MY BROTHER MOOCHIE
Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South
By Issac J. Bailey
288 pp. Other Press. $25.95.
Issac J. Bailey was pulling together his memoir at a time when America was in the midst of racial upheaval. Over the past few years, alarming deaths of black people at the hands of the police spawned a boisterous national movement — Black Lives Matter — demanding systemic change. And one of the central tenets of this new era of activism requires that we respect all black lives, those of poor felons no less than those of rich entrepreneurs. It seems a fitting moment, then, for Bailey’s book, “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South,” to drop.
His story explores the fallout that his large, black South Carolina family experienced after his oldest brother, Herbert, nicknamed Moochie, received a life sentence for murdering a white man in 1982. More than a recounting of the woes of dealing with the justice system in the face of poverty and racism, this searching memoir forces readers to confront a pointed question: Can we see the humanity in black people who have done bad things?
Bailey built a career as a journalist, spending much of his career at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. With a keen understanding of systemic racism, he often chronicles the injustices visited upon black America. Yet in his book he grapples with his conflicted feelings about Moochie and other family members who got into trouble with the law. He paints the South not as a place of racist boogeymen, but as a complicated society where defining good and bad requires a bit of context.
His family initially refused to accept that Moochie had committed the murder. They stressed over his parole hearings. Bailey, who was just 9 when Moochie, then 22, stabbed his victim, developed a severe stutter when his brother went away. Bailey describes his family as a “beautiful black family,” even though “none of us are quite sure what to do with the shame that comes with being so closely associated with America’s prison industrial complex.” To that end, “My Brother Moochie” delves into a rarely explored side of the criminal justice system: the families of the perpetrators. Can we empathize with them?
They are often left, as Bailey’s family was, wondering how they might have contributed to their loved one’s misbehavior, what they could have done differently. That’s why Moochie’s mother attended the funeral of her son’s victim and prayed at the scene of the crime.
The Moochie whom Bailey admired as a child was an older brother who stood up to their abusive father and whose checks from the Army helped to sustain the family after their parents divorced. He was the man who told his younger siblings to stay away from drugs even as he grew marijuana.
Bailey’s mother, Elizabeth, was just 13 when her abusive, alcoholic father handed her over to be married to the man who would become Bailey’s father. That man also would drink heavily and beat Elizabeth and Moochie, her first child. Bailey struggles to reconcile feelings of hatred for his father with a sense of how his father might have been affected by growing up in an era when lynchings were common.
After Moochie was sent to prison, Bailey and his older siblings went on to lead successful lives, having been able to lean on one another for support. But these siblings were out of the house by the time Bailey’s three youngest brothers were coming up; they fell under the influence of the troubled foster children their mother took in.
As much as he knows that his brothers are more than their worst acts, “too often I’ve had to fight the tendency to hate them,” he writes. He describes being so angry after the girlfriend of his youngest brother, Jordan, was killed in a drive-by shooting intended for Jordan himself, that he drove his brother to the police station, demanding that he tell the cops everything he knew. “At that moment, I didn’t care about questionable police tactics, wanted no part of lectures about young black men being railroaded or about the school-to-prison pipeline or talk of justice at all,” he writes.
“My Brother Moochie” is most powerful in moments like these, when Bailey adds layers of complexity to the views on race reflected in his journalism. He knew some good white people in the South who would be there for him at a moment’s notice. Yet the rise of President Trump offered Bailey a sobering reminder that racism still has this country in a chokehold. He was confronted by racist sentiments from white people he thought were friends. Just because white people loved him, he learned, it did not mean that they loved black people.
“Be a black man or woman and commit a grave sin, be defined as a monster,” he writes. “Be a rich white dude and commit many sins, be welcomed into the White House.”
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