The phone at Mary’s house has been ringing for three minutes nonstop, but she ignores it. She has watched a news item on the TV that has made her freeze with panic. Three days before, four men entered a jewelry store carrying mallets and guns and ordered the people inside to get on the ground. Among the people in the store was Sergeant Bruce Prothero, a police officer and father of five who had a second job working as a security guard at the mall. The men grabbed almost $500,000 worth of jewelry and sprinted out; Sergeant Prothero dashed after them. In the mall parking lot, the men shot him three times from the car. Sergeant Prothero died as the men sped away.
Mary’s shock at learning through the TV about what Wes and Tony have done highlights the massive gulf between her impression of her sons and the depiction of them on the news. Although Mary is aware that both Wes and Tony are involved with drug crime and have spent time in prison, she still views them as family—as the children she birthed and raised. Now she must contend with the horrifying revelation that her sons took the life of another.
The Baltimore police department conduct a fervent search for the four jewelry store robbers, provoked by the fact that the men killed “one of their own.” They capture the first two suspects within two days of the shooting. Mary watches as the news reporter announces that the final two suspects—Tony and Wes—are still on the run, and that they are being treated as “armed and dangerous.” Days pass, and Mary cannot sleep. She is plagued by guilt and panic. One night at 4 am the police knock loudly on her door; when she opens it, some already have their guns raised. An officer takes Mary outside, even though it is February and she is only wearing a cotton bathrobe. He asks if Mary knows that both her sons are on probation, and if she knows where they are. Mary promises to co-operate; meanwhile, the police aggressively search her house. Although they find nothing, they promise they will be back until Tony and Wes are found. Meanwhile, Wes and Tony’s family are “bombarded” with requests for interviews.
Although Moore does not question the justice of Tony and Wes being punished for their role in killing Sergeant Prothero, he highlights the unfairness in how the police treat Mary. Arriving for the search at 4 am and making her wait outside in her robe suggest that the police have little respect for Mary, despite the fact that she has personally done nothing wrong. Even after she promises to co-operate, the police treat her no better. This shows that criminality has a tainting impact that goes beyond criminals themselves. Family members and even whole communities are treated as criminals or accomplices even when they themselves are innocent.
At Aunt Nicey’s daughter’s wedding, the family try to forget the ongoing manhunt and think of more positive things. On the way to the reception, one of the cars of attendees stops at a 7 Eleven for snacks. A group of police that have been trailing them since they left the church orders everyone get out of the car and sit on the snow-covered curb. The police officers remind them that there is a reward for turning in Wes and Tony, as the guests silently shiver in their soaking clothes. When it is clear that none of them have any information, the officers let them go.
The ruthlessness of the police department is made obvious by the fact that they will not cease hounding Wes and Tony’s family even on the wedding day. Again, the family members have done nothing wrong themselves, but are mistreated and humiliated due to their (possibly only distant) connection to the Moore brothers.
In reality, Wes and Tony are in North Philadelphia, staying at an uncle’s house. Walking down the street, Wes notices that the same police car has been following him on more than one occasion and hopes it is just a coincidence. He gets home and starts eating a Philly Cheesesteak. Tony says he is heading out, but Wes doesn’t hear him shut the door; as Wes runs down to shut it himself, he sees his brother on the floor while a police officer puts handcuffs on him. Suddenly, six officers jump on Wes and pin him to the ground, too. There are both Baltimore and Philadelphia officers present as well as ATF and FBI officials. Back in Maryland, the Baltimore PD rejoice at the news that Tony and Wes have been caught, while Mary cries at home.
It is difficult to reconcile the impression of Wes given in the book with the level of intensity with which he is pursued by law enforcement. Although Wes has committed violent crimes in the past, it still seems remarkable that the FBI are involved in his capture. Meanwhile, the difference in reaction between the Baltimore Police Department and Mary is striking. Again, Moore never suggests that Wes and Tony shouldn’t have been captured. Yet why do the officers celebrate, considering there is nothing that can bring Sergeant Prothero back?
During questioning, Wes does not feel nervous, as he knows he has lost all control over his fate. He has waited almost a year to be extradited to Maryland from Pennsylvania for his trial. Tony was identified as the shooter and pleaded guilty in order to avoid the death penalty; the two other men involved also pleaded guilty. Only Wes has maintained his innocence, and thus his case goes to trial. Wes’s lawyer argues that Wes simply accompanied Tony to Philadelphia and points out that since being in jail, Wes has converted to Islam and calls his children every day. As Wes waits to hear the jury’s verdict, he is overwhelmed by feelings of isolation and apathy. Ultimately, he is found guilty of first-degree felony murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Sergeant Prothero’s widow sobs, as do Mary, Aunt Nicey, and Alicia. The judge tells Wes that he acted as if he was in the “Wild West” and that he is “dangerous.” Wes reflects on his fate; he has been to prison before, but never expected to spend the rest of his life there. For the first time, he has a clear idea of what his future looks like.
The reason why Wes maintains his innocence is one of the book’s major mysteries. It is clear that since being captured and sent to jail he has dedicated himself to living a better, more constructive life, as evidenced by his frequent phone calls with his children and conversion to Islam. Perhaps it is too painful for Wes to reconcile this new, improved image of himself with the reality of his past. Yet surely his new faith demands that he is honest about his actions? Meanwhile, Wes does not seem frightened by the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. Indeed, he seems to have been numbed by his experiences. This makes it even more puzzling why he maintains his innocence. Ultimately, the answer to this question is something that neither Moore nor the reader will ever know.
Moore is at the office of Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who teasingly calls Moore “General” despite the fact that he is only a second lieutenant. By this point, Schmoke has been the Mayor of Baltimore for 12 years, and Moore is currently doing his second internship working alongside him. Although the city has seen real progress during Schmoke’s tenure (including the destruction of the Murphy Homes Projects), the murder rate has still not fallen and teenage pregnancy rates are up. Moore argues that “there are two Baltimores,” like all major cities in America; on one side is culture, history, and capital, and on the other, crime, poverty, and violence.
Schmoke’s affectionate nickname for Moore represents a distinct contrast from the previous hierarchical institution governing Moore’s life—military school. Whereas at Valley Forge, the precise rank of each member of the community was a matter of serious concern, Schmoke takes a more playful attitude. Moore juxtaposes these two styles of leadership without suggesting that one is better than the other, but rather by showing the ways in which both have helped him develop.
Although Mayor Schmoke could easily be elected for a fourth term, it is clear that he is getting ready to leave politics behind and spend time with his family. He asks Moore if he has enjoyed his internship. Moore responds, “I’ve loved it, sir,” but adds that this is an understatement. While earning his associate’s degree at Valley Forge, Moore’s adviser suggests he apply to Johns Hopkins. At first Moore is resistant; he is aware of Johns Hopkins from having grown up in Baltimore, but doesn’t know anyone who actually attended. He feels that the university is filled with people “who did not look or sound like me.” Moore’s adviser introduces him to the assistant director of admissions, a young black man who convinces Moore that he should apply. Moore likes the idea not only of attending such a prestigious institution, but also going home to Baltimore. His relationship with Joy has improved dramatically since he first enrolled at Valley Forge and he now sees her as not just as his mother, but also his friend.
Moore’s reservations about Johns Hopkins show that it is sometimes hard to make the right decisions because we assume that they are not available to us. Although Moore grew up in Baltimore, comes from a highly-educated family, and excelled in military school, he still assumes Johns Hopkins is somewhere he does not belong. If someone like Moore feels hesitant about applying to an elite university (even after being encouraged to do so by his adviser), what chance do others in a less privileged position have? Moore is then fortunate to have a personal meeting with the assistant director of admissions, who happens to be a young black man—his mere presence thus comforting Moore’s main reservations about applying. How many others would get so lucky?
Moore is now convinced to apply to Johns Hopkins, but still worries about getting in, and his SAT scores are significantly lower than the average Johns Hopkins student. However, not only is he accepted, he also receives a scholarship. Moore thinks about how lucky he is to have had “an advocate on the inside” in the form of the assistant director of admissions. He thinks of the kids he knows back in the Bronx who never felt like they had a chance to be successful, or people in the generation above who believed that they did only to have that chance taken away, like Mary and her Pell Grant. As someone who did manage to get several breaks, Moore feels it is his responsibility to help others who are less fortunate.
This is perhaps the closest Moore gets to arguing that our external circumstances determine our fate more than our choices. Moore’s surprise acceptance to Johns Hopkins reminds him that he is beating the odds to be where he is—and that he would not be able to do this without the support of others who believe in him. While it is Moore’s own talent, hard work, and achievements that impress the assistant director of admissions, Moore’s acceptance hinges on the luck of meeting him in the first place.
Back in the Mayor’s office, Schmoke asks Moore if he has ever heard of the Rhodes Scholarship. Moore knows that President Clinton, Maryland state senator Paul Sarbanes, and Mayor Schmoke himself all received the scholarship. Schmoke tells Moore about other distinguished people in his own Rhodes class and recalls his time at Oxford. After Moore’s internship, he is going to spend a semester studying abroad in South Africa, and Schmoke advises him to learn about who Cecil Rhodes was. Later, Moore learns that Rhodes was a vicious white supremacist colonizer.
In this passage, Moore illustrates the extent to which major opportunities and resources often come shrouded in moral complexity. While the Rhodes Scholarship has uplifted black men like Schmoke and enabled them to do good in the world, the scholarship is also inseparably tied to violence and injustice. Schmoke encourages Moore not to forget or disregard this moral complexity, but rather to confront it head-on.
Moore is able to travel to South Africa after receiving a grant from the School for International Training to study “culture and reconciliation” in post-apartheid Cape Town. At first, Cape Town looks remarkably similar to American cities. However, as Moore leaves downtown and enters the township in which he will be living, he is confronted with a strikingly different picture. Moore describes the legacy of apartheid as “glaringly obvious,” the effects of racial segregation creating “despair and hopelessness.” Although the situation in South Africa is more extreme, it reminds Moore of Baltimore and the Bronx. Rows of shacks stretch in every direction, and Moore realizes that the poverty he’s witnessed in America is nothing compared to what exists in South Africa.
Once opportunities start coming Moore’s way, they do not stop. After his entry into the formerly unfamiliar world of Johns Hopkins, Moore is given the chance to experience a whole other level of unfamiliarity by spending a semester in a completely different country. While Moore is certainly shocked by certain ways in which South Africa is different from the United States, he is also reminded of key similarities. Despite our differences, people all over the world face similar problems, and are thus united in a common humanity.
At the house where Moore is staying, a short woman, Mama, greets him with “Molo!,” the Xhosa word for hello, and her son, Zinzi, calls him “bhuti,” meaning brother. A week after Moore’s arrival, he has a long conversation with Mama, in which they exchange stories about their lives. Mama tells him about the history and culture of South Africa and her husband’s role as a freedom fighter during apartheid. Moore is shocked that Mama is so at peace after so many years of pain. Mama replies that she forgives those who did her harm “because Mr. Mandela asked us to.” Moore reflects that finding a sense of common humanity and peace is of vital importance. When Moore next speaks to Joy on the phone, she tells him about the crazy coincidence that the Baltimore police department is conducting a manhunt for another young man with Wes’s name.
Moore’s conversation with Mama teaches him about the most important choice of all: the choice to forgive and be at peace with suffering. By this point in the book, Moore has come to terms with the fact that much of his destiny—perhaps even most of it—is beyond his control. However, while it is not possible to decide exactly how his life will turn out, he does have control over whether he will hold on to anger or instead embrace acceptance. Mama’s words serve as a reminder that sometimes people need moral leaders in order to reach a state of acceptance.
A few weeks before Moore returns to the United States, he is walking through his township with Zinzi and his friend Simo, “feeling at home.” Moore feels preemptively nostalgic about leaving South Africa, but focuses on the future. In a few months, he will be graduating from Johns Hopkins Phi Beta Kappa, and as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar in the school’s history. Zinzi, meanwhile, will shortly undergo the traditional Xhosa initiation into manhood that comes in the form of spending a month in the “bush.” Moore asks him if he is nervous, especially about undergoing circumcision without anesthetic. Zinzi replies that he is not nervous; he views the experience as a transformative process through which he will come to be treated with a newfound respect by his community. Moore reflects that the challenges young people face in South Africa are not dissimilar to those faced by the ones he personally grew up with. However, whereas in South Africa the journey into manhood is celebrated and achieved in junction with the broader community, in America young men are often treated with fear.
Moore’s observations about the way young men are treated in South Africa versus the United States recalls Wes’ comment that people tend to live up to the expectations of others. In the United States, young men—and young black men in particular—are treated in a fearful way, and thus rather than feeling that they are supported and valued members of the community, young black men develop an image of themselves as intimidating, violent, and destructive. Meanwhile, Zinzi’s description of the initiation process evokes a decidedly different attitude to adulthood than the norm in the US. Whereas American young people are mostly left to figure things out for themselves, in the Xhosa tribe there is a formal process and system of support that helps guide young people as they become adults.