Reviewed by Heather Harlen
The Education of Kevin Powell (Simon & Schuster, July 2016) isn’t about Powell’s controversial actions during his stint on The Real World: New York. His life is richer, bigger than those three months. This memoir of an African-American man finding his way is a catalog of stepping stones from childhood to middle age, each footfall landing on the beauty, the sadness, the joy, the mistakes, the second chances. It is a reminder that although life is sometimes one step forward, two steps back, we owe it to ourselves to rise in hope.
If one of the purposes of art is to help you better understand the world, it is no wonder Powell references hip-hop classic The Message by Grandmaster Flash in the opening chapters:
“It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.”
Part I, trapped in a concrete box, sets up the dangers of his childhood in Jersey City and his mother’s tough, distant, and always honest love. Powell writes part of this section through child’s eyes, a stylistic nod to the beginning of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, where baby Stephen Dedalus sees the world from a fragmented point of view. For example, when his mother wants to take him to a photographer’s studio, Powell thinks he’s going to get shot instead of going to a photo shoot. This skillfully written dialogue gives the reader a hint of Powell’s awareness of violence, even at three years old.
As the memoir progresses, the language shifts into Richard Wright territory, reminiscent of scenes from Black Boy, especially Wright’s use of personification to highlight conflict. In chapter six, Powell writes, “Heat made a guest appearance only when it felt like it. The cranky radiator would wind up every couple of hours like a car engine—sputtering, hissing, shooting steam up, as water dribbled down from its valve.” Then when Powell visits family “Down South” for the first time, travelling by bus with his mom, aunt, and cousin, the book starts to read like an adventurer’s log, with Powell wide-eyed at the dusty roads, chickens, and outhouses.
Part II, living on the other side of midnight, may be less lyrical but counterbalances with a rat-a-tat-tat storytelling that bounces from one event into another, like the breathlessness of slam poetry. This section is about the profound effect writing has had on his life. From being on the ground floor at Vibe to becoming iconic rapper Tupac Shakur’s biographer, his writing career becomes the nexus for his social activism. It is also here where readers are offered a glimpse into Powell’s time on The Real World: New York. He designates just twelve pages to this chapter of his life, which is fitting for a staged event that encompassed twelve weeks of his career. His time on the primogeniture of reality TV is nothing compared to his impact as a writer and activist, which is honored at Cornell University in the Kevin Powell Archive.
My only quibble with Powell’s memoir is I wanted more out of Part II, because that’s where the magic happens. This is where he begins to reconcile his impoverished, traumatic childhood experiences with reflections on his time at Rutgers, to assisting in the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina, to his campaigns for Congress, to his life-altering trip to Nigeria, and to his violent episodes. This is where we learn what keeps Powell from “goin’ under,” and this life-changing shift warrants more attention.
Although Powell and I are both Gen Xers, our childhoods could not have been more dissimilar. While my early teen years were about swooning over New Kids On The Block and trying to master eyeliner in my bedroom in Pennsylvania, Powell was finding solace in hip-hop music and avoiding rats in his apartment in New Jersey. This is an example of the privilege of being a middle-class white woman: that even though we grew up in the same generation, we experienced different Americas. I’m grateful writers like Powell share their stories with the world so we can bridge these gaps and continue on this journey with a deeper understanding of each other.