‘NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks with author Mitchell Jackson about his second book, Survival Math, which details the calculations he made to survive as a young black man growing up in Portland, Ore.’
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: 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.