Michael Tubbs’ memoir tells a true story of defying the odds

On the bookshelf

The Deeper the Roots: A Memoir of Hope and Home

By Michael Tubbs
Iron, 272 pages, $ 28

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“Have you heard of the rose that grew out of a crack in the concrete?” Proving that the laws of nature were wrong, she learned to walk without having feet.

For most of his life, Michael Tubbs carried this verse from Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose That Grown Out of Concrete” as a mantra in his head – a reminder to himself of where he came from and why it was. ‘is important.

When Tubbs was 6 years old, his father was sentenced to at least 32 years in prison for kidnapping, robbery and breaking the narcotics law. Her mother, Racole Dixon, was 23 years old. 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 situation turned to fuel – it made him excel. He interned at the White House and graduated with honors from Stanford in 2012; at 22, he was elected to city council in his hometown of Stockton; at 26, he became the city’s first black mayor and the youngest in the country.

Tubbs, now 31, has accomplished more than most could hope for at the end of their life, and all despite – or perhaps because of – his background.

“[My moms] were pragmatic visionaries, ”says Tubbs after a recent visit to his office and guesthouse in Hyde Park, a historically 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 provide some structure and discipline. But they also provided a lot of love, focus and attention.

In a new memoir, “The Deeper the Roots”, published by the Flatiron Footprint From an Oprah book, Tubbs tells how, Throughout his life he struggled against “the soft bigotry of low expectations” – a phrase he intentionally co-opted from a speech by George W. Bush. Intimate and insightful, the book is also a love letter to his three mothers.

Tubbs’ simple, clean office in Hyde Park showcases this matriarchal devotion. On a table, his memoirs sit alongside a book by his wife, activist Anna Malaika Tubbs, which is very themed: “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a nation. . “

On one wall hangs a colorful portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer, the black sharecropper turned civil rights activist. It reminds him, says Tubbs, of “the genius that is everywhere.”

Tubbs is friendly and relaxed on our brief tour of the offices, speaking with his hands and exuding the cold confidence of a young man who knows he has nothing more to prove.

When a member of staff pitched the idea for a brief in 2017, Tubbs, who was mayor at the time, was taken aback. ” I’m 26 years old ! he remembers answering. “Write a book about what? He finally relented, realizing that his story could serve as a source of strength and inspiration for someone else, maybe someone like the boy he was. He wrote a proposal, and after a bidding war sold the book for $ 150,000 – among the largest acquisitions of the eponymous imprint of Oprah Winfrey.

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

“I realized as I wrote, thinking about my relationship with my children, that as a child, I always thought that part of my father’s incarceration was that he didn’t care. me, or that it didn’t hurt to leave, ”Tubbs said. “And I realized it was probably the exact opposite.”

Her father, still in prison, has yet to see the book, and her mother has not made up her mind to read it. “It’s difficult because it brings back pain and old memories that you want to forget,” Dixon says. “You’re trying to move on. She could listen to the audiobook, however. “I’m still debating. “

Indeed, there is both joy and pain in the book, inspiring and exasperating formative experiences. Tubbs says he won the Alice Walker essay contest in high school and met 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 set him on the path to a life of public service.

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

Michael Tubbs with his 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, remembers Tubbs vividly from those years.

“It was a real one,” she said. “He was not pretentious. He understood who he was, that he was black in America and that he didn’t need to be anything else in the space he was walking.

She was impressed with his sense of purpose – which was not just to succeed but to help those who had not succeeded. “Deep down, he understood that his mission was to think about the most vulnerable… he never lost sight of who and what was important.

Amid his successes, Tubbs also writes about the rejections which he says ultimately made him stronger.

“No’s are such a gift,” he says. “Not the ‘no’ per se, but what you learn from the ‘no’. It is such a gift. You won’t always get ‘no’s’. You are not always going to be rejected, just as you are not always going to get “yes” or win. “

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

Rather than crashing into his friend’s house, Tubbs returned home around 3:30 a.m. He was arrested after failing to signal on the highway. The breathalyzer read .137, almost double the limit. “I was there, fulfilling the grim prophecy I was told growing up, that I would one day be arrested and jailed,” he wrote.

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

“At twenty-four, my father and so many others like him haven’t had a second chance,” he writes. “At twenty-four, I was … Since then that guilt has driven me to orient my work to answer the question ‘What if we lived in a society that really offered people the opportunity to redeem themselves?’ “

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

Tubbs took advantage of his second chance. Two years after his arrest, he was elected mayor of Stockton with over 70% of the vote.

In the town office, he veered to the left, expanding opportunities in the various communities of Stockton. Tubbs launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration project, the country’s first pilot basic income program; founded the Reinvent Stockton Foundation to administer college scholarships; and introduced the Advance Peace program to the city to reduce gun violence.

And then he lost his candidacy for re-election, a defeat he attributes to a “four year disinformation campaign”- as well as his successful efforts to end subsidies to golf courses.

“I really underestimated the feelings that golf can bring,” he says. He also learned a lesson in how the messenger can eclipse the message. “A 27-year-old black man who said ‘We’re going to stop subsidizing golf’ might not have been the best way to approach the conversation.

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

Tubbs has a quieter life these days. In March, he moved with his family to Los Angeles after accepting a job offer from Governor Gavin Newsom. In his unpaid role, Tubbs serves as special advisor on mobility and economic opportunities. (He pays the bills with income from the book, concerts, a Rosenberg Foundation scholarship, and his Mayors for a Guaranteed Income presidency.)

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

“Politics is not fundamentally about what is right; it’s about having the power to do what’s right, ”he says. But when it comes to deciding whether or when to re-enter the arena, he sits somewhere between non-engagement and blessed contentment.

“Who knows in the next 50 years if I’ll run again? ” Tubbs said on a local news show this month. “But I really enjoy this next chapter of 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 Tubbs says he wants to spend allowing others to follow such a lucky path – despite all its twists and turns – as his.

“It’s not about ‘Wow, how did Michael Tubbs 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 many talent and genius trapped in poverty, violence or a number of isms are we missing? “

Or, as he says in the dedication of his memoir, borrowing again from Tupac, “‘For Malakai and Nehemiah: you deserve a world where roses grow on rosebushes.”

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