Urgent American Odyssey: A Review of Mitchell S. Jackson’s ‘Survival Math’

Readers have been eager for a follow-up to Mitchell Jackson’s autobiographical novel The Residue Years since its 2014 release. The novel, which explores the challenges of growing up Black in a neglected neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, during the 1990s crack epidemic, won both the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and a Whiting Writer’s Award and established Jackson as a major new voice in contemporary American Literature. Fans of The Residue Years’ multiple perspectives and frenzied cadence will not be disappointed his latest work. Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family (Simon & Schuster) doubles down on Jackson’s unique style and digs deeper into the social, historical, and political contexts that shape the lives of many Black Americans.

In a March 2019 interview for The Paris Review, Annie DeWitt aptly describes Survival Math as “an urgent American odyssey that sweeps history, time, register, and place.” Hers is a dead-on characterization of a book tenaciously resistant to traditional characterizations of style or genre. Jackson piles letters, essays, poetry, and short biographical narratives each upon the next to overwhelming affect. His “pile-ons” doggedly remind readers that Black American lives are inherently linked to our nation’s racist roots and to the racial and social injustices that continue to pervade contemporary society.

Survival Math is primarily interested in the ways social inequities shape Black men and legitimize a version of masculinity that is both behaviorally and attitudinally toxic. Still, I would be remiss to gloss over criticisms of the book: Jackson is not the most reliable narrator in essays like “Men on the Scale” and “The Pose,” both of which try to explain how men rationalize (or make excuses for) their use and abuse of women. The syntactic turns and legions of digressions that serve the book so well in other essays are, in these two pieces, diversional, self-protective. Jackson attempts to address this in “Men on the Scale”:

Often over the course of reading, reflecting, drafting, and revising (this profile?), I started asking myself what’s the difference between a scrupulous wholehearted inquiry and a long-ass exercise in making excuses. And though I’m not sure of an answer, much less the answer, the swearable truth, so help me, is this: I mean not a single word of what follows as an attempt to rationalize my violence or paint myself as a victim.

It is a tough ask at times, but appreciating Survival Math as intensive inquiry is worth the work. Jackson is passionate, an incredible researcher, and still uncomfortable with his own vulnerability; his writing reflects the effort it takes to be honest after decades of artifice.

That said, Jackson is at his best in essays that explore the costs of racism and socioeconomic exploitation with a less male-centric gaze. In “American Blood,” Jackson learns that his mother, a recovering addict, has been donating plasma for money. He writes, “Those first umpteen times she plassed for extra income, but at points—truth be told, more points than my racked mind can stand—her plassing has been her lone source of income.”

Donating plasma in order to pay rent is certainly a personal injustice. But, as the essay unspools, Jackson demonstrates how even an endeavor as noble as blood banking is saddled with a racist history. “In what’s a cold-blooded fact of our great nation’s history,” Jackson writes, “there was a point in time when my mama’s mama and the adult Negroes of her era were banned from blood bank contributions.” It was not until 1941 that blood donated by Black Americans was accepted—and segregated.

“American Blood” covers essential historical ground before leading us back to present-day Portland. Jackson decides to have a look at a donation center in the city’s richest neighborhood. He arrives at a Lake Oswego center, noting a cigarette outpost as large as a shack in a parking lot and a couple of twenty-somethings “strapped with backpacks skulking near the entrance.” Jackson writes, “Damn near everybody looked as if surviving to the next week wasn’t foregone, a vision that made me wonder if Mom had ever slogged through the doors wearing her desperation in plain view.”

Desperation. Survival. Their companionship and contingencies are recurring themes throughout Survival Math and explored most effectively in the “Survival Files” that are included in the interstices of each section of the book. To write the Survivor Files, Jackson asked his (male) family members What’s the toughest thing you’ve survived? Their responses are presented as second-person narratives and accompanied by black-and-white portraits.

Many of the narratives are critically bleak. The story of a man who is wrongfully accused by his ex of striking his daughter in the mouth in particular lingers; he is finally reunited with his daughter after a prolonged legal battle and covers her with “infinite kisses” in the airport. The narrative closes, however, with this: “Years from now you’ll remember this moment as one of the happiest of your life, but in the moment, worry over what the time and distance may have birthed between you lives beneath your joy.” The portraits, too, seem incongruent with the concept of survival: the faces are exhausted, despairing, angry.

What is this new world, then, that these men have fought so hard to arrive at? What does it mean to be a survivor if there is no possibility to experience happiness without pain? Jackson, wisely, does not attempt to answer these questions. Instead, Survival Math shows us what life is like for many Black American families—even those growing up in purportedly progressive cities like Portland—and asks us to examine ourselves and our culture more critically. It is our duty to understand the contexts that lead to the awful negotiation of survival math in the first place. Read the whole book. Read the footnotes. Learn.


Lisa Grgas

Lisa Grgas is the supervising editor and associate poetry editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Atticus Review, Common Ground, Black Telephone, Ki'n, Luna Luna, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.

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