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Survival Math

Notes on an All-American Family

by Mitchell S. Jackson

Hardcover, 315 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 |


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Survival Math
Notes on an All-American Family
Mitchell S. Jackson

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NPR Summary

The award-winning author of The Residue Years examines the poverty, violence and drug culture impacting the Portland, Ore., community of his youth, examining the large and small cultural forces that shaped his family.

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Excerpt: Survival Math


Heeeeeelllll no! That should have been my answer. But that was not my answer. My answer tugged me out of my job at the end of my shift and into the forest-evergreen Lexus I'd bought in the bygone unblessed days when I sold more than weed. It sent me bolting out of my job and into my ride to swoop Brother A from someplace close and hit Highway 26 with most dubious sense.

Guessing now is as good a time as ever to mention that this was the age during which I might've been selling weed—twenty sacks, eighths, half and whole zips, and in the most blessed of times, half and whole pounds. Selling chronic, stacking newspapers, and throwing parties because evermore this brother, a brother, every brother should diversify his hustle. No mights or maybes to that.

Memories from that age, hypothetical and otherwise, seldom feature date stamps, but I can assure you this incident occurred May 2002 AD, which I know for truth because one of my homeboys and me had just thrown a well-attended Memorial Day shindig, and between my cut of the door and profits from the weed I may have been selling, I had a knot of bills in my inky work jeans—which accounts for why at the time I was feeling at least extra medium about myself. Brother A and I traded light weight banter en route, and before I knew it, we'd reached his apartment complex, grounds of such expanse, there was plenty of time for my pulse to cease between the moment I pulled into the lot and when I found a place to park my tree-colored ride. Can't speak for Brother A, but in that interstice of arriving and stepping a wary foot out of my ride, I had visions of police swarming us from bushes and vans, seizing discomfited me, slamming my cheek against unforgiving asphalt, and KABLOWING! on cuffs.

We did not—word to Yahweh—get ambushed that moment. We hustled past a passel of blithe youngsters and mounted a flight and a flight and a flight of stairs and stood at the threshold of his apartment door (my heart athunder) and asked each other again and for the last time if we should enter, which, inhale, of course we did.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

No one was inside. Good sense says I should've left Brother A to brave his fate alone but instead I sat on the living room couch while he proceeded to sweep his roommate's room and the hall closets and every place else he could think to look. He didn't find any meth, but he did find cooking supplies and utensils, which he took straight to the kitchen to scrub and scour. Meanwhile, I sat on the living room couch doing my best impression of ecclesiastical calm.

"Man, I can't believe we was so spooked," I said.

"Yeah, we silly," he said. "Like the police worried about us."

He paused and motioned at me. "Shit, I almost forgot. Come check this out." This is when Brother A led me to his bedroom, pulled a pound of weed from a stash spot, and flaunted a sample. "This some killer," he said. "Smell it." What may or may not have happened next now seems like an act of intercession bestowed by my great-grandmama or some other churchgoing kin. That act, amen, was using my shirt to grab the plastic bag and inspect a few fluffy, sticky, fragrant stems. I put the weed back and mentioned how fast it would sell and may or may not have asked him if he could cop for me.

He and I strolled back into the living room—me to the couch and Brother A back to washing possible evidence down the drain. Seconds later I heard footsteps on the stairs. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Heard them and said to myself, Here come those kids. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Thought to myself, Wow, them some heavy-footed-ass kids. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Mused, Boy, there must be more kids than I thought. That's when Brother A hustled over to the peephole, said, "Oh, shit! POLICE!" and broke for his bedroom.

Before I could move, a mob of police, sheriff, and DEA bum-rushed into Brother A's crib. "Get on the ground! Get on the ground now! Keep your hands where we can see them! Get down! Get down!"

Oh. My. God! I thought, and dropped to my knees then prostrate.

Brother A darted into the living room and ranted, "Let me see your warrant. Let me see your warrant," and in an instant, they spun him face to wall and cuffed him. One officer jerked me off the carpet and asked if I was carrying drugs, if I had anything in my pockets that might cut or poke him. No, I said. And he emptied my pockets, beheld my cell phone and pager and the knot of cash—most of which, let me remind you, I'd made from my Memorial Day shindig and some of which I may or may not have made from serving fat sacks of chronic. More officers appeared, one of them tugging a stout German shepherd. That same officer informed me that if the dog hit on anything from my pockets, he'd confiscate it.

He let his canine loose. It sniffed my wrinkled wad of bills and barked.

Ain't that a bitch! I thought.

The next moment, an officer bopped into the apartment carrying a bag of weed that could've been a motherfucking facsimile of the one Brother A may or may not have flaunted to me thrumming pulses ago. The officer announced he'd found it in a sprinkler outside, asked which one of us it belonged to, and Brother A and me bucked our eyes at each other and damn near shook our heads off our necks. "Huh, what's that? We ain't never seen that in life!" we said.

He crooked his lip and warned if he found either of our fingerprints on the bag he'd charge us.

The officer who searched me marched me into a bedroom and ordered me ass to floor and back to wall while he stood.

He asked me if I knew Brother A's roommate.

"Yes," I said. "Don't know him well, more like 'Hi' and 'Bye,' but yes," I said. "I met him."

He asked if I knew Brother A's roommate sold dope.

"Wow, he did?!" I said. "I had no idea."

He asked if I'd ever been to jail or prison.

"Um, uh—Yes," I said. "One time. Just the one time, though."

He asked me what I'd gone to jail for.

"Um, uh, um, uh, um—for selling drugs," I said, and the rest fell out my mouth: "But it's not what you think. I don't do it anymore, Officer. I'm going to be a writer. Officer, you got to believe me. I'm moving to New York in a few months for grad school. This looks bad, Officer, but it's not how it looks. My word, Officer. Just a few months till I leave," I said. " Please, Officer, please. You've got to let me go!"

"Let my people go," Moses and Aaron told the pharaoh of Egypt at the advent of history's most famous exodus. The Hebrew name for Egypt, where Moses's people began their journey, is Mitzrayim. For Jews, Mitzrayim denotes a place, but it also describes a liberation from psychological limits, the emotional journeys that one experiences all life long. My Mitzrayim demanded envisioning a world beyond one that in many ways had been circumscribed; it required believing I could thrive outside where I was born.

The west exodus of my tribe—the Jacksons—began in the 1950s, in the Mitzrayim that was Montgomery, Alabama. It could begin with my great-grandparents—Edith "Mama Edie" Larkin Jackson and Samuel "Bubba" Andrew Jackson Sr.—at a mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the couple among dozens of spirited negroes filling the hard wooden pews of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. My great-grandmama styling in a floral-print knee-length dress and cat-eye specs, and my great-grandaddy decked out in a dark worsted-wool suit and wing-tips polished reflective. Picture the whole room hand in hand and swaying as they sing, " Gooooo down, Moses / Waaaay down in Egypt's land / Tell old Pharaoh / Let my people gooooo." The room raises its voice till it shakes the stained-glass windows, then falls hush as MLK, the disciple, prophet, future martyr (go ahead, choose) of an age takes the pulpit in one of his tailored blue suits and a skinny tie and sermonizes on the plans of a Montgomery Transit Authority boycott that, in the days of the Old Testament, might've summoned thunder and lightning. In that meeting or one not too long after, MLK asks for volunteers to carpool members of the boycott and Mama Edie nudges Bubba to raise his hand.

Per familial lore, Mama Edie's mama, Carrie Larkin AKA my great-great-grandmother, was a Montgomery bootlegger par excellence, a savvy woman who invested her ample profits in square miles of terra firma and a restaurant. My great-great-grandmother bore her husband eight chil dren—four girls and four boys—and of that brood, my great-grandmother Edith "Edie" Larkin was the third girl, born in 1916. Edie was beautiful and smart and the daughter most liable to test the house rules. Mama Edie's enterprising mother paid her way through what was then Alabama State College—she did the same for all her daughters. Mama Edie, like every one of her sisters, became a schoolteacher and lived a comfortable life for the time and place thanks to what seemed like inexhaustible deals. They sold tract after tract of family land and divvied up the dividends among their tribe.

Unlike the Larkins, the Jacksons were not a tribe of wealth. My great-grandfather Samuel "Bubba" Andrew Jackson Sr. was born in 1908 in Ada, Alabama, a place so small they call it an unincorporated community of Montgomery County. Bubba was the second to the youngest of his parents' brood of four, and despite being ambitious and hardworking and smart with a miraculous recall for dates, times, and facts, he was forced, like many of his time, to cease his formal schooling before he reached high school. Young Bubba married his first wife, Lillian Dora Arrington, sired his lone biological son, Samuel Andrew Jackson Jr.—my grandfather—and supported his wife and baby boy by running a shoe shop and selling Watkins products door-to-door. Bubba's first wife died of a food-related illness a few years into their marriage, and he met Mama Edie soon after, married for the second time in 1942, and moved to a trailer on Larkin land in a part of town known as the Prairie.

The English word exodus is derived from the Greek ex, which means "out," and hodos, meaning "way"—the way out. A year or so before MLK moved from Montgomery to Atlanta and became assistant pastor to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mama Edie and Bubba made their way out of Alabama to a land that, if not one of milk and honey, promised to be a place less bitter in their mouths. Their migration to Portland began, so one story goes, in the summer of '58 or '59. Mama Edie flew to Portland to visit her sister-in-law and felt so passionate about the city that she phoned Bubba and persuaded him to pack their things and move. Per another story, Mama Edie moved out to Portland with the express intent of helping to integrate the Portland Public Schools, a district that announced soon after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that it would "take no action regarding segregation," despite blacks being relegated almost exclusively to the under funded and subpar schools in the Albina district. In my mind, the true catalyst for my great-grandparents' migration was somewhere between the stories of love for a new city and wanting to transform it.

In addition to those stories, these facts: Mama Edie and Bubba moved into a house on North Missouri Ave in the Albina district. My activist and missionary-minded great-grandmother got a job teaching at Boise-Eliot Elementary School, a position that began her long career as a beloved Portland teacher. In the City of Roses, Bubba earned his living first as a shoe repairman and, until retirement, as a hospital custodian. In 1960, not too long after they moved to their promised land, they persuaded Sam Jackson Jr., the biological son Bubba fathered by his first wife, to move from Alabama with his wife and four young children—Sam III, George, Anthony, and my mother, Lillie. Meanwhile my great-grands lived sans significant marital quarrels and as loving and supportive friends in plural. They also became active members of St. Andrew Catholic Church and continued their political activism. If there was an asterisk to their marriage, it was the fact that they couldn't conceive a child, an issue they addressed by adopting three children between the late 1950s and the 1960s: Ezekiel and Essie as toddlers and later a grade-school-aged boy named John. Mama Edie and Bubba's adopted children were raised with my mother and her brothers as siblings, as they were close in age and all lived at times under the same roof.

In the summer of 1975, my mother bore Mama Edie and Bubba their first great-grandchild: me. The pair were out of town that August I was born, attending to Mama Edie's niece who had a baby due a month before me. My great-grands traveled back to Portland in September and my mother resumed, with me this time, living with them in a white house the size of a small palace that stands on the corner of Sixth and Mason.

The House on Sixth Avenue.


Let me tell you about the old cherry tree in the front yard of that home, whose stingy yield we'd pluck before it ripened, about the plum and pear trees and blackberry bushes in the backyard, about the garden that Mama Edie tended with love. A hex-web fence surrounded the whole yard, and I'd get scolded for playing on it. If Mama Edie, the family's most austere disciplinarian, chided me more than a few times (which most times meant any more than once), I was commanded to fetch a switch, and if I returned with one too flimsy, I'd be sent for another ad infinitum.

Most folks entered our home through the thick wooden door inset with a large oval glass draped by thin red curtains, an entrance that opened onto a living room with embroidered green couches wrapped in hard plastic and a glass-top coffee table encasing ruby-handled swords. My great-grands had bedazzled the dining room with a chandelier made of a billion oblong crystals and a veneered table that could seat the Last Supper, not to mention a paradise of potted plants lining the window ledges. The kitchen was pasted with a pattern of pots and pans—wallpaper that bubbled in spots and peeled away from the moldings—and some mornings I'd open the kitchen cabinet to search for cornflakes and see a mouse skittering out of sight or else a trail of tiny rodent turds. Mama Edie hobbied on the piano and kept a scratched black upright in a nook that was also decked with earth-toned tweed couches. My great-grands kept their bedroom door locked, but some nights they'd let me inside to sprawl across the bed while Bubba sat in a cracked leather recliner watching the news on an itty-bitty black-and-white TV. Mama Edie kept kiwis, pomegranates, mangoes, and other "special" fruits on her bedroom windowsill, and on the rarest occasions would award one of us kids with a half or whole for minding her commandments. In the mid-eighties—after Mama Edie beat breast cancer but suffered a stroke that paralyzed half her body—she slept in the downstairs room just off the curtained front door of the house. Beaucoup times, I'd tramp past her room, which often smelled of Vicks VapoRub, and she'd beckon me to find her wig or prosthetic breast or to help her into her wheelchair. One night a bullet sang through the window in that room but didn't shatter it, which was the kind of grace I imagined in abundance among the flock who worshipped in the church behind the house.

Weekday evenings or weekend mornings or afternoons, members of the Full Gospel Temple of Prayer Church Inc. would clang cymbals and tambourines, pound drums, smash organ keys; would sing and shout praise that bullied its way through our walls, that might've floated all the way to Bethlehem. Us Jacksons never attended that church. On the other hand, Mama Edie obliged us all to attend Sunday mass. Every. Sunday. And on top of that, whenever the spirit moved her, our matriarch would roam into all the rooms and demand we—Bubba, my mama, an aunt, uncle, cousin, visiting friend—grab our Bibles and haste into the living room, her very own tent of meeting. Once everyone showed, we'd sing from a selected catalog of spirituals: "We Are Soldiers," "Amazing Grace," "Goin' Up Yonder," "Jesus Is on the Main Line," "Soon and Very Soon," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," "This Little Light of Mine," "Because He Lives." We'd read a Bible verse, and when we finished, Mama Edie would ask us to explain it. She'd request us to choose another verse and read and interpret that too. Near the end of devotion, we'd circle, take up hands, and recite the Lord's Prayer. She'd end by asking us one by one what we were thankful for. And we best be able to give thanks.

My great-grandmother, God rest her soul, would sound a trumpet from heaven for me to fetch the thickest switch on earth if she got wind I'd read word one of Nietzsche's The Antichrist, the philippic in which he claims, among other faults of the Christians, that they had weakened the concept of God when they recast the Hebrews' God of Israel into the "god of every man" and "god of a people," into a deity he described as the "good god," as "goodness-in-itself." Nietzsche argues that there is only one way to conceive of a powerful God and that is as the God of a nation, a national God. My great-grands had been taught to believe in that everyman's God, a God who, in due time, would bless the oppressed, the weak, the unfortunate—their people. That teaching was a product of being born in and near the first capital of the Confederacy during what historian Rayford Logan has termed "the nadir of American race relations," the infamous era of American history between the end of Reconstruction and the early twentieth century when racism was worse than any time in post–Civil War America.

How could my great-grands disbelieve in a personal God when they were descendants of Africans who'd been enslaved by Europeans who, as part of willing themselves into a white race, indoctrinated masses of blacks to love and obey a private God, to abide unjust suffering, to weather what seemed an interminable wait for Thy Kingdom Come, and to bequeath that doctrine to their seeds. But as Nietzsche argues, "when a nation is on the downward path, when it feels its belief in its own future, its hope of freedom slipping from it, when it begins to see submission as a first necessity and the virtues of submission as measures of self-preservation, then it must overhaul its god." Sometime between Lincoln's symbolic proclamation and the epic battle for civil rights, the people I call my people began to remake their God into a national God that would anoint their quest for liberation. Sometime in those years between winning legal freedom and claiming actual freedoms, black folks transformed themselves—in no small part by forging lives for themselves outside of the South—into as much of a nation as they have ever been (it seems sometimes into as much of one as they may ever be) in the Other America, what has been an Egypt, our Mitzrayim.

In the Torah, and in the great good book Mama Edie and Bubba commanded we cherish, heed, and love, God sent word through Moses for the pharaoh to release his chosen people from Egypt. But here's a confession: I've always had trouble conceding that any one group is God's chosen. The forever blathering critic in me, against ample data otherwise, must believe my God, your God, a God bestows egalitarian love, wouldn't give preference to one righteous person over another, one righteous people over another. And while I'm convinced of the sublime power in a person believing their future destined, in a people believing its fortune ordained, in some ways, seeing the impetus for change as outside oneself works to thwart the force needed to mobilize, to sustain the long pursuit of becoming a nation worthy of a revised God's blessings. Because of this, a people—which of course means each person—must translate, "Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go," into "Let us go!" They must at some point look no further than themselves for license to prosper, must believe that the true chosen ones are the righteous that choose themselves.

It might sound highfalutin, but "Let us go!" goaded my great-grands to Portland, grandparents too. It's the mantra of a people who subscribe to the belief that to escape the rule of a pharaoh, they must demand of the known world the wealth heretofore usurped from them. It's a chorus for those who profess their destiny as manifest. "Let us go!" fuels all great exoduses, by which I mean journeys that beget for a people chances to thrive, guarantees of justice, a home.

And what people would seek nationhood that fell short of those terms?

Five troubling months after the ordeal with Brother A that ended in my near arrest and me pleading with an officer to "let me go," I boarded a one-way flight for New York and spent hours up, up and wondering what would become of me in this new land. The wheels of our plane burned the runway at JFK, and a pilot announced, "Welcome to New York," along with the local time. I struggled up the jet bridge, a bulging duffel tilting me one-sided, and into the brightness of the terminal. This is it! You're here, I thought, and dodged through teeming walkways to baggage claim, where I grabbed one of those carts for people who overpack and tarried for luggage overstuffed with my life to swing into view. Steps from me, a gaggle of suited dudes displayed signs for passenger pickups. On the periphery, cliques of camouflaged guards stood with their rifles pointed hellward. Another officer sported a bulletproof vest over his uniform while clutching the leash of a Belgian shepherd. Outside, a new world. Outside, I felt sticky-damp heat of a kind I hadn't felt in life and followed the signs for taxis past desperate-looking drivers accosting me for a fare. Purgatorial—the time it took for me to reach the front of the winding line waiting for yellow cabs, for an attendant to ask where I was headed, and for me to answer "Manhattan," because I didn't yet know it's called the City. The attendant pointed to a cabbie who also might've hailed from elsewhere.

The cabbie wound out of the airport and onto the expressway and soon he was weaving through traffic at a speed that could wreck us into our afterlives. Still, I lowered my window anyhow, to feel the wind on my face, to read the signs blurring by, to witness as much of this genesis as I could. We drove Atlantic Ave and Flatbush Ave and over a bridge I'd soon learn is the Manhattan. We wheeled onto Canal Street, where hordes milled the sidewalks and traffic stuttered like I'd seldom seen, where at a light, a dude waded between bumpers and demoed an electric bubble gun. My driver motored up Avenue of the Americas in a derby of drivers and turned on West Third and again on MacDougal Street, and in a twinkling, we reached what would be my new home. The cabbie pulled curbside, and I hefted my luggage out of his trunk—heavy as a deconstructed tent of meeting—and carried it piece by piece up steep concrete steps. Then I buzzed the number I'd been given by my future roommate, turned my back to the threshold, and waited—looking off one way, looking off the other. If it were a parable, the perch would be a mountaintop, a summit from which thine eyes witnessed the glory of the second coming, and though it sure enough wasn't one, I was thankful that from this stoop in a land unpromised, I sensed the advent of another Mitzrayim, the boon of a chance to become.