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

16 Mar

Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of Survival Math. His debut novel The Residue Years was praised by publications, including The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Times (London). The novel won the Ernest Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence, and it was also a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Jackson’s honors include fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and Tin House, among other publications. He serves on the faculty at New York University and Columbia University.

Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson. Survival Math is about the calculations Mitchell made to survive his youth in 1990s Northeast Portland, and we wanted to reach out to you because it is absolutely perfect for book club discussion. The book explores difficult topics—addiction and gun play, masculinity and near-death experiences—all framed within the stories of the author and his family’s experiences in Portland. But of course, the book is about something much bigger than one family. Mitchell illuminates the forces that led his family and his community to this point, from the Great Migration to gentrification, and he does so with humor and style.

So far, the book has been praised by some of the most talented writers on the planet. Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward called the book “virtuosic.” Author of Orange Is the New Black Piper Kerman says Survival Math is “an unforgettable mix of sharp humor, wide interrogation, and indelible tragedy.” Pulitzer Prize winning poet Terrance Hayes says Mitchell’s “insights into how black men survive become insights of everyone’s survival.”



Excerpt: Survival Math

Survival Math EXODUS

My exodus occurs after years wandering the wilderness of my hometown, the crucible that included working a part-time, and only-time, gig at the Oregonian’s downtown insert facility stacking pallet after pallet of inky-ass newspapers. For bread to live. For bread to leave. The day in question, I got a phone call from someone who, for the love (and just maybe his liberty), I’ll call Brother A. Brother A called me to plead a ride to his apartment in the burbs to sweep for dope after his dope-dealing roommate, a dude who’d already done a nickel in the pen on a drug charge (which, by the way, is not judgment, but context), had just got knocked by the Feds. Brother A explained he needed the ride because his main squeeze had wrecked his Jeep, and he couldn’t think of anyone more fitting than me, of all people on God’s verdant earth, me, to be the one to shuttle him.

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 lightweight 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 children—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 underfunded 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.


( Continued… )

© 2019 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author’s or publisher’s written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.


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