In his new book, “My Brother Moochie,” journalist Issac J. Bailey blends unlike elements — bigotry and justice, faith and doubt, violent crime and unconditional love — to make sense of his big brother’s path to prison, and his own journey out of poverty in rural South Carolina.
On the way, he calls out the prison industrial complex, white resentment under President Donald Trump and the casual racism most African-American men like him experience in white America.
Then, analyzing whether luck or self-discipline spared him the fates of his younger brothers (several of whom are doing hard time), Bailey grapples with the shame and trauma their crimes cast over him. But he also fights his own demons, including a severe stutter that emerged after an all-white jury convicted Moochie Bailey for killing a white man in a botched robbery.
To say there’s a lot going on here is an understatement.
Bailey has a relatable, multifaceted story to tell: Like many successful African-Americans, he beat long odds, his brothers did not, and he could easily have ended up behind bars, too.
His comprehensive approach, however, distracts from a powerful thesis — what happens when a family’s golden child does a horrible thing — and disrupts the flow of Bailey’s improbable journey from a single-wide trailer to award-winning newspaper columnist.
Early on, for example, he describes fighting the urge to beat his misbehaving son, and later wrestling with unexplained homicidal thoughts about his wife. A therapist diagnoses PTSD, the aftereffect of watching his father beat his mom; seeing athletic, charming Moochie — his childhood hero — morph into a murderer, and witnessing it all on land soaked with the blood of slaves.
That’s compelling: a black man with racially tinged PTSD, navigating a white world while reconciling with a brother serving life in the state pen. Rather than thread it through his story, however, Bailey drops the stitch, moving on to other anecdotes from his life and linking them to social issues, like separate-but-unequal schools, disproportionate incarceration of black men, the persistence of Southern-fried racism.
As a result, he walks by, skimps on or contradicts other parts of what could be an engaging story: how, after attending a de facto segregated high school, he accepted a football scholarship to private, mostly white Davidson College; why he chose journalism, a highly verbal profession, even though he has a major speech impediment; why he believes his stutter hurts him more than racial bigotry; how, in the era of the school-to-prison pipeline and Black Lives Matter, he’s raising a young black boy with uncles and a cousin who are inmates.
Ultimately, “My Brother Moochie” is interesting, but it reads more like a collection of Bailey’s columns than a fluid autobiography. Still, Bailey argues, his book is at heart a lesson in self-love: If he doesn’t love his flawed brother, his broken relatives “and many other black families like ours … I can’t fully love myself. And I plan on loving myself fully.”
Joseph Williams, a former assistant managing editor at the Star Tribune, is now a senior editor for U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C.
My Brother Moochie
By: Issac J. Bailey.
Publisher: The Other Press, 288 pages, $25.95.