two lives bring to light how society sets back people of color. The two men both did not get to enjoy white privilege and most definitely did not get the benefit of the doubt in most situations. This undoubtedly hindered the paths of each of the men, to no fault of their own.
Religion is a powerful influencer in how billions of people live their lives. Whether or not you are religious, you cannot deny that many of the principles of Christianity inforce positive living and healthy fellowship with others. These principles can act as an outline for many tough decisions, and can form a life of honest living. It is clear that Moore was influenced by religion from an early age. His grandfather, Rev. Dr. James Thomas was a minister. When Moore was young, after his father had died, he, his mother and his siblings moved in with his grandparents. They were strict on the kids, but also provided love and support. This is likely were religious values were introduced to Moore. These values appear a few times in the story. For example, “As we were seconds away from taking the leap, the multitude of prayers that left the plane were palpable. I stared at the yellow light at the front of the plane, waiting for it to turn green; I spoke with God, asking Him to watch over me and the others in the plane.” (Page 132) This by no means say that Moore is a Christian, or believes in any particular god, but it definitely presses the idea that he has faith that there is something watching over us, and that can be all it takes. This took place right before Moore was about to jump out of a plane. Having a religious family can act as a second family to many people. They provide support and wisdom for each other and this can make it easier to find success in life. In the call to action, Moore allows Travis Smiley to express what he thinks about religion when he says: “The most important thing in life is to try, and that God will take care of the rest.” On the other side of the spectrum, Wes was not religious in anyway: “Where was God when people didn’t make enough money to feed their families? Where was God when kids were selling rocks at twelve years old, and their parents encouraged it because the kids were the main breadwinners in the home?…’Fuck God’.” (Page 137) Wes obviously has no hope for salvation and no care for a greater power. This leads back to the question, are people products of their environment? Wes was never exposed to any religious ideas like Moore was; he was stuck in a bad environment with people that were no better than him. Religion can be powerful, but only if you are willing to open your heart to it, and only one of the two men made that decision.
I felt like this book was a unique and brilliant idea at examining two people that started from seemingly the same point and ended up with totally different lifes. I enjoyed my time learning about Moore’s successes, and also about the decisions that led to Wes’s life in prison sentence. The book begged the question: are people products of their environment? There is no definitive answer, but the story leads the reader to look at his own perspective and answer the question himself. I believe that environment and circumstances absolutely create paths for people, but they do not decide the path for the person. A person’s decisions and hard work essentially forge new paths for an individual to take, and if the decisions are positive, it is likely that the outcome will be positive as well. This story reinforced class concepts; for example I learned so much about how society can affect the circumstances for a person. In this case, race played a part in both of the men’s lives several times. It also presented how toxic drugs can be to family life, and how important a family support system is. Wes is now a 33 year old grandfather and is still serving his time in prison. The author Wes is a bestselling writer, and he works in the white house and on wall street. The impact of reading this story was profound on me, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants an inside look at the factors that shape people’s destinies.
(The paper is longer than it should be, but most of that is because I have included quotes, and I assume quotes do not count towards the length of the paper.)
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