STARRED REVIEW
October 27, 2015

Redeeming a legacy of despair

By Kevin Powell
Review by

When Kevin Powell appeared on the first season of MTV's “The Real World,” he developed a reputation for hostility toward his white roommates. I remember thinking he was an adult miscast in a show full of kids, always running out the door to work. In The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood, we learn about the grinding poverty and loss that fueled that anger, which resurfaced time and again to threaten all he held dear.

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When Kevin Powell appeared on the first season of MTV's “The Real World,” he developed a reputation for hostility toward his white roommates. I remember thinking he was an adult miscast in a show full of kids, always running out the door to work. In The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood, we learn about the grinding poverty and loss that fueled that anger, which resurfaced time and again to threaten all he held dear.

Powell grew up in a series of grimy apartment buildings in and around Jersey City. With no father to speak of, his mother, aunt and cousin were his world, and his mother's repeated abuse left Kevin fearful and angry. His successes—going to college, doing groundbreaking journalism as rap music underwent major changes, and even that MTV gig—often led to dead ends or being let go as a result of his temper.

At its best, Powell’s memoir is richly descriptive. A preacher from his childhood has "an elastic honey-coated face, a short-cut afro with a razor-sharp part chiseled in on the left side, and a river-wide grin that felt fatherly and protective." But it's not until Powell visits Africa and, back at home, searches for his absent father, that his anger and rage abate, and those qualities often make him a less-than-sympathetic figure. It’s hard to reconcile his complaining about a girlfriend who left him with the revelation, casually mentioned several chapters later, that he cheated on her. He works to overcome his violent tendencies, but even as he’s speaking in public about the need to stop violence against women, he struggles to take his own advice.

The Education of Kevin Powell is not an easy read, but it feels necessary in this moment, both for its unflinching look at abuse and its consequences, and for showing the value of working to overcome all obstacles, including those of our own making. Powell seems to have found both a measure of calm and a new drive and vitality by story's end, and we can only hope the peace is lasting. 

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