Two years later, it is summer break and Wes wakes up to the sound of the phone ringing. It’s Tony, asking where Mary is. Tony is very protective of Wes, although Wes doesn’t see him often as Tony spends most of his time in the Murphy Homes Projects—a filthy cluster of buildings, nicknamed the “Murder Homes,” which are overrun by criminal activity. Tony asks about school; Wes attends an elementary school nicknamed “Chicken Pen,” where 99% of the students are black and 70% receive free lunches. Tony tells his little brother to “take this shit seriously,” urging Wes not to follow in his own footsteps. Although Tony is only 14, he has been dealing drugs for four years and has an intimidating reputation. Yet despite his tough and impressive exterior, he wishes he could undo the past and put himself back in Wes’s position.
Tony is a somewhat paradoxical figure in Wes’s life. On the one hand, he is a positive and supportive influence, the closest thing to a father Wes has. Moreover, he checks in on Wes and tries to ensure that Wes works hard in school so as not to repeat Tony’s own mistakes. However, Moore suggests that this advice is undermined by Tony’s own behavior. Wes is dismissive of Tony’s words, admiring his brother for his actions. Regardless of what Tony says, Wes is impressed by Tony’s tough status and seeks to behave like his older brother, rather than following his advice.
After Tony hangs up, the phone rings again. This time it’s Woody, Wes’s new friend, who tells him to come outside. Wes has just moved away from Cherry Hill, a neighborhood plagued by poverty, drugs, and crime, to Northwood, “a paradise of neat houses” occupied by members of the college-educated black professional class. Wes now plays for the Northwood Rams, “one of the best rec football teams in the nation,” and loves the sense of belonging that comes from his membership on the team. However, as Wes becomes more dedicated to football, he pays less attention to this academic work. He is intelligent and capable, and gets bored easily, which means his grades have slipped. Wes rummages around the house for loose change before running out to meet Woody.
Wes is naturally gifted, but perversely this ends up working against him at school. Without sufficient resources and opportunities to push him to succeed, Wes remains apathetic in class. While football provides a positive outlet and sense of belonging, it also distracts Wes, arguably giving him a false sense of confidence about his future prospects. Although both Tony and Mary have encouraged Wes to prioritize his education, Wes prefers the more immediate reward and sense of community that come from playing sports.
Woody’s parents are still together and his father is an army veteran. Woody is the only person Wes knows whose father is still with the family, and Wes feels envious of Woody’s close relationship with his dad. Woody and Wes toss the football, and are soon joined by “White Boy” who, despite being Lebanese-American, is seen to be “a real black dude.” The three of them approach another group of kids, asking if they’d like to play. Wes plays defense to a boy who yells at him to back off, which only makes Wes more aggressive. The boy punches Wes, who stands still for a moment, stunned, before sprinting home. Wes thinks of Tony, who sometimes brings him to the Murphy Homes to practice fighting. Wes grabs a long knife, ignoring Woody’s pleas to let the argument go. Woody notices that the police have pulled up outside, but before he has time to warn his friend, Wes runs out holding the knife.
This is the first moment in which we see Wes make an objectively bad decision. Although he is not the one to throw the first punch, it would have been possible for him not to retaliate, especially considering that Woody encourages him to drop it. Moreover, not only does Wes decide to get the kid back, but he dramatically escalates the situation by running to retrieve a knife. Wes’s sense of pride and hot temper thus cause him to overlook reason and act in a destructive manner. On the other hand, it’s also clear that Wes has been influenced by Tony’s advice. Although Wes is only a kid, he lives in a tough, dangerous world in which he must prove that he is not weak.
One of the police officers tells Wes to put down the knife, but he barely notices. He hears Tony’s advice ringing in his mind: “Send a message.” The police officer yanks Wes and slams him against the car, pinning him down while he puts handcuffs around his wrists. Woody protests, until the police put him in handcuffs as well. Both boys are taken away, and Wes calls Tony’s father to pick him up; it is only many years later that Mary finds out her son was arrested.
Moore is clear that Wes made a bad decision by drawing the knife, and especially by then ignoring the police’s demands that he drop it. At the same time, the way Woody and Wes are treated by the police also seems unjust. Although they are engaged in violence, they are still only 8 years old. Is the violent reaction of the police really justified?
Moore describes walking downstairs one night to find his mother half-asleep on the couch. Since Westley’s death, Joy has been sleeping in the living room in order to “stand guard” against their increasingly dangerous neighborhood. She is haunted by her husband’s death, wondering if there is something she could have done to save him. Worried about the impact of a legal battle on her children, Joy chooses not to sue the hospital; she puts the out-of-court settlement toward training paramedics in a technique that addresses respiratory failure. Moore notes that his mother looks tired and “defeated,” and that people believe she is not coping well with Westley’s death. Eventually, Joy calls her parents and asks if she can move in with them in the Bronx. Three weeks later, she and the kids pack up and leave Baltimore for good.
Westley’s death is a random act of misfortune that has turned Moore and his family’s life upside down. Although Joy blames herself for not doing more to prevent Westley’s death, it is ultimately impossible to place blame on any one person—even the doctors who misdiagnosed and paramedics who mistreated him (after all, as Moore points out, they had simply not received the proper training). While it is tempting to try and make sense of such a random event, Moore shows that it is more important to focus on making good choices in the aftermath of the event.
Moore’s grandparents have recently retired; his grandfather, Rev. Dr. James Thomas, used to be a minister, while his grandmother, Winell, taught elementary school. Joy tells the children happy stories of growing up in the Bronx, but when they arrive it is clear that the borough has become far more dangerous since Joy’s childhood. Moore describes the Bronx as a highly diverse, “amazing place,” but adds that by the late ‘70s it resembled a “war zone.” When Moore’s grandparents first came to America, they immediately began saving up to buy a house in order to feel like they had “a stake in their new country.” As Moore approaches this house, he is greeted warmly by his grandparents, while Joy expresses her concerns about how the neighborhood has changed. Moore’s grandparents concur, describing the devastating effect of drugs and violence on the community.
Like their daughter, James and Winell Thomas have worked hard all their lives, dedicating themselves to making a positive contribution to their adopted country and community. In this sense, they fit into the narrative of “model immigrants.” However, despite their responsible, hard-working nature, they have still found themselves caught in the midst of an increasingly destructive situation as a result of living in the Bronx in the midst of the crack epidemic. Once again, Moore highlights that no matter how many good choices a person makes, their external circumstances will always be beyond their control.
James and Winell met as teenagers in Jamaica. As newlyweds, they immigrated to the United States so Moore’s grandfather could attend a historically black college called Lincoln University. In James’s first days on campus, a man approached him and offered to help him buy some warmer clothes, telling him that when he first arrived in America he, too, was under-dressed. The man, Kwame Nkrumah, became James’s mentor before going on to be the President of independent Ghana. James, meanwhile, moved to the Bronx and became the first black minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Now, in the era of the violent crack epidemic, James remains determined to “do his part to heal what was broken in the Bronx.”
When Moore’s grandfather first arrives in the United States, he is a total outsider to the country, as is shown by his poor preparation for the cold weather. Through a combination of luck and determination, James works to make himself a crucial part of his new community. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for his children and grandchildren to feel the same sense of belonging within a society still plagued by racism and inequality.
Moore’s grandparents establish strict guidelines for behavior, which Moore describes as “not Bronx rules… [but] West Indian rules.” Moore rushes out to play basketball, and is greeted by the sounds of early hip hop, “still young and close to its Bronx roots.” Moore describes the surrounding neighborhood as “postapocalyptic,” destroyed by drugs, poverty, and arson. He reaches a court where all the players are older, bigger, and better than him, and enjoys playing against them. He notices how the Bronx kids are different from those in his old neighborhood, with their own slang and style. Within the basketball court, many different kinds of people congregate, from drug dealers to straight-A students. For a moment, they put aside their differences and become “a brotherhood.”
From the outside, the Bronx neighborhood into which Moore’s family has moved seems dangerous and intimidating. Poverty and violence have ravaged the community to the point that it seems like a hellish, forgotten corner of the world. However, beneath the surface lies a different story. The Bronx is bubbling with culture, including the new musical genre of hip hop and its associated street style. And of course, kids in the Bronx—while tough on the outside—are actually not different from kids anywhere else.