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Survival Math

Notes on an All-American Family



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About The Book


An electrifying, dazzlingly written reckoning and an essential addition to the national conversation about race and class, Survival Math takes its name from the calculations award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson made to survive the Portland, Oregon of his youth.

This dynamic book explores gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, masculinity, composite fathers, the concept of “hustle,” and the destructive power of addiction—all framed within the story of Jackson, his family, and his community. Lauded for its breathtaking pace, its tender portrayals, its stark candor, and its luminous style, Survival Math reveals on every page the searching intellect and originality of its author. The primary narrative, focused on understanding the antecedents of Jackson’s family’s experience, is complemented by poems composed from historical American documents as well as survivor files, which feature photographs and riveting short narratives of several of Jackson’s male relatives. The sum of Survival Math’s parts is a highly original whole, one that reflects on the exigencies—over generations—that have shaped the lives of so many disenfranchised Americans. As essential as it is beautiful, as real as it is artful, Mitchell S. Jackson’s nonfiction debut is a singular achievement, not to be missed.


Survival Math EXODUS
My exodus occurs after years wandering the wilderness of my hometown, the crucible that included working a part-time, and only-time, gig at the Oregonian’s downtown insert facility stacking pallet after pallet of inky-ass newspapers. For bread to live. For bread to leave. The day in question, I got a phone call from someone who, for the love (and just maybe his liberty), I’ll call Brother A. Brother A called me to plead a ride to his apartment in the burbs to sweep for dope after his dope-dealing roommate, a dude who’d already done a nickel in the pen on a drug charge (which, by the way, is not judgment, but context), had just got knocked by the Feds. Brother A explained he needed the ride because his main squeeze had wrecked his Jeep, and he couldn’t think of anyone more fitting than me, of all people on God’s verdant earth, me, to be the one to shuttle him.

Heeeeeelllll no! That should have been my answer. But that was not my answer. My answer tugged me out of my job at the end of my shift and into the forest-evergreen Lexus I’d bought in the bygone unblessed days when I sold more than weed. It sent me bolting out of my job and into my ride to swoop Brother A from someplace close and hit Highway 26 with most dubious sense.

Guessing now is as good a time as ever to mention that this was the age during which I might’ve been selling weed—twenty sacks, eighths, half and whole zips, and in the most blessed of times, half and whole pounds. Selling chronic, stacking newspapers, and throwing parties because evermore this brother, a brother, every brother should diversify his hustle. No mights or maybes to that.

Memories from that age, hypothetical and otherwise, seldom feature date stamps, but I can assure you this incident occurred May 2002 AD, which I know for truth because one of my homeboys and me had just thrown a well-attended Memorial Day shindig, and between my cut of the door and profits from the weed I may have been selling, I had a knot of bills in my inky work jeans—which accounts for why at the time I was feeling at least extra medium about myself. Brother A and I traded lightweight banter en route, and before I knew it, we’d reached his apartment complex, grounds of such expanse, there was plenty of time for my pulse to cease between the moment I pulled into the lot and when I found a place to park my tree-colored ride. Can’t speak for Brother A, but in that interstice of arriving and stepping a wary foot out of my ride, I had visions of police swarming us from bushes and vans, seizing discomfited me, slamming my cheek against unforgiving asphalt, and KABLOWING! on cuffs.

We did not—word to Yahweh—get ambushed that moment. We hustled past a passel of blithe youngsters and mounted a flight and a flight and a flight of stairs and stood at the threshold of his apartment door (my heart athunder) and asked each other again and for the last time if we should enter, which, inhale, of course we did.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

No one was inside. Good sense says I should’ve left Brother A to brave his fate alone but instead I sat on the living room couch while he proceeded to sweep his roommate’s room and the hall closets and every place else he could think to look. He didn’t find any meth, but he did find cooking supplies and utensils, which he took straight to the kitchen to scrub and scour. Meanwhile, I sat on the living room couch doing my best impression of ecclesiastical calm.

“Man, I can’t believe we was so spooked,” I said.

“Yeah, we silly,” he said. “Like the police worried about us.”

He paused and motioned at me. “Shit, I almost forgot. Come check this out.” This is when Brother A led me to his bedroom, pulled a pound of weed from a stash spot, and flaunted a sample. “This some killer,” he said. “Smell it.” What may or may not have happened next now seems like an act of intercession bestowed by my great-grandmama or some other churchgoing kin. That act, amen, was using my shirt to grab the plastic bag and inspect a few fluffy, sticky, fragrant stems. I put the weed back and mentioned how fast it would sell and may or may not have asked him if he could cop for me.

He and I strolled back into the living room—me to the couch and Brother A back to washing possible evidence down the drain. Seconds later I heard footsteps on the stairs. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Heard them and said to myself, Here come those kids. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Thought to myself, Wow, them some heavy-footed-ass kids. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Mused, Boy, there must be more kids than I thought. That’s when Brother A hustled over to the peephole, said, “Oh, shit! POLICE!” and broke for his bedroom.

Before I could move, a mob of police, sheriff, and DEA bum-rushed into Brother A’s crib. “Get on the ground! Get on the ground now! Keep your hands where we can see them! Get down! Get down!”

Oh. My. God! I thought, and dropped to my knees then prostrate.

Brother A darted into the living room and ranted, “Let me see your warrant. Let me see your warrant,” and in an instant, they spun him face to wall and cuffed him. One officer jerked me off the carpet and asked if I was carrying drugs, if I had anything in my pockets that might cut or poke him. No, I said. And he emptied my pockets, beheld my cell phone and pager and the knot of cash—most of which, let me remind you, I’d made from my Memorial Day shindig and some of which I may or may not have made from serving fat sacks of chronic. More officers appeared, one of them tugging a stout German shepherd. That same officer informed me that if the dog hit on anything from my pockets, he’d confiscate it.

He let his canine loose. It sniffed my wrinkled wad of bills and barked.

Ain’t that a bitch! I thought.

The next moment, an officer bopped into the apartment carrying a bag of weed that could’ve been a motherfucking facsimile of the one Brother A may or may not have flaunted to me thrumming pulses ago. The officer announced he’d found it in a sprinkler outside, asked which one of us it belonged to, and Brother A and me bucked our eyes at each other and damn near shook our heads off our necks. “Huh, what’s that? We ain’t never seen that in life!” we said.

He crooked his lip and warned if he found either of our fingerprints on the bag he’d charge us.

The officer who searched me marched me into a bedroom and ordered me ass to floor and back to wall while he stood.

He asked me if I knew Brother A’s roommate.

“Yes,” I said. “Don’t know him well, more like ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye,’ but yes,” I said. “I met him.”

He asked if I knew Brother A’s roommate sold dope.

“Wow, he did?!” I said. “I had no idea.”

He asked if I’d ever been to jail or prison.

“Um, uh—Yes,” I said. “One time. Just the one time, though.”

He asked me what I’d gone to jail for.

“Um, uh, um, uh, um—for selling drugs,” I said, and the rest fell out my mouth: “But it’s not what you think. I don’t do it anymore, Officer. I’m going to be a writer. Officer, you got to believe me. I’m moving to New York in a few months for grad school. This looks bad, Officer, but it’s not how it looks. My word, Officer. Just a few months till I leave,” I said. “Please, Officer, please. You’ve got to let me go!”

“Let my people go,” Moses and Aaron told the pharaoh of Egypt at the advent of history’s most famous exodus. The Hebrew name for Egypt, where Moses’s people began their journey, is Mitzrayim. For Jews, Mitzrayim denotes a place, but it also describes a liberation from psychological limits, the emotional journeys that one experiences all life long. My Mitzrayim demanded envisioning a world beyond one that in many ways had been circumscribed; it required believing I could thrive outside where I was born.

The west exodus of my tribe—the Jacksons—began in the 1950s, in the Mitzrayim that was Montgomery, Alabama. It could begin with my great-grandparents—Edith “Mama Edie” Larkin Jackson and Samuel “Bubba” Andrew Jackson Sr.—at a mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the couple among dozens of spirited negroes filling the hard wooden pews of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. My great-grandmama styling in a floral-print knee-length dress and cat-eye specs, and my great-grandaddy decked out in a dark worsted-wool suit and wing-tips polished reflective. Picture the whole room hand in hand and swaying as they sing, “Gooooo down, Moses / Waaaay down in Egypt’s land / Tell old Pharaoh / Let my people gooooo.” The room raises its voice till it shakes the stained-glass windows, then falls hush as MLK, the disciple, prophet, future martyr (go ahead, choose) of an age takes the pulpit in one of his tailored blue suits and a skinny tie and sermonizes on the plans of a Montgomery Transit Authority boycott that, in the days of the Old Testament, might’ve summoned thunder and lightning. In that meeting or one not too long after, MLK asks for volunteers to carpool members of the boycott and Mama Edie nudges Bubba to raise his hand.

Per familial lore, Mama Edie’s mama, Carrie Larkin AKA my great-great-grandmother, was a Montgomery bootlegger par excellence, a savvy woman who invested her ample profits in square miles of terra firma and a restaurant. My great-great-grandmother bore her husband eight children—four girls and four boys—and of that brood, my great-grandmother Edith “Edie” Larkin was the third girl, born in 1916. Edie was beautiful and smart and the daughter most liable to test the house rules. Mama Edie’s enterprising mother paid her way through what was then Alabama State College—she did the same for all her daughters. Mama Edie, like every one of her sisters, became a schoolteacher and lived a comfortable life for the time and place thanks to what seemed like inexhaustible deals. They sold tract after tract of family land and divvied up the dividends among their tribe.

Unlike the Larkins, the Jacksons were not a tribe of wealth. My great-grandfather Samuel “Bubba” Andrew Jackson Sr. was born in 1908 in Ada, Alabama, a place so small they call it an unincorporated community of Montgomery County. Bubba was the second to the youngest of his parents’ brood of four, and despite being ambitious and hardworking and smart with a miraculous recall for dates, times, and facts, he was forced, like many of his time, to cease his formal schooling before he reached high school. Young Bubba married his first wife, Lillian Dora Arrington, sired his lone biological son, Samuel Andrew Jackson Jr.—my grandfather—and supported his wife and baby boy by running a shoe shop and selling Watkins products door-to-door. Bubba’s first wife died of a food-related illness a few years into their marriage, and he met Mama Edie soon after, married for the second time in 1942, and moved to a trailer on Larkin land in a part of town known as the Prairie.

The English word exodus is derived from the Greek ex, which means “out,” and hodos, meaning “way”—the way out. A year or so before MLK moved from Montgomery to Atlanta and became assistant pastor to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mama Edie and Bubba made their way out of Alabama to a land that, if not one of milk and honey, promised to be a place less bitter in their mouths. Their migration to Portland began, so one story goes, in the summer of ’58 or ’59. Mama Edie flew to Portland to visit her sister-in-law and felt so passionate about the city that she phoned Bubba and persuaded him to pack their things and move. Per another story, Mama Edie moved out to Portland with the express intent of helping to integrate the Portland Public Schools, a district that announced soon after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that it would “take no action regarding segregation,” despite blacks being relegated almost exclusively to the underfunded and subpar schools in the Albina district. In my mind, the true catalyst for my great-grandparents’ migration was somewhere between the stories of love for a new city and wanting to transform it.

In addition to those stories, these facts: Mama Edie and Bubba moved into a house on North Missouri Ave in the Albina district. My activist and missionary-minded great-grandmother got a job teaching at Boise-Eliot Elementary School, a position that began her long career as a beloved Portland teacher. In the City of Roses, Bubba earned his living first as a shoe repairman and, until retirement, as a hospital custodian. In 1960, not too long after they moved to their promised land, they persuaded Sam Jackson Jr., the biological son Bubba fathered by his first wife, to move from Alabama with his wife and four young children—Sam III, George, Anthony, and my mother, Lillie. Meanwhile my great-grands lived sans significant marital quarrels and as loving and supportive friends in plural. They also became active members of St. Andrew Catholic Church and continued their political activism. If there was an asterisk to their marriage, it was the fact that they couldn’t conceive a child, an issue they addressed by adopting three children between the late 1950s and the 1960s: Ezekiel and Essie as toddlers and later a grade-school-aged boy named John. Mama Edie and Bubba’s adopted children were raised with my mother and her brothers as siblings, as they were close in age and all lived at times under the same roof.

In the summer of 1975, my mother bore Mama Edie and Bubba their first great-grandchild: me. The pair were out of town that August I was born, attending to Mama Edie’s niece who had a baby due a month before me. My great-grands traveled back to Portland in September and my mother resumed, with me this time, living with them in a white house the size of a small palace that stands on the corner of Sixth and Mason.

The House on Sixth Avenue.


Let me tell you about the old cherry tree in the front yard of that home, whose stingy yield we’d pluck before it ripened, about the plum and pear trees and blackberry bushes in the backyard, about the garden that Mama Edie tended with love. A hex-web fence surrounded the whole yard, and I’d get scolded for playing on it. If Mama Edie, the family’s most austere disciplinarian, chided me more than a few times (which most times meant any more than once), I was commanded to fetch a switch, and if I returned with one too flimsy, I’d be sent for another ad infinitum.

Most folks entered our home through the thick wooden door inset with a large oval glass draped by thin red curtains, an entrance that opened onto a living room with embroidered green couches wrapped in hard plastic and a glass-top coffee table encasing ruby-handled swords. My great-grands had bedazzled the dining room with a chandelier made of a billion oblong crystals and a veneered table that could seat the Last Supper, not to mention a paradise of potted plants lining the window ledges. The kitchen was pasted with a pattern of pots and pans—wallpaper that bubbled in spots and peeled away from the moldings—and some mornings I’d open the kitchen cabinet to search for cornflakes and see a mouse skittering out of sight or else a trail of tiny rodent turds. Mama Edie hobbied on the piano and kept a scratched black upright in a nook that was also decked with earth-toned tweed couches. My great-grands kept their bedroom door locked, but some nights they’d let me inside to sprawl across the bed while Bubba sat in a cracked leather recliner watching the news on an itty-bitty black-and-white TV. Mama Edie kept kiwis, pomegranates, mangoes, and other “special” fruits on her bedroom windowsill, and on the rarest occasions would award one of us kids with a half or whole for minding her commandments. In the mid-eighties—after Mama Edie beat breast cancer but suffered a stroke that paralyzed half her body—she slept in the downstairs room just off the curtained front door of the house. Beaucoup times, I’d tramp past her room, which often smelled of Vicks VapoRub, and she’d beckon me to find her wig or prosthetic breast or to help her into her wheelchair. One night a bullet sang through the window in that room but didn’t shatter it, which was the kind of grace I imagined in abundance among the flock who worshipped in the church behind the house.

Weekday evenings or weekend mornings or afternoons, members of the Full Gospel Temple of Prayer Church Inc. would clang cymbals and tambourines, pound drums, smash organ keys; would sing and shout praise that bullied its way through our walls, that might’ve floated all the way to Bethlehem. Us Jacksons never attended that church. On the other hand, Mama Edie obliged us all to attend Sunday mass. Every. Sunday. And on top of that, whenever the spirit moved her, our matriarch would roam into all the rooms and demand we—Bubba, my mama, an aunt, uncle, cousin, visiting friend—grab our Bibles and haste into the living room, her very own tent of meeting. Once everyone showed, we’d sing from a selected catalog of spirituals: “We Are Soldiers,” “Amazing Grace,” “Goin’ Up Yonder,” “Jesus Is on the Main Line,” “Soon and Very Soon,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Because He Lives.” We’d read a Bible verse, and when we finished, Mama Edie would ask us to explain it. She’d request us to choose another verse and read and interpret that too. Near the end of devotion, we’d circle, take up hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer. She’d end by asking us one by one what we were thankful for. And we best be able to give thanks.

My great-grandmother, God rest her soul, would sound a trumpet from heaven for me to fetch the thickest switch on earth if she got wind I’d read word one of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, the philippic in which he claims, among other faults of the Christians, that they had weakened the concept of God when they recast the Hebrews’ God of Israel into the “god of every man” and “god of a people,” into a deity he described as the “good god,” as “goodness-in-itself.” Nietzsche argues that there is only one way to conceive of a powerful God and that is as the God of a nation, a national God. My great-grands had been taught to believe in that everyman’s God, a God who, in due time, would bless the oppressed, the weak, the unfortunate—their people. That teaching was a product of being born in and near the first capital of the Confederacy during what historian Rayford Logan has termed “the nadir of American race relations,” the infamous era of American history between the end of Reconstruction and the early twentieth century when racism was worse than any time in post–Civil War America.

How could my great-grands disbelieve in a personal God when they were descendants of Africans who’d been enslaved by Europeans who, as part of willing themselves into a white race, indoctrinated masses of blacks to love and obey a private God, to abide unjust suffering, to weather what seemed an interminable wait for Thy Kingdom Come, and to bequeath that doctrine to their seeds. But as Nietzsche argues, “when a nation is on the downward path, when it feels its belief in its own future, its hope of freedom slipping from it, when it begins to see submission as a first necessity and the virtues of submission as measures of self-preservation, then it must overhaul its god.” Sometime between Lincoln’s symbolic proclamation and the epic battle for civil rights, the people I call my people began to remake their God into a national God that would anoint their quest for liberation. Sometime in those years between winning legal freedom and claiming actual freedoms, black folks transformed themselves—in no small part by forging lives for themselves outside of the South—into as much of a nation as they have ever been (it seems sometimes into as much of one as they may ever be) in the Other America, what has been an Egypt, our Mitzrayim.

In the Torah, and in the great good book Mama Edie and Bubba commanded we cherish, heed, and love, God sent word through Moses for the pharaoh to release his chosen people from Egypt. But here’s a confession: I’ve always had trouble conceding that any one group is God’s chosen. The forever blathering critic in me, against ample data otherwise, must believe my God, your God, a God bestows egalitarian love, wouldn’t give preference to one righteous person over another, one righteous people over another. And while I’m convinced of the sublime power in a person believing their future destined, in a people believing its fortune ordained, in some ways, seeing the impetus for change as outside oneself works to thwart the force needed to mobilize, to sustain the long pursuit of becoming a nation worthy of a revised God’s blessings. Because of this, a people—which of course means each person—must translate, “Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go,” into “Let us go!” They must at some point look no further than themselves for license to prosper, must believe that the true chosen ones are the righteous that choose themselves.

It might sound highfalutin, but “Let us go!” goaded my great-grands to Portland, grandparents too. It’s the mantra of a people who subscribe to the belief that to escape the rule of a pharaoh, they must demand of the known world the wealth heretofore usurped from them. It’s a chorus for those who profess their destiny as manifest. “Let us go!” fuels all great exoduses, by which I mean journeys that beget for a people chances to thrive, guarantees of justice, a home.

And what people would seek nationhood that fell short of those terms?

Five troubling months after the ordeal with Brother A that ended in my near arrest and me pleading with an officer to “let me go,” I boarded a one-way flight for New York and spent hours up, up and wondering what would become of me in this new land. The wheels of our plane burned the runway at JFK, and a pilot announced, “Welcome to New York,” along with the local time. I struggled up the jet bridge, a bulging duffel tilting me one-sided, and into the brightness of the terminal. This is it! You’re here, I thought, and dodged through teeming walkways to baggage claim, where I grabbed one of those carts for people who overpack and tarried for luggage overstuffed with my life to swing into view. Steps from me, a gaggle of suited dudes displayed signs for passenger pickups. On the periphery, cliques of camouflaged guards stood with their rifles pointed hellward. Another officer sported a bulletproof vest over his uniform while clutching the leash of a Belgian shepherd. Outside, a new world. Outside, I felt sticky-damp heat of a kind I hadn’t felt in life and followed the signs for taxis past desperate-looking drivers accosting me for a fare. Purgatorial—the time it took for me to reach the front of the winding line waiting for yellow cabs, for an attendant to ask where I was headed, and for me to answer “Manhattan,” because I didn’t yet know it’s called the City. The attendant pointed to a cabbie who also might’ve hailed from elsewhere.

The cabbie wound out of the airport and onto the expressway and soon he was weaving through traffic at a speed that could wreck us into our afterlives. Still, I lowered my window anyhow, to feel the wind on my face, to read the signs blurring by, to witness as much of this genesis as I could. We drove Atlantic Ave and Flatbush Ave and over a bridge I’d soon learn is the Manhattan. We wheeled onto Canal Street, where hordes milled the sidewalks and traffic stuttered like I’d seldom seen, where at a light, a dude waded between bumpers and demoed an electric bubble gun. My driver motored up Avenue of the Americas in a derby of drivers and turned on West Third and again on MacDougal Street, and in a twinkling, we reached what would be my new home. The cabbie pulled curbside, and I hefted my luggage out of his trunk—heavy as a deconstructed tent of meeting—and carried it piece by piece up steep concrete steps. Then I buzzed the number I’d been given by my future roommate, turned my back to the threshold, and waited—looking off one way, looking off the other. If it were a parable, the perch would be a mountaintop, a summit from which thine eyes witnessed the glory of the second coming, and though it sure enough wasn’t one, I was thankful that from this stoop in a land unpromised, I sensed the advent of another Mitzrayim, the boon of a chance to become.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Survival Math includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


“What’s the toughest thing you’ve survived?” author Mitchell S. Jackson asks his male family members. This is the framework around a collection of essays, both personal and topical, that dive into questions of race, class, masculinity, what a father is, and more. With Mitchell S. Jackson’s personal narrative providing intricate details to these stories, he reckons with the legacy of his family and his country. Survival Math takes its name from the calculations he made to survive the Portland, Oregon of his youth, including gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, composite fathers, “hustle,” and the destructive power of addiction.

The primary narrative, focused on understanding the antecedents of Jackson’s family’s experience, is complemented by poems composed from historical American documents as well as survivor files, which feature photographs and riveting short narratives of several of Jackson’s male relatives. Part memoir, part social examination, Survival Math is unique in its structure and presents challenging questions in brilliant prose.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. After reading “Composite Pops” and “Matrimony” discuss what you think young Mitchell’s relationship to his mother is like.

2. After your book club does research on the history of Portland (see Enhance Your Book Club 1), reflect back on the Prologue. What makes more sense to you with the context of the history of Portland?

3. Identify the documents used as source texts for each of the centos. How do the documents speak to the question posed at the beginning of each poem? How does each poem contextualize the preceding section of essays?

4. The essay “Apples” begins on page 67. How do you understand this metaphor in your own words? Relate Jackson’s definition of apples to the supreme court confirmation hearings of justice Brett Kavanaugh, and in particular, to the women senators who cast affirmative votes for him.

5. On page 114, Mitchell makes the following statement: “I never had anyone in my life to tell me this is what a man is. This is what you should look for in a man. This is how a man should treat you.” And on page 119, in statement Three, Mitchell’s former lover says of her own dad “I think a lot of the stuff that he did to us was because he couldn’t do what a man was supposed to do.” How does a man in modern day America construct his masculinity? From the perspective of the first half of Survival Math, what does masculinity mean?

6. Discuss the chapter that begins on page 161, “American Blood.” Paraphrase Jackson’s definition of American Blood. How does this idea relate to the crisis of Mexican and Latinx immigration?

7. On page 184, Jackson makes this statement: “The White-Slave Act has been less about the protection of sex workers, or women’s suffrage, or even feminism than it’s been about punishing the men who compel those women.” Look into the history of the White-Slave Act, and decide how you align with that statement.

8. In the chapter “The Scale” Mitchell makes use of “math” or formulas several times. Find those instances and discuss how they work in the structure of the essay.

9. In “The Pose” Mitchell goes into detail about the practice of sex work in his family and larger community. He’s very open about his connection to the trade and his treatment of women. What does this do for you as the reader? Have you read other memoirists that are this vulnerable?

10. After you’ve read the epilogue, discuss how you see the reflections of who Mitchell is now in this essay. How has he changed in the lifetime he’s shown you in these pages? What does being a father mean to him?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. As you’re reading this book, research the history of Portland. Assign book club members to come with information about its founding, its socioeconomics over the past 100 years, and the diversity of the city from founding to present day.

2. As a group, watch Mitchell S. Jackson’s TED Talk “Should ‘blackness’ exist?” What do you think of the stories he tells here? How do the statistics land with your group?

3. During your final meeting, ask everyone in your book club to reflect on which essay in this collection was the most challenging to read for them and why.

4. Read the Survivor Files and examine the accompanying photographs. Then ask yourself, which portrait belongs to a particular story? What is it that you see in the photograph that informs that decision? Why might you hold those perspectives?

About The Author

Photograph by John Ricard

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His honors include a Whiting Award and fellowships from the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, PEN, NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts), and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and elsewhere. The author of Survival Math, he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 5, 2019)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501131707

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Raves and Reviews

"This memoir takes readers inside a side of Portland, Ore., not frequently written about, and the calculations Jackson made to survive."
The San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 things to read, watch or hear to increase racial awareness

"Jackson grew up in one of the whitest cities in America, and his memoir explores the forces that have shaped his life. Inside you’ll find photographs, short narrative interviews, and poems composed of historical documents—all stories that speak to the expression of masculinity in Jackson’s community. He grapples with ideas about fatherhood, of how gangs and guns warp people’s lives, and so much more—always echoing just how complex the intersection of race and class is in America."
Esquire, the Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

"In his nonfiction debut, award-winning novelist Mitchell S. Jackson explains what it’s like to grow up black in one of the whitest cities in the country: Portland, Ore. Jackson’s brutally honest memoir delves into his own past — ruminating on his mother’s drug addiction — alongside the histories of the men who came before him. Jackson places his experiences with violence, crime and trauma in a broader context through photographs and stories of his male relatives, illuminating the true costs of survival in the U.S."
Time, The Ten Best Nonfiction Books of 2019 So Far

"A model of autobiographical writing that demonstrates how reportage and critical attention to the complexities of black life – in its intersectional textures – can be the source for an inimitable memoir…Jackson writes with a keen attentiveness to the social contexts shaping the lives of his family, offering nuanced depictions that upend the stereotypes that often cage us in…Jackson characterizes neither his people nor himself as perfect, but at the same time he refuses to treat them as disposable. He exposes their inner lives, then approaches them with radical love. And to love, as Jackson seems to understand, is to avoid lying. So he grapples honestly…One of the most striking facets of Jackson’s book is the way he bares himself…His book is a testament that revision is not only possible but necessary…Survival Math makes it clear that blackness is never a deficit. And yet as Jackson reminds us, even those of us who are black men must be certain not to rely on a computational system, steeped in anti-black racist patriarchy, to save ourselves while harming others.”
New York Times Book Review

“A shattering memoir of [Jackson's] mother's love affair with drugs and his own struggle to reconcile the forces of racism, toxic masculinity, the lure of the hustle, and the 'composite Pops' who helped raise him."
O, the Oprah Magazine

“[A] vibrant memoir of race, violence, family, and manhood…Jackson recognizes there is too much for one conventional form, and his various storytelling methods imbue the book with an unpredictable dexterity. It is sharp and unshrinking in depictions of his life, his relatives (blood kin and otherwise), and his Pacific Northwest hometown, which serves as both inescapable character and villain…It’s Jackson’s history, but it’s also a microcosm of too many black men struggling both against their worst instincts, and a society that often leaves them with too few alternatives…His virtuosic wail of a book reminds us that for a black person in America, it can never be that easy.”
Boston Globe

“The sum of Survival Math’s parts is a highly original whole, one that reflects on the exigencies—over generations—that have shaped the lives of so many disenfranchised Americans.”
Paste, Best Books of March 2019

“Jackson tells the story of his family ... with radical love and honesty."
New York Times, Editors' Choice

“A vulnerable, sobering look at Jackson’s life and beyond, in all its tragedies, burdens and faults…Jackson dissects the darker realities of his hometown [and] his explorations feel strikingly unguarded.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Gripping and harsh and full of passion and heart."
Tampa Bay Times

“An expansive chronicle as much as his own personal story…Jackson’s work is comprehensive and analytical, rather than inwardly focused, covering topics as wide-ranging as human trafficking laws and parenting….He submits his own story to the harshest scrutiny, revealing his own failings as much as those of the nation that allows this kind of disparity and poverty. Jackson’s work often juxtaposes the tenets of history or philosophy against the grim reality of his own life; in this dichotomy, he exposes the reality of a rigged system ... Survival Math is remarkably direct and poignant when the author focuses on the intimacies of his own deepest betrayals and hopes.”
USA Today

"Staggeringly smart ... This book is a vivid and artful exploration of race and legacy in the United States, told in a poetic and piercing voice unlike anything else in the literary world right now."
Portland Monthly

“A timely narrative centered around what it takes to survive in America.”

“While never shirking from the various harms his family members inflict on themselves and each other, Jackson consistently writes about them, and truly all the people we encounter, from a place of grace…One of the book's many treasures is Jackson's attentiveness to providing historical context for the forces shaping his family and the place they call home…Jackson's searing intelligence is on full display throughout the work, but it is particularly notable when he takes on the problems of gentrification, white supremacy, and corporations that gain their wealth off the bodies of the poor. Equally striking is the author's unflinching commitment to turn his critical eye inward…a spellbinding narrative.”

“A vulnerable, sobering look at Jackson’s life and beyond, in all its tragedies, burdens and faults…Jackson dissects the darker realities of his hometown [and] his explorations feel strikingly unguarded.”
San Francisco Chronicle

"Exuberant maximalism is [Jackson's] mode ... The detours recall the hectic narrative nonfiction of the '90s and early aughts, by writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace."
The New York Times

"[Survival Math is] dense and rich, alternately blunt and tender, with references that run the gamut from Snoop Dogg to Adam Smith ... in recalling his own struggle, what Jackson has created is a monument to the marginalized—and it's every bit as harrowing and beautiful as its architect's life."
Willamette Week

“In prose that is both poetic and brutally honest, Jackson [explores] his family's story as a lens into the history of his community. Themes like fatherhood, addiction, sex work, national pride, prison, race and violence against women can feel broad and universal, and Jackson expertly grounds these experiences within America's legacy, via the inclusion of thoroughly-researched historical and religious references. And yet Survival Math is also deeply personal…Jackson powerfully disrupts various binaries, showing how academic scholarship and accessible writing can merge, how empathy and accountability can overlap, how self and social critique are interconnected.”

“An extensively researched and illuminating look at the city of his childhood, at turns hopeful and heartbreaking.”
Buzfeed, Best Books of 2019

“In a bumper year for Portland lit—see the soiled and luminous tales of Kimberly King Parsons’s Black Light and the inventive magic of Karen Russell’s Orange World—Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math broke new ground with feverish ambition. Yes, his ego pulses through it, and yes, that’s kinda the point, even if it occasionally trammels the tale. But for all of its scholarly density, this lyrical deep dive into contemporary black male experience is an urgent, erudite read.”
Portland Monthly, "2019's Best Oregon-Born Culture"

“Beyond his own past, Jackson juxtaposes his history with those of his male relatives to illustrate the hardships of class and race on a generational level, creating a timely narrative centered around what it takes to survive in America.”
Time, 11 New Books to Read this March

"Jackson, the author of the novel The Residue Years, writes about his own childhood in Portland, Ore., and the entrenched racism and economic inequality that shaped his community. Along the way, he interweaves poems and narratives from members of his family. As Jackson puts it in his author’s note, “Our stories of survival are inseparable from the ever-fraught history of America.”"
New York Times, 12 New Books to Watch for in March

"Jackson revisits his early years in a black Portland neighborhood, telling the stories of his struggling family members and analyzing the marginalizing cultural forces around them."
Entertaintment Weekly, 20 new books to read in March

"Vivid and unflinching ... Mitchell’s memoir in essays chronicles the struggles of friends and family with drugs, racism, violence, and hopelessness and puts a face on the cyclical nature of poverty."
Boston Globe, Most Anticipated Books of 2019

"An extensive and illuminating look at the city of [Jackson's] childhood, exploring issues like sex, violence, addiction, community, and the toll this takes on a person’s life.
Buzzfeed, Most Anticipated Books of 2019

“This is more than Jackson’s story, and as he traces his great-grandparents’ exodus from Alabama to Portland and the subsequent lives of his relatives…he captures the cyclical nature of poverty and neglect…The prose is a stunning mix of internal monologue and historical and religious references that he incorporates to tell his story…Thanks to Jackson’s fresh voice, this powerful autobiography shines an important light on the generational problems of America’s oft-forgotten urban communities.”
Publishers Weekly, starred

“A dynamic, impressive debut memoir from the Whiting Award-winning author of The Residue Years (2013)... A potent book that revels in the author's truthful experiences while maintaining the jagged-grain, keeping-it-a-100, natural storytelling that made The Residue Years a modern must-read.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred

“Award-winning novelist Jackson reclaims his history through an elegant memoir…one of rigorous self-examination, approaching his personal story with honesty and poetry…The result is an intimate portrayal of what makes us human…as much about a writer struggling to understand life’s jubilations, mistakes, and losses, as it is a chronicle of a black man’s place in America, appealing to fans of Kiese Laymon and Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
Library Journal, starred

“In the second-person vignettes scattered throughout Jackson’s latest work, close-call scenarios threaten both the lives and freedom of Jackson’s family members. After escaping death or incarceration, their frequent refrain is, ‘Praise God!’ Yet the sense one gets reading this portrait of an African American family is that, for many black Americans, livelihood rests on blind chance more than divine intervention … Product-of-my-environment stories are common; beyond his candid self-portrayal as a willing-but-reluctant participant, what makes Jackson’s take on this theme so compelling is his inquisitive and unflinching investigation of the conditions that shaped him.”|
Booklist, starred

This is a mesmerizing book, full of story, truth, pain, lyricism, humor, and astonishment: the stuff of a difficult life, fully lived, and masterfully transformed into art."
—Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and The Golden House

Relentlessly clear-eyed and virtuosic, Survival Math offers revelation after revelation; in the end, it remakes our understanding of the world and those in it."
—Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

“Survival Math is the best memoir I’ve read in ages. With honesty, insight, and a tremendous amount of heart, Mitchell S. Jackson takes us deep into the stories that made, ruined, and saved him. I had the feeling while reading it that I’d never read anything quite like it before. It’s intimate and wise; poignant and compassionate; redemptive and raw. You have to read this beautiful book.”
—Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

"Survival Math is a compassionate meditation on the human costs of this country's ongoing war on black lives, and--more importantly--the methods we employ to endure despite it all. Mitchell Jackson calls on his singular linguistic gifts to craft this story of redemption and maturation with honesty and style."
—Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House

“Jackson is no mere stylist. His prose is conceived from fabric to fit. Penetrating social critique, rigorous self-examination, epochs and eras attired with a craftsmanship that seems effortless: By every measure, Survival Math is ahead of the curve.”
—Greg Pardlo, author of Air Traffic and Digest

“In Survival Math, Mitchell Jackson turns a familial story into an American one, writing with brutal honesty about himself, and the men and women who shaped him. With a kind of tenderness not reserved for people who've suffered, Jackson's Survival Math explores more than just the highs and lows of his loved ones, he gets at the texture and nuance, the grit and fight of those grasping onto to the hope of getting through the worst of it. Put another way: this book is dope. Awash in the kind of stories that easily get written as voyeurism, Jackson turns these lives and his own, into an American epic. This kind of memoir as essay is Beardenesque, collaging together his family's lives in a way that, though excavating pain and hurt that easily ruins most, offers something that's revelatory about the calculus it takes to keep going. Jackson reminds us to remember the words of Whitman: Vivas to those who have failed. Written in a prose that's distinctly his own.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Bastards of the Reagan Era and A Question of Freedom

“In Survival Math, Mitchell Jackson pens a honest, first-hand account of a family caught up in the game. This book is like no other in the singular way that Jackson unpacks their lives with a rare eloquence and intelligence, spinning a tale that is by turns sad, horrifying, illuminating, and uplifting. In short: a dope book by a dope writer.”
—Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back

Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family tells the story of a young man and a way of life lived against staggering odds; Mitchell Jackson shows us his youth in Portland with an unforgettable mix of sharp humor, wide interrogation, and indelible tragedy. Jackson’s mesmerizing voice and style draws you into the survival calculations for millions of American kids and families, revealing a need-to-know reality for all of us. With ravenous curiosity Jackson explores what he’s had to learn—and sometimes unlearn—about what it means to be a man and what it means to be human, investigating why and how he survived when many have not.”
—Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black

“Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math is riveted by his exacting and tender calculus of each subject’s depth and humanity. Each hustle, dodge and scramble we witness in these pages is anchored in the turbulent sea of American history. Jackson’s musings skillfully illuminate the bloodlines, both inherited and earned, that pulse through the body of America’s gang-graffitied carceral state.”
—Tyehimba Jess, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olio

“With the code-switching agility of Toni Cade Bambara and with the lyric intellect of Albert Murray, Survival Math exhibits Mitchell Jackson at his full power, shining a light on the path ahead—indeed, helping us to survive--in one of the most challenging times in recent American history. This is the salve we’ve all been searching for when we cover our faces with our hands after reading the latest headlines. Moving between lyric essays; centos; and even epistolary history lessons, personal histories and collective ones, too, there’s never been a more authentic chronicling of African American culture. Set in Portland, OR, Survival Math chronicles the history of our country from the vantage point of Northeast Portland, but this ain’t Portlandia. This is as real as it gets, and there’s more love stories—more romantic love, more mother to son love, more brother to brother love-- than any book should be able to hold, and yet Jackson has figured out the equation to solve for the X on which our lives depend.”
—A. Van Jordan, award-winning author of The Cineaste

"If you've read Mitchell S. Jackson, you already know he writes with a poet’s ear. In Survival Math he foregrounds how powerfully he writes with a poet's perception. His sentences radiate empathy. He perceives the lives of hustlers, prisoners, and ghosts. He speaks to and with and for his people-- which is to say, your people and my people. Mitchell S. Jackson’s insights into how black men survive become insights of everyone’s survival. This book is beautiful and vital."
—Terrance Hayes, MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award-winning author of To Float in the Space Between

Survival Math should be praised for many reasons—its literary integrity, its cinematic pace, its creativity and candor. But what I find most striking about this work, what I think distinguishes it, is its heart. As a black man in America, I find that there is often pressure to use our stories as performance. To spin them into shaky pedestals where proof of life is professed for a fee. They are ours but often we do not own them. This story—this complex history of an American family that could be representative of many—Jackson, undoubtedly, proves is his. It beats like a part of him.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Ghost and Sunny

"Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math is telling the truth as you’ve never heard it. These essays are full of heart and doubt and aching wisdom and fierce beauty. They moved me deeply. This book is hard to read, and hard to put down. Its voice is voices, plural. It’s a dirge and a torch song and a family tree and a confessional booth transcript. It will stay with me for a long time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way."
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering

“In Survival Math, Mitchell S. Jackson, establishes himself as a master essayist. The complexity of “Notesis pastoral yet poignant. Jackson tells an indisputable universal truth that will compel you to question everything you thought you knew about life and living in America. Bravo!”
—Sanderia Faye, author of Mourner’s Bench, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award

“After reading dozens of books on race, completing thousands of hours of research and attending countless conferences, I can confidentially say Mitch Jackson is one of the most important voices of our generation. You’ll agree after reading Survival Math, the follow up to his acclaimed Residue Years. Not only is Survival Math a deeply humanizing page turner, it’s a timely narrative that gives us a glimpse into the Black America we rarely encounter in mainstream. Jackson has a gift for crafting beautiful sentences, storytelling and has brilliantly constructed the type of book that reminds me of why I fell in love with language in the first place. I highly recommend!”
—D. Watkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Cook Up and The Beast Side

“This story is grit and gilded; a space where individual pasts collide with our collective hopes for America's future."
—DaMaris B. Hill, author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing

“Some version of all my male kin were there alongside Jackson and his kin making me see them in a new way. Jackson allows us to see what it means to be a black man in American and to be at war with the past and accountable for the future."
—Crystal Wilkinson, author of The Birds of Opulence

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