Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut memoir “Survival Math” (Scribner, $26) is assembled as a collage, a memoir-in-essays that examines systemic challenges the black community faces and how inner-city crime becomes a means for people to survive.
Jackson recounts growing up black in predominantly white Portland, Oregon (“this ain’t our Eden, and won’t be, for that was never their intent”), his family’s history of drug sales and addiction and its entanglement in the sex trade. It’s an expansive chronicle as much as his own personal story.
Each section of the memoir opens with a found poem of lines from iconic historical documents. After establishing the genesis of his pain through an examination of his family line, the author moves to his own complicity in the pain of others — mostly the women he has dated and cheated on. But Jackson’s work is comprehensive and analytical, rather than inwardly focused, covering topics as wide-ranging as human-trafficking laws and parenting.
“Survival Math” is a composite, much like Jackson sees his own parentage: “If a boy isn’t blessed with a dad or gifted with a dynamic stand-in, he must find ways to forge one. He must discern the fatherish men in his life and open himself to their guidance and examples.”
Jackson recalls how the men of his neighborhood influenced his life, training him, in effect, to exploit women.
He constructs a father figure out of these men. He similarly forms his memoir out of the words of others. At one point, he excerpts texts from his exes. Elsewhere, he includes “Survivor Files” from the men in his family. This has the effect of confirming and echoing his own story with others’ similar backgrounds, experiences and traumas.
Jackson is a distracted essayist of occasionally overwrought prose, pulling many characters into his musings on drug addiction, pimping, the history of white supremacy in Oregon and the effects of trauma.
Yet he is self-reflective of his slights against others, particularly women. “I started to ask myself what’s the difference between a scrupulous wholehearted inquiry and a long-ass exercise in making excuses,” he writes, owning his shame. “And though I’m not sure of an answer, much less the answer, the swearable truth, so help me, is this: I mean not a single word of what follows as an attempt to rationalize my violence or paint myself as a victim.”
He submits his own story to the harshest scrutiny, revealing his own failings as much as those of the nation that allows this kind of disparity and poverty.
Jackson’s work often juxtaposes the tenets of history or philosophy against the grim reality of his own life; in this dichotomy, he exposes the reality of a rigged system. Each essay is a cornucopia of semi-related ideas, yet “Survival Math” is remarkably direct and poignant when the author focuses on the intimacies of his own deepest betrayals and hopes.
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