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'Survival Math' Is A Memoir About Growing Up Black In Oregon


When Mitchell Jackson writes about surviving his youth in Portland, Ore., he means Jackson grew up in one of Portland's few black neighborhoods, a neighborhood scarred and defined by drugs and violence, a neighborhood where a small disagreement could escalate fast.

MITCHELL JACKSON: He knew that we - you know, we had an issue, and he pulled a gun on me and was like, are you looking for me? And in that moment between my answer and him asking the question, a lot of thoughts went through my head.

KELLY: Mitchell Jackson thought about whether he could get away, whether there were any witnesses, whether he could survive a gunshot wound, what he should say to make sure he walked away alive.

JACKSON: I ultimately said, no, I'm not looking for you and probably ended up saving my life because he did murder someone not too long after that. So I took that kind of calculations and then asked myself, well, there must be some men in my family or others who also had to make those calculations.

KELLY: Calculations that he calls survival math. That's the title of Mitchell Jackson's new book. It's his story, his family's story. The opening chapter describes how he started dealing drugs back when he was 14 or 15 years old.

JACKSON: I mean, I think there's a kind of ostensible start, which is, like, I wanted to make some money really quick - I don't know - to go to prom or something. But then there's the kind of longer trajectory of it where I was frustrated with the things that were happening in my life that were a product of my mother's struggle with addiction. And so you put those two things together, it gave me the clearance to do it.

KELLY: You mention your mom. Drugs were present and a force and a factor in your house long before you got involved with them.

JACKSON: I guess, yeah, a factor in my house because my mother was struggling with addiction, but it wasn't like, you know, she was bringing it home. But, yeah, I mean, it was something that was happening in the community that I was aware of. You could kind of see it happening in the way that, you know, the people who would be wandering the neighborhoods, they looked different. They had a different demeanor about them. It didn't seem as happy as it had been, you know, when I was 7, 8, 9 years old.

KELLY: Yeah. Your mom - you write about her with such love, also with - you tell me if this is the right word but with frustration. And there's one episode you describe where this was in your drug dealing days and you write about that you got a call, that this guy pages you, tells you to come over. You don't know what's going on other than it's urgent.


KELLY: What happened?

JACKSON: Well, that was a time when she was really struggling with her addiction. And I think, you know, it must have been some form of desperation. And she knew that I was also dealing drugs. And she asked me to give her something while she was out, I guess, on a binge. And that was really important moment for me because it helped me define my boundaries, what I wasn't willing to do.

KELLY: And just to set the scene, I mean, you show up. You didn't know your mom was going to be at this guy's house.

JACKSON: No, no, I didn't know she was going to be there. She was, like, in a back room, and he just kind of nodded to me and said, go back there. And then when I saw her, I was just - you know, I had been wondering where she was and then to - for her to ask for it really let me know, like, how far she had gone in her desperation and then how far I had fallen that she felt that that was something that I would even consider.

KELLY: I mean, can I ask, did you sell her drugs?

JACKSON: No, no, never, never. That's what I said. It helped me set my boundaries. Like, that was the beginning of the end for me.

KELLY: So, you know, I said at the beginning this is your story. It's your memoir. But it is anything but a traditional narrative memoir. It's a collection of essays and letters to family members, photographs and survivor files, which are these short vignettes, personal stories, of other black men who you never name. So we don't know who they are.


KELLY: Whose stories are they, and what purpose are they serving here?

JACKSON: So the men on the cover are my family. So they're my brothers, cousins, uncle, grandfather, nephew, and their stories are what comprise the survivor files, which is an image of them and then a story that they told me that I translated into a second-person narrative. And I don't identify them because I want readers to examine the photos, listen to the stories or read the stories and then try to imagine which story belongs to which person and then beyond that. Like, what are they seeing that is giving them the sense that this story belongs to a particular person? So it's really about, like, kind of challenging your implicit biases.

KELLY: And I guess also by not assigning names, you're creating the possibility this could be any of us, you know, there but for the grace of God went your life and your story.

JACKSON: Yeah. That's another reason why I chose the second person because I wanted to invite people to empathize, to imagine themselves as the protagonists of these stories.

KELLY: So you're going along, you're living your life, and then comes this day you're arrested.


KELLY: Eventually led to a 16-month prison sentence.


KELLY: And it sounds crazy to say, but was this the best thing that ever happened to you?

JACKSON: It's up there and it - yeah. It was, like, a relief in a sense because I knew that there was an outcome that I could stand, right? Like, so I didn't get convicted of, like, 20 years. It wasn't a federal conviction where I really lost a lot of time in my life. I was in school. I had a scholarship, but then it was also like, OK, I can stop. And so in that sense, it was a relief and, like, gave me a chance to kind of imagine what my life might look like, you know, two years later or three years later.

KELLY: And the scholarship wasn't at risk? You were able to pick up where you left off when you left prison?

JACKSON: I told them I had a family emergency, and they didn't ask any more questions and I'm very thankful that they didn't (laughter). It was an emergency. Yeah.

KELLY: That - it's true.


KELLY: Not the full version of the truth but the truth. So here you are today. This is your second book...


KELLY: ...Being published. You are teaching at NYU.


KELLY: You're living the dream. What was the purpose of trying to write this memoir? I mean, you've touched on this, but just reading it, it is so raw. It hurts to read this. What do you want us to take away?

JACKSON: I think I really wanted the audience or the reader to have to reckon with the way - with my thinking. And I thought the essay was the best form to do that. I received a fair amount of critical success with "Residue."

KELLY: This was your novel.

JACKSON: Yeah, my novel, "The Residue Years." But I was also a little frustrated with the way that reviewers and other readers were portraying it as if I was just telling a story and there was no kind of craft or art to it or intellectualism. And I was like, oh, well, I know how to force a reader to kind of confront the way that my mind works, so I'm going to put these in essays.

And then the other thing is I want you to know that there were a community of people in Northeast Portland that struggle but ultimately are survivors. And a lot of us are thriving. And so that's really important to me because I - when I ask - tell people I'm from Portland, Ore., they say, oh, my God. Like, I didn't even know black people live there. And it's true, really, because we're only, you know, 2, 3, 4 percent of the population, but we're a community. And I think that we deserve to have a kind of public persona.

KELLY: This is the predictable question, but what would you tell 14, 15-year-old Mitchell Jackson if you could go back and talk to him?

JACKSON: I would tell him, hold on. It's going to get better. I don't know if I would take back the mistakes that I made because you take back one mistake and I'm not here speaking to you right now. But I do think, you know, you have to hold fast to hope, especially in moments where you think it's close to hopeless.


KELLY: Mitchell Jackson, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

JACKSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

KELLY: His new book is "Survival Math."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROSTAM'S "BIKE DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.