Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson

Years ago, I was shopping for a dinner party with my roommate. Our Chicago neighborhood—white ethnic and racist turned gentrified—hadn’t flipped enough to produce a decent seafood counter, so we found ourselves at the Jewel-Osco on Canal, blocks away from Maxwell Street. Witnessing this odd duo (me, black and from the south suburbs; my friend, first-generation Polish from the northwest suburbs), the clerk eyed us from behind the counter. Wrapping up our order in plastic, he asked, “So, where are you from?”

My roommate began to tell his life story, but I sensed something sinister in the clerk’s inquiry. In Chicago, people don’t ask you where you’re from because they’re curious. It’s shorthand; the city’s segregation is well-advertised, and the question allows natives to place you, either racially or socioeconomically. The clerk simply couldn’t fathom black people living in Bridgeport. I was probably an out-of-towner, or up to something bougie. I’d gotten the same reaction from my parents, and a family friend living on the East Coast. When my roommate moved out and my fiancé moved in, her manager asked, “Is he okay over there?” Her husband—a white man—had grown up in the neighborhood, and swore he would never go back because it was so racist.

How does the narrative an urban space tells about itself affect the interactions of its residents? White-on-black violence is not the type of danger popularly associated with Chicago. The city is rife with gang violence to people who don’t live here, but most inhabitants are more concerned with their ability to move laterally from neighborhood to neighborhood. After all, it’s difficult to carve out a space for yourself if the surface area you allowed is limited due to circumstances beyond your control.

Mitchell S. Jackson’s startling and inventive Survival Math explores a similar question. Jackson, an acclaimed writer whose debut novel, The Residue Years, won the Ernest J. Gaines Award, grew up black and impoverished in Portland, Oregon—a city that has become the poster child for a so-called urban revival driven by artistic endeavors and alternative lifestyles. Jackson’s solution to being boxed in by his parameters was to leave. Now a professor at New York University, his relationship with the place of his birth has grown somber and self-reflective, and his wistfulness establishes the tone of Survival Math. Though the book is technically a memoir, such a designation feels too narrow to encompass the bracing people’s history it delivers. Jackson opens with a letter written in his own voice. “Dear Markus,” he begins,

There’s much I don’t know about your living-and-breathing in Cape Verde, so I’ve envisioned what it was like, have pictured you hanging near the ports—burnished, famished, bleary-eyed—proclaiming to anybody with ears that you’d board a ship bound for the New World and change forevermore your fortune. Then Captain Robert Gray . . . highsighted about how . . . he’d captain his Lady Washington around Cape Horn and through the Drake Passage to America’s west coast . . . about how he was looking to add a new member to his small crew. As I imagine it, his notice sounded to you like the ocean looked in your dreams.

The Markus that Jackson’s letter addresses is Markus Lopius, the first documented black person to step foot in what is now Portland. The story arc is familiar, but slightly off—it is one of coercion rather than violent pillaging. Lopius wasn’t a slave; he was a desperate adventure-seeker who, in Jackson’s telling, talked his way onto Gray’s ship in 1788 with boasts of “how quick [he] could learn what [he] didn’t know.” Much of the narrative tension comes from the historical source material being reconfigured to suit the energy and cadence of Jackson’s voice. Drawing on a log written by another sailor, Jackson writes, “Your shipmate Haswell (Did y’all call him Robbie?) logged in his journal details of your first day in this place we share, your last day on earth.” On the first day he touched dry land, Lopius was cutting grass for livestock and had his cutlass stolen. Worried about lost pay or “the haters among them dubbing [him] a dim-witted black boy for the rest of the voyage,” he went to retrieve it. At this point the narrative idiom ceases its opulence and becomes clipped, antiquated, and not a bit racist. Haswell, Lopius’s white shipmate, authored the account of his death: “ Per his pen, while he and some of the other crew raced to your aid, the natives ‘instantly drenched their knives and spears with savage fury’ in you until you released the thief, staggered, and fell dead.’” That exchange of voices is chilling, and reflects Jackson’s source material clashing with his desire to mold Lopius’s life into a story of his own choosing. Lopius’s death isn’t passed-down folklore. Furthermore, rather than fighting on his behalf, Haswell and the other crew members fled back to their ship to avoid a similar fate.

White hostility forms a powerful backdrop to Jackson’s history of Portland. In the prologue, a montage of notable black Oregonians are lined up and shat on in short order. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) brought his slave York on his famous expedition to the Columbia River Basin. From its transition from a disputed territory between the United States and Great Britain, to a US territory and eventual statehood, Oregon never allowed slave ownership. But its initial governing body was led by a Peter Burnett, a former slave owner from Missouri gracious enough to allow slave-owning settlers a three-year grace period. Afterwards, all black residents had to leave the county under penalty of lashing. The law formed the basis of the 1848 statute banning any “negro or mulatto” from land ownership. Jacob Vanderpool, a biracial boarding house owner, was expelled from Oregon Territory in 1851 thanks to these infamous exclusion laws. When applying for statehood six years later, the exclusion of blacks was written into the state constitution. The state also refused to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship to all born/naturalized citizens and black men the right to vote, respectively. Then came the KKK, segregation, redlining, and a massive flood in Vanport that pushed a majority of the state’s black residents into Portland’s northeast corner, where they remained for decades—accounting for around five percent of the city’s population.

In addition to these stories, we also learn more recent history. Jackson chronicles the death of Joseph “Ray Ray” Winston, Portland’s first gang homicide, in 1988. Jackson was thirteen years old when Ray Ray was shot, and remembers newscasts of his mother “standing outside the projects in a shower cap and black jacket with a microphone punched at her shoulder,” the spectacle of “a procession of mourners filing into the church” after being questioned and searched by the police. Never brought up when Portland is discussed popularly, the event proved seismic for Jackson, who considers himself implicated in its lineage of drugs and violence. Jackson’s mother, Lillie, had him when she was nineteen; in an interview in The Oregonian, she described her son as a quiet child who liked to play school and go to the library to “refresh” himself. Constantly moving around and changing schools eventually took its toll; counted among the “young boys . . . posted on hot blocks all night for damn near nothing,” at twenty-two, Jackson was pulled over with crack cocaine in his car and arrested for possession. The judge took leniency on a first-time offender attending Portland State University on a Rotary Club scholarship, and Jackson spent sixteen months in Oregon’s Mill Creek and Santiam prisons. 1988 also marked the grisly murder of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant and student who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by three skinheads. The event is briefly mentioned, but superseded, proportionally, by the father, stepfather, and girlfriend of Jackson’s “cousin-friend” getting gunned down in retaliation for an alleged robbery.

The calculations that Jackson, his family, and friends have made in order to navigate the consequences—both obvious and invisible—of expanding their worlds are where Survival Math gets its title. Moving back and forth through time, combining interviews of his subjects with first-person accounts from his own memory, Jackson’s book achieves the goal of taxonomizing the environment he grew up in. One of his earliest memories is his mother, a recovering addict, luring him to a motel with the promise of fast food burgers so that she could get high. Her first hit of crack was in 1985, the heyday. Tragically, outside of her relationship with Jackson and his siblings, addiction is her most consistent relationship—intense and long-lasting when compared with the men in her life. Jackson dubs his account of her addiction “Matrimony.”

Lacking a steady father figure, he forms a “Composite Pops” from the many men who contributed to the various points in his development. Some, like his high school guidance counselor Dixon, encouraged him to apply for an academic scholarship rather than hinge his hopes on a Division 1 basketball. Others, like his biological father Wesley, who Jackson never met until he was ten, cured his apprehension of swimming by sneaking up behind him and tossing him into a pool. (Lesson learned: “In troubled water…you best learn to swim, cause…I might not be moved to rescue.”) Though the vast majority of characters are filtered through Jackson’s commentary, it’d be misleading to describe the accounts as “his.” Instead, a revolving-door chorus of networks and influences intersect at different points of his life, coloring his perspective and outlook. He isn’t the subject so much as a byproduct of the world he describes.

By placing his own story within a longer historical lineage, Jackson has gone to great effort crafting a universal black narrative. “When I say ‘us,’ whom do you take it to mean?” he asks in his letter to Lopius. Yet unlike Lopius, or York, or Vanderpool, Jackson’s story doesn’t end as a statistic. In addition to the Gaines Award, Jackson’s first book was a finalist for several others. He’s won a Whiting Award; he’s done a TED talk. Though he notes that the vast majority of Portland’s black residents now live past 82nd Avenue, in an area called The Numbers, and that the Northeast Portland of his youth is now thoroughly gentrified, white, and “weird”—a designation “so tacit, charge all those that ain’t them with translation”—his prologue reads like a motion to dismiss his case for lack of evidence. Divorced of the simplistic score-keeping governing American racial politics, the question he raises—how much personal responsibility or environmental factors affect the plights of human beings—takes on an almost anthropological skepticism. Every marker of systemic oppression is offset by more personal, individual cruelties. Fortunately, the porous line between what one inflicts and what’s been inflicted is intentional. After all, it isn’t the beat-down-by-whites element of Lopius’s story that Jackson relates to. It’s the emaciated striver taking a humongous risk to transcend his condition. Decisions made against one’s better judgment are a recurring theme of the book. Jackson didn’t need to sell drugs, any more than he needed to accompany a friend to his apartment to clean up paraphernalia. But he did, and almost got arrested again on the eve of starting his MFA at NYU.

What differentiates Survival Math from that most common and banal of black narratives—the perseverance chronicle—is that Jackson doesn’t present himself as apart. He’s a willing-but-reluctant participant rather than a victim. In a heartbreaking section called “The Scale,” Jackson recounts his serial philandering and the impact it had on the women in his life. He reaches out to a handful of exes for interviews—indictments, really. A majority don’t respond, or demur. The women that do, while acknowledging his capacity for change, read him the riot act. More damning than the accounts of Jackson’s cruelty and selfishness in his youth are the similarities of the women he hurt. All of them have abusive or absentee fathers, or harbor self-esteem issues. Continuities like these establish an atmosphere and sense of place beyond the physical. It was Jackson’s striving for an existence beyond their narrow confines that made him alluring. Did he take advantage? Regardless of whether or not he “knew better,” it’s impossible for him to shirk the consequences. All the times he cheated on his daughter’s mother are baked into their relationship. At a brunch outing in Atlanta, he’s unable to understand his daughter’s distance, and reacts angrily. As though speaking of a past that predates her, she yells “What about what you do” through tears.

But perhaps the most compelling cadre of voices may be the “Survivor Files.” These are portraits, literally and figuratively—a recurring series of black-and-white photographs followed by the corresponding subjects’ close calls. A hot-headed man begs for his life when another, whose life he spared at the behest of a high school friend, pulls up on him with his daughter in the car at a grocery store. Another gets in an altercation, chalks up a stab wound as a “surface cut” on the account of being uninsured and an arrest record, and survives an emergency surgery after losing two pints of blood and his heart stopping. Still another finishes a 204-month sentence, finds out he’s been remanded to civil commitment, and, on the strength of testimony from family, clergy, and his CO, beats his case. Jackson situates these accounts in second-person, the you’s accumulating, then refracting in exhilarating and inquisitive ways. The form reads as a call for eradicating barriers, and asks for a degree of empathy rarely experienced, one that encompasses an entire humanity—flaws and all. How many people in cities throughout the US are escaping incarceration, abuse, or death by the skin of their teeth? And when Jackson says “you,” whom do you take it to mean?

J. Howard Rosier is an Emerging Critics Fellow with the National Book Critics Circle.