In his forthcoming book, Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City, bestselling, critically acclaimed author Wes Moore explores the aftermath of Freddy Gray’s death in 2015, following his arrest in West Baltimore. And in a stirring keynote to open the 2020 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, Moore told librarians that it wasn’t so much Gray’s death he found so tragic, but his life.
“The truth is, we were all talking about the death of Freddy Gray, and it’s heartbreaking,” Moore said. “But do you know what was even more heartbreaking? His life. The life that he was forced to live because of a dire and entrenched poverty. The most heartbreaking thing about Freddie Gray was that the week that he was sitting in a coma was probably his most peaceful week on this planet.”
Moore read a short passage from the book outlining the life of Gray, who suffered a traumatic neck injury and went into a coma shortly after being arrested in April of 2015, and whose death a week later sparked days of unrest in the city of Baltimore.
Gray was born prematurely in 1989 to a young mother who had never gone to high school, could not read or write, and was struggling with heroin, Moore explained. Gray and his twin sister spent their first months in the hospital, before going home to a West Baltimore housing project.
Months later, they moved to a home that would eventually, in 2008, become part of a class action suit for endemic levels of lead. Gray lived in that home until he was six years old, and the elevated levels of lead in his blood caused massive brain injuries. In school, he was placed in special education because of the poisoning, and was effectively “driven out of the classroom.” He then migrated to the corners, getting into the drug trade. Gray's last day of attendance in school was marked in 2008—he was 18, and in 10th grade.
In 2009, Gray went to prison for a drug offense. In 2011, he was paroled, and was back on the corners. In 2013, Gray's half brother was gunned down. And, in April of 2015, Gray suffered a fatal injury while in police custody. And while the media followed the story of Gray's death in police custody, and the uprising that followed in Baltimore, Americans have largely overlooked the real story, Moore stressed.
“This young man never had a chance,” Moore told librarians. “This story is not about Baltimore. This story is not about policing. This story is about poverty. This story is about a deep and entrenched poverty. This story is about the fact that we long ago made a deal, a devil’s deal, about how much poverty we will tolerate in our society. About how much pain we will allow others to endure. About how much trauma we will allow our neighbors to feel. About who gets a shot, and who doesn’t… How much pain are we willing to tolerate when we know we don’t have to? When we know we’re better than that?”
This is not Moore’s first book exploring social and economic justice—in fact, he noted in his talk, it was five years to the day after his acclaimed 2010 book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name and Two Fates—A Story of Tragedy and Hope was published, Moore found himself sitting in a pew at Freddy Gray’s funeral. In the Other Wes Moore, Moore explored how he—raised by a single mother and with his own disciplinary challenges as a kid—wound up in a newspaper article celebrating his Rhodes scholarship at the same time another young Wes Moore in Baltimore was in the news for his role in a botched robbery that led to the murder of security guard, and a prison sentence.
“We now find ourselves having conversations about the future of our nation, what kind of things we should be caring about, what kind of things we should be voting on, what are our issues,” he said. “And I cannot think of an issue that has a greater level of permanence, and frankly a greater level of dysfunction, than the way we think about economic inequality and poverty in our society. Whether it is urban poverty, or rural poverty, or suburban poverty, poverty and the pain and trauma that is attached to it is real and we see its causes and its consequences every single day.”
Moore told librarians why he was happy to speak about his new book for the first time to librarians.
"There’s no one who understands better than you about where people are, about what people need, and about how exactly we address the fact that there’s so many people out there screaming and yet still feel unheard," Moore said. "That’s you. That’s your power. Your job, your responsibility is to speak for those who often need and deserve a champion. Your job and responsibility is to make sure that information and knowledge is open access, that information and knowledge is not miserly and randomly distributed... You are the community organizers. You are the community uplifters. You are the one to understand what can bring a child from one place to another. Take a family from them from one place to another."
Moore mused on how his life easily could have turned out very differently. And he thanked librarians for being among those who helped him "understand that the world was bigger than what was directly in front of me" and for providing him "a pathway" to a better life.
"You provide places of freedom," Moore said. "When people ask what you do, the answer is you provide freedom. You provide a space, mental and otherwise, for people to be free. And you do it in a way that our society needs right now."
Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City is due out in April from Penguin Random House.
The ALA Midwinter Meeting runs through Tuesday, January 28.