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Worthy by Jada Pinkett Smith Review

Reviewer: J Brooks Spector (Daily Maverick)

Worthy by Jada Pinkett Smith
ISBN: 9780008615000
Format: Trade Paperback

Just for a moment, let us put on hold our consideration of terrifying wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the ongoing political chaos in America. Instead, let us contemplate Jada Pinkett Smith’s new memoir, Worthy. Don’t snicker, stay with us on this. I read the book with an engaged, open mind and Worthy with a question mark is, in fact, the very thing the author asks about her behaviour, life and purpose – and aims to answer in this memoir.

For those familiar with her trajectory, early on Smith ran the very rough streets of downtown Baltimore, sold drugs as a teenager and concurrently studied music and theatre at a publicly funded arts high school in Baltimore and, for a year, at an arts university in North Carolina. (This reviewer knew something about those Baltimore streets, having worked in a factory years ago in one of the inner-city neighbourhoods and having mixed with some of the men there.)

Then, before she was 21, Smith had moved to Los Angeles. There she eventually broke into television (her first big role was in the hit series A Different World), some smaller indie and blaxploitation films, and then in the music industry, where she toured with a metallic rock group she had brought together. Then, of course, there has been her marriage to A-list actor Will Smith and the birth of smart-beyond-their-years children.

In addition to all that, for years she was the soul mate (but not a romantic partner) of the rap icon Tupac Shakur through his incarceration and being shot twice – he died from the second shooting. Taken together, this is quite a saga — a Horatio Alger-esque rise from obscurity to wealth and fame, with a rap soundtrack.

Eventually, though, things begin to go out of kilter. She sought emotional stability through the use of ayahuasca, the potent hallucinogenic agent, brewed from certain vines and leaves. Nevertheless, despite this seemingly unorthodox life and upbringing, her memoir offers a lens to observe American contemporary youth culture – especially among the “live hard, die young” crowd and its acolytes and imitators.

Jada Pinkett Smith did not actually grow up in the throes of the difficult circumstances of desperate poverty and social dysfunction, even if family stability was always uncertain. At least on the surface, she was not an intrinsic part of the Baltimore portrayed in hit television series such as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, even if she willingly entered into parts of it.

Like many big American cities, Baltimore was defined by residential segregation, but her early memories come from living in a predominately middle-class, largely white neighbourhood. Her family’s home was on the fringe of a largely Jewish neighbourhood – the kind idealised by Barry Levinson in his Liberty Heights films. (The other iconic cinema Baltimore portrayal was the white, working-class area that formed the backdrop for the film and musical Hairspray.)  

Her maternal grandfather was an anaesthesiologist at a local hospital and her grandmother instilled in young Jada a love and appreciation for the nurturing rituals of gardening and the accomplishing of quotidian household chores, along with a love of books and music.

Her grandmother seems to have been an enduring influence as a touchstone for stability in Jada’s life until the older woman died, leaving a granddaughter bereft. Her parents were less able to provide a stable family. Her mother eventually became a nurse, despite a lifetime struggle with drugs, while her father struggled with addiction issues and a deep-seated rootlessness.  

By the time Jada Pinkett Smith was a teenager, she was running headlong into an embrace of those mean streets. She absconded from high school regularly, increasingly dealt in drugs (but not using them by her testimony) that gave her access to real money, engaged in drinking bouts with friends of their favoured beverage of peach-flavoured schnapps, worked at being a slay queen on the dance floors of Baltimore’s club scene and carried out thrill-seeking explorations of the toughest Baltimore neighbourhoods.

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