Michael Tubbs’ memoirs tell a true story of defying the odds

On the shelf

The Deeper the Roots: A Memoir of Hope and Home

By Michael Tubbs
Flatiron, 272 pages, $ 28

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“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? By proving that the laws of nature were wrong, it learned to walk without feet. ”

For most of his life, Michael Tubbs has carried around that verse, from Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grow from Concrete”, as a mantra in his head – a reminder to himself of where he came from and why it means something.

When Tubbs was 6, his father was sentenced to at least 32 years in prison for kidnapping, robbery and a drug offense. His mother, Racole Dixon, was 23. She raised him with the help of Tubbs’ aunt and grandmother – his “three mothers”. They lived in poverty, and he knew the odds were stacked against him.

Tubbs’ anger at his circumstances became fuel – it drove him to excel. He worked in the White House and graduated with honors from Stanford in 2012; as a 22-year-old he was elected to the city council in his hometown of Stockton; at the age of 26, he became the city’s first black mayor and the country’s youngest.

Tubbs, now 31, has achieved more than most would hope for at the end of their lives, all despite – or perhaps because of – his origins.

“[My moms] were pragmatic visionaries, ”explains Tubbs after a recent visit to his office and boarding house in Hyde Park, a historic black neighborhood in south Los Angeles. (He moved to LA this year.) “They had a vision of what success could look like … and how to get there, which was to do well in school, which would give some structure and discipline. But they also gave a lot of love, focus and attention. ”

In a new memoir, “The deeper the roots are“, published by Flatiron Publishing An Oprah book, Tubbs tells how throughout his life he fought against “the soft bigotry of low expectations” – a phrase he deliberately inherited from a George W. Bush speech. Intimate and insightful, the book is also a love letter to his three mothers.

The front page of Michael Tubbs' memoirs "The deeper the roots are."

Tubbs’ simple, tidy office in Hyde Park shows this matriarchal devotion. On a table, his memoirs lie next to a book by his wife, activist Anna Malaika Tubbs, which is very nearby: “The three mothers: How the mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin formed a nation. “

On one wall hangs a colorful portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer, the black co-op member who became a civil rights activist. It reminds him, says Tubbs, “of the genius that is everywhere.”

Tubbs is friendly and relaxed on our short office tour, talking with his hands and radiating the cool confidence of a young man who knows he has nothing left to prove.

When an employee shot the idea of ​​a memoir in 2017, Tubbs, who was mayor at the time, was surprised. “I’m 26 years old!” he remembers to answer. “Writing a book about what?” Eventually, he gave up and realized that his story could serve as a source of strength and inspiration for someone else, perhaps one like the boy he was. He wrote a proposal, and after a bidding war, he sold the book for $ 150,000 – among the biggest acquisitions of Oprah Winfrey’s eponymous imprint.

After the birth of Michael Malakai, his first child, in October 2019, and Nehemiah in August, the book took on a more personal meaning: It may help them understand their father – and help him understand his.

“I realized in writing when I thought about my relationship with my children that as a child I always thought that part of my father’s imprisonment was that he did not care about me or that it did not hurt him to be away “says Tubbs. “And I realized that it was probably the exact opposite.”

His father, who is still in prison, has not yet seen the book, and his mother has not gotten herself to read it. “It’s hard because it brings back pain and old memories that you want to forget,” Dixon says. “You’re trying to move on from there.” She might be listening to the audiobook. “I’m still debating.”

In fact, there is both joy and pain in the book, formative experiences inspire and irritate. Tubbs writes about winning the Alice Walker Essay Contest in high school and meeting the iconic Pulitzer Prize winner. About the civil complaint he filed with the NAACP against a racist biology teacher who was subsequently banned from teaching at his high school. About the murder of his cousin Donnell, a tragedy that put him on course for a life in public service.

Michael Tubbs smiles at home with his wife and their two little boys.

Michael Tubbs with wife Anna Malaika Tubbs and their two children – Michael Malakai Tubbs, 2, and Nehemiah Tubbs, 9 weeks.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Jan Barker Alexander, who was associate dean at Stanford when they met, clearly remembers Tubbs from those years.

“He was a real one,” she says. “He was not pretentious. He understood who he was, that he was a black man in America, and that he did not have to be anything else in the space he walked.”

She was impressed with his sense of purpose – which was not just to succeed, but to help those who did not. “At its core, he understood that his job was to think of the most vulnerable … he never lost focus on who and what was important.”

In the midst of his successes, Tubbs also writes about the rejections that, he believes, ultimately made him stronger.

“No” is such a gift, “he says.” Not the ‘no’ in itself, but what you learn from the ‘no’. It’s such a gift. You will not always get “no”. You will not always be rejected, just as you will not always get ‘yes’ or win.

In a chapter entitled “Keys to the City”, he talks about one of the most shameful experiences of his life. On October 18, 2014, Tubbs, then a council member, was at a bar-hopping with a friend in Sacramento for a double party: the grand opening of the Financial Credit Union in South Stockton – thanks in part to his efforts – and news that “True Son “, a documentary about his candidacy for city council, was to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Instead of crashing down at his friend’s house, Tubbs drove home around 6 p.m. 03:30. He was stopped after failing to signal on the highway. The breathalyzer read .137, almost double the limit. “Here I was, fulfilling the gloomy prophecy I had been told when I was growing up that I would end up arrested and in prison one day, ”he writes.

He feared his career was over, his reputation ruined. Instead, his family, most of his colleagues, and his community stood by his side. He had been given the chance to “atone and try again.”

“When I was twenty-four years old, my father and as many as him did not get another chance,” he writes. “At twenty-four years old, I was … Ever since then, this guilt has driven me to orient my work to answer the question ‘What if we lived in a society that actually allowed people to be redeemed?’

In this context, Tubbs hopes to redefine bigotry with low expectations – a phrase often used to oppose positive action. “You don’t have to lower expectations for people,” he says. “You just have to give them opportunities.”

Tubbs made the most of his second chance. Two years after his arrest, he was elected mayor of Stockton with more than 70% of the vote.

In a city-wide office, he slammed left and expanded opportunities across Stockton’s diverse communities. Tubbs launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration Project, the country’s first base income pilot program; founded the Reinvent Stockton Foundation to administer college scholarships; and brought the Advance Peace program to the city to reduce gun violence.

And then he lost his bid for re-election, a defeat he owes on a “four-year misinformation campaign”- as well as his successful efforts to stop subsidies for golf courses.

“I just really underestimated the emotions that golf can evoke,” he says. He also learned a lesson on how the messenger can overshadow the message. “A 27-year-old black guy who says ‘We stop subsidizing golf’ may not have been the best way to tackle it,” the conversation.

Looking back, he jokes, “maybe I should have left that golf course alone. But if I did – it’s like a butterfly effect – I would still be mayor, which was a great job, but I’m so happy for not being mayor right now. “

Tubbs enjoy a quieter life these days. In March, he moved with his family to LA after accepting a job offer from Governor Gavin Newsom. In his unpaid role, Tubbs serves as a special adviser on economic mobility and opportunities. (He pays the bills with proceeds from the book, speech concerts, a Rosenberg Foundation scholarship, and his presidency of mayors for a guaranteed income.)

Next year, Tubbs will launch the nonprofit organization End Poverty in California, which will explore proposed policies, job guarantees and infant savings bonds, among other things.

“Politics is basically not just about what is right; it’s about having the power to do the right thing, ”he says. But when it comes to deciding whether or when he will enter the arena again, he is somewhere between non-committal and blessed satisfied.

“Who knows in the next 50 years if I’ll line up again,” said Tubbs on a local news program this month. “But I really enjoy this next chapter helping politicians, being involved in politics, but also spending time with my two kids and my wife, going to the beach, wearing T-shirts. So it’s a good life.”

It’s a life that Tubbs says he wants to spend on enabling others to follow a path that is as fortunate – despite all its twists and turns – as his.

“It’s not about ‘Wow, how did Michael Tubb become mayor?’ he says. “It’s about ‘How many people have we missed because they have to go through all these structural barriers to become mayor? How much talent and brilliance is trapped in poverty, in violence or any number of isms? do we miss? ‘”

Or, as he puts it in his memoir, and borrows again from Tupac, “” For Malakai and Nehemiah: You deserve a world where roses grow on rose bushes. “

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