At three years old, Moore is playing a game with his sister, Nikki, which involves him chasing after her and “playfully” punching her. Moore’s mother sees and is furious, ordering her son up to his room and shouting that he should never hit a woman. Moore runs upstairs to the room he shares with his youngest sister, Shani, unsure of why his mother is so angry. He then hears his father telling his mother not to be too hard on him, as yelling at a young boy will likely not do much good in the long run. Moore explains that he was named after his father, Westley, and that he has two middle names, Watende Omari. As his parents continue to argue, Moore looks out of his bedroom window, where he spots a friend walking down the street—the only person he knows with green eyes. On the dresser is a picture of himself and Nikki; she is seven years older than he is and her real first name is Joy, the same as their mother.
The opening scene of this chapter reveals that Moore comes from a close-knit community. Although his mother is strict, she is clearly motivated by a deep concern that Moore grows up to be a compassionate, responsible person. The fact that both Moore and Nikki are named after their parents highlights the close nature of the family, as well as the idea that children inherit their parents’ identities. Meanwhile, Moore’s comment that he only knows one person with green eyes hints that he lives in an almost entirely African-American community.
Joy immigrated to the United States at three years old from a quiet, rural part of Jamaica, where her family had lived on the same land for generations. Joy’s father dreamed of studying theology at an American university, and moved his family to the Bronx. Here, Joy studied the other children “like an anthropologist,” copying their manner of speaking and behavior in order to fit in. She enrolled in American University in 1968, where she became involved with the black student organization. The treasurer of the organization was a man named Bill, to whom Joy quickly got engaged and, after another two years, married. However, Bill was addicted to alcohol and drugs, and after the couple had a child (Nikki), he became increasingly violent toward Joy. After one particularly awful episode, Joy pulled a knife on Bill, ordering him to never touch her again; within a month, she and Nikki had left him for good.
To some extent, Joy comes from a position of class privilege; her family in Jamaica own their own land and her father moves to the United States to pursue higher education. The references to academic study (such as Moore’s comment that the young Joy is like an “anthropologist”) highlight Joy’s connection to intellectual pursuits. On the other hand, this class privilege does not protect Joy from racial discrimination or the horror of an abusive marriage. Indeed, Joy’s experience is a key example of how easy it can be to slip from a position of success and privilege into one of danger and violence through no fault of one’s own.
The chapter jumps back to the three-year-old Moore in his room. Westley comes upstairs and gently tells his son that he must “defend” women, not hit them. He assures Moore that his mother loves him, and brings him down to apologize to Joy and Nikki. Moore looks admiringly at his father, hoping to imitate him in every way. He admits that this is only one of two memories he has of Westley, and that the other is of witnessing him die.
It is obvious even from this short scene that Moore’s father had a deeply positive impact on him, setting an example of fair, responsible, and compassionate masculinity. Westley’s words also suggest that kind words are a better form of discipline than harsh punishment, an idea that remains important throughout the book.
Moore explains that, as a young person, Westley was both gifted and extraordinarily driven. He graduates from Bard College in 1971 and immediately begins a successful career as a reporter, traveling all over the country before returning to Maryland in order to host his own radio program. It is in this position that he meets Joy, who loves how different he is from Bill. The two marry, and Moore is born. Three years later, Westley is feeling ill as he finishes work, and that night has trouble sleeping. In the morning, he goes to the hospital; later that day, Joy is shocked to find him unable to open his eyes or hold his head up. The doctors presume Westley is exaggerating and that he is only suffering from a sore throat. They send him home with an anesthetic, but later that evening, he collapses down the stairs, unable to breathe.
In many ways, Westley’s life illustrates the advantages of responsibility, hard work, and dedication. Through making good choices, Westley gains a rewarding career and loving family. At the same time, Westley’s death reveals how quickly this can all unravel. The speed at which Westley’s health deteriorates highlights the fact that, no matter how many good choices we make or how much we try to protect ourselves against misfortune, in a moment our destinies can be changed forever.
Nikki calls an ambulance while Joy attempts CPR on Westley. When the medics arrive, Nikki makes Moore wait outside the house. Eventually, the ambulance take Westley away, with Joy and the children following in the car. At the hospital, they wait with other relatives before a doctor announces that Westley has died, at which point Joy passes out. The next day, an autopsy reveals that Westley had contracted a rare virus called acute epiglottitis, which he could have survived had it been accurately detected and treated. Nikki is the worst affected by Westley’s death, not only because she is older but also because afterward Bill stops visiting her or supporting her financially. Moore is still too young to truly grasp what has happened, and at Westley’s funeral asks: “Daddy, are you going to come with us?”
The story of Westley’s death shows how our lives can be transformed by events that we may be unable to understand at the time. At only three years old, Moore cannot comprehend what has actually taken place—hence why he asks his father’s dead body if it is coming home with the family—let alone how it will affect him in the future. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that Moore is able to see how Westley’s death impacted his own life. Moore thus shows that we must often make decisions before we fully understand how they will affect our futures.
The narrative switches to focus on Wes’s family. Wes’s mother, Mary, tells him to pack his things for a trip to stay with his paternal grandmother, Mamie, with whom he is close despite having never met his father. As he packs, Mary wipes tears from her eyes after reading a letter informing her that her Pell Grant has been terminated. The first in her family to attend college, Mary receives her associates degree from the Community College of Baltimore. Although she grew up five miles from Johns Hopkins University, “it might as well have been a world away.” Johns Hopkins symbolizes privilege and opportunity, and is fundamentally disconnected to the Baltimore poverty surrounding it. Against all odds, however, Mary is accepted, working for $6.50 an hour at a medical centre in order to supplement the money from her Pell Grant. When the grant is terminated, she is forced to drop out of Johns Hopkins in order to survive.
Like Westley, Mary is an example of someone whose hard work and dedication was suddenly undermined by a random act of misfortune. Her experience shows that no matter how responsible a person tries to be, they can never ensure that opportunities remain open to them. The sudden termination of Mary’s Pell Grant also highlights the theme of injustice and inequality. As Moore notes, Mary is already socially excluded from the world of Johns Hopkins and other elite institutions due to her race and class; her one opportunity to access this world and achieve social mobility was then dashed by federal cuts to public assistance.
Wes feels protective of Mary, as his father has never been around to support her; meanwhile, Wes’s older brother Tony spends most of his time with his grandparents and father in the Murphy Homes Projects. Despite the termination of her Pell Grant, Mary still dreams of leaving her Baltimore neighborhood behind, perhaps by becoming an entrepreneur. The part of Baltimore in which Mary has always lived “never fully recovered from the riots” that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in the 1960s. The sustained carnage sparked by King’s death spoke to “anger and hurt so extreme that rational thought was thrown out the window”—not only over King, but the ongoing issues of racism, segregation, poverty, and oppression. Although Mary was only a child when the riots took place, it was at this moment that she resolved to one day leave the neighborhood behind forever.
Mary’s relationship to her neighborhood highlights the fact that people are often simply born into unjust circumstances, with no control over their fate. Her experience also reveals how the broader issues of racism and inequality affect people’s chances in life. Although the riots of the 1960s were extremely destructive and chaotic, Moore is sympathetic to the pain that initially sparked them. After centuries of oppression, poor African Americans were driven to extreme action in order to make their voices heard. While the riots ultimately had a negative impact on the city of Baltimore, this is not necessarily the fault of those who rioted.
Wes watches Mary as she gets ready to go out dancing, which she often does to relieve stress. Only 27 years old, she enjoys partying and receiving male attention. She sits Wes down and explains how important it was to her that she graduate from college, and why she now won’t be able to. When Mary told her mother, Alma, that she was pregnant at 16, Alma responded that she didn’t care as long as Mary went to college. After Tony was born, Alma went to the hospital for a kidney transplant, and Mary struggled to take care of her new baby alone. Soon after, Alma died, a fact that Mary’s father, Kenneth, revealed bluntly in the midst of an alcoholic stupor. At the funeral, Kenneth seized Alma’s body from the casket and attempted to take it with him. In the wake of her mother’s death, Mary was the first of her eight siblings to leave home.
On the one hand, Mary has had to grow up fast; having given birth to her own child as well as losing her mother at 16, Mary immediately became responsible not only for herself, but also for Tony. At the same time, by the time Wes is 6, Mary is still only 27, and is thus still a young woman. At an age where other people are still finding a sense of purpose and identity, Mary has already experienced immense emotional and pragmatic pressure. Despite this, her love of going out dancing reveals she is not fundamentally different to any other woman in her 20s.
Having learned of Mary’s dilemma, Wes offers to get a job to help out. Mary laughs and tells him he can wait until later to start work. At only six years old, Wes is tall for his age, “with a reserved, quiet dignity.” This is a marked contrast from his father, Bernard, a neighborhood boy and abusive alcoholic who left Mary before Wes was born. When Wes was eight months old, his father drunkenly banged at Mary’s door, shouting that he wanted to see his child. Mary ignored him, and Bernard never tried to see his son again. After his mother drops him off at Mamie’s house, Wes notices a strange man sitting on the couch, stinking of whisky. The man tells Mary she looks good, and asks who Wes is. Mary responds, “Wes, meet your father.”
If, as Moore suggests earlier in the chapter, children inherit their parents’ identities, Wes has received a tangle of contradictory qualities. Although still young and fun-loving, Mary is undoubtedly sensible, altruistic, and hard-working. Bernard, meanwhile, is irresponsible and destructive, and has had his life ruined by addiction. These two opposites present a fork in the road for Wes: will he take after his dedicated, compassionate mother, or his selfish and careless father?