When hip-hop journalist, social activist and performance poet Kevin Powell moved from New Jersey to New York City at the age of 24 in 1990, he was an unknown aspiring to recognition and achievement. He wrote in his diary that he “wanted to be remembered as one of the best writers of [his] generation.” It is difficult to say whether his new memoir, “The Education of Kevin Powell,” will help fulfill that fate.
To be sure, the title is not meant to bring to mind “The Education of Henry Adams” (1907), that lamentation about the dawning of the 20th century, but rather “The Education of Sonny Carson,” the 1972 autobiography of the black-nationalist community activist who became a central figure in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn’s school controversy of 1968, a book that was made into a film two years later. Powell, something of a media star himself as one of the original cast members of MTV’s “The Real World,” may be hoping a film is in the offing for his efforts to capture gritty black urban life and black male angst.
The memoir is divided into two sections: The first describes Powell’s single-parent childhood in Jersey City in the 1970s, where he and his mother live in various roach- and rat-infested places with his mother’s sister and her son. Here, he strongly echoes Richard Wright’s classic coming-of-age autobiography, “Black Boy” (1945). There is a scene of Powell being given liquor as a child by irresponsible adults, just as Wright was. Powell’s childhood dreams of objects suspended above him threatening him with harm is similar to Wright’s. And in both books, there are references to hunger and catalogue descriptions structured by repetitive sentence patterns.
There are larger themes as well: Powell and Wright are abandoned by their fathers. (Both books have scenes of the mothers begging for child support.) Both decide to be writers at a young age. And both Powell and Wright are rebellious boys who cannot be beaten (Powell by his mother, Wright by various family members) into submission. This section is the strongest, most coherent and most intricately developed, making the most obvious bows to the black male autobiographical tradition. But it is also the most conventional and predictable. The rats-and-roaches-to-petty-criminal story, the inhumanity-of-the-welfare-state story, has been told many times.
The second part covers Powell’s years as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, where he becomes an overbearing and overcommitted black ideologue and activist largely as a protective reaction to being thrust into an alien white environment. He writes of his wilderness years in Newark after being expelled from Rutgers for threatening a student with a knife. And he describes his arrival in New York, where he launches himself as a performance poet and journalist. That work leads to his reviewing records and covering the hip-hop scene for Rolling Stone, the Source and other publications, which leads to his becoming a staff writer for a new magazine about black music called Vibe, doing cover stories on rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, with whom he develops something of a rapport. He also becomes a celebrity on “The Real World.”
Alas, this success is precarious. His temper and tendency to violence, adumbrated in the first part of the book, lead not only to his decline as a journalist but also his inability to maintain relationships with the various women he encounters. This odyssey into adulthood and early middle age lacks the organic fixity of his childhood narrative. It is told in such a happenstance sort of way that in the end, the reader can make no greater sense of what any of its means to the author.
In this latter part of the book, Powell comes across as the angry black male tourist of his own life who “threatened, intimated, and bullied people” when he wasn’t trying to hustle them with his charm as an ambitious ghetto boy. The narrative is also marked by a series of disillusionments and apologies. Powell becomes disenchanted with black political activism and leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, whom he once saw as father figures, and organizers such as Sister Souljah, who was once a good friend. He is disillusioned with the all-white world of music journalism, with Tupac, and with electoral politics after his two failed, amateurish attempts to run for Congress.
Sandwiched between these “Invisible Man”-like disappointmentsare Powell’s profuse apologies for striking women and his fervent declarations supporting feminism (these declarations might be more convincing if Powell didn’t describe in such adolescent and sexist ways how good-looking his sexual partners were). The concluding chapters on going to Africa and finding the grave of his father feel as if Powell is straining for a proper resolution in the right key.
Although at times entertaining and evocative, on the whole,“The Education of Kevin Powell” suffers from confusing its graphically confessional tone with mature consideration of the demands of living a moral life. It is, in fact, surprising how unreflective this memoir is. Bedeviled by the mystique of being the cheeky black punk, Powell’s education is ultimately about that lonely kid forced to sit outside the classroom door.
Gerald Early is professor of English and African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also the editor of the university’s new online journal, the Common Reader.
By Kevin Powell
Atria. 285 pp, $26