Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son: A Memoir of Becoming a Man


Growing up poor in the South, Kevin Jennings learned a lot of things, especially about how to be a real man. When his father, a fundamentalist preacher, dropped dead at his son’s eighth birthday party, Kevin already knew he wasn’t supposed to cry.

He also knew there was no salvation for homosexuals, who weren’t "real men”—or Christians, for that matter. But Jennings found his salvation in school, inspired by his mother. Self-taught, from Appalachia, her formal education had ...

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Growing up poor in the South, Kevin Jennings learned a lot of things, especially about how to be a real man. When his father, a fundamentalist preacher, dropped dead at his son’s eighth birthday party, Kevin already knew he wasn’t supposed to cry.

He also knew there was no salvation for homosexuals, who weren’t "real men”—or Christians, for that matter. But Jennings found his salvation in school, inspired by his mother. Self-taught, from Appalachia, her formal education had ended in sixth grade, but she was determined that her son would be the first member of their extended family to go to college, even if it meant going North. Kevin, propelled by her dream, found a world beyond poverty. He earned a scholarship to Harvard and there learned not only about history and literature, but also that it was possible to live openly as a gay man.

But when Jennings discovered his vocation as a teacher and returned to high school to teach, he was forced back into the closet. He saw countless teachers and students struggling with their sexual orientation and desperately trying to hide their identity. For Jennings, coming out the second time was more complicated and much more important than the first—because this time he was leading a movement for justice.

Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son is that rare memoir that is both a riveting personal story and an inside account of a critical chapter in our recent history. Creating safe schools for teenagers is now a central part of the progressive agenda in American education. Like Paul Monette’s landmark Becoming a Man, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’, Kevin Jennings’s poignant, razor-sharp memoir will change the way we see our contemporary world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This rags-to-riches story, about growing up poor and eventually reaching Harvard has bite and pathos. The youngest son of a born-again Southern Baptist preacher originally from Massachusetts, and a mother from Appalachian Tennessee, Jennings led an itinerant youth among trailer parks in Southern towns where his dad would try to find work. The boy couldn't make his father proud on the football field, and already he had learned that "being a real man meant taking advantage of anyone smaller or weaker than you." With his father's abrupt death when Jennings was eight, he became a "mama's boy," introverted, brainy and overweight, and ridden by guilt at his incipient homosexuality. Supported by his scarcely educated mother, who became the first woman manager at McDonald's, Jennings excelled in school and on the debate team and was accepted to Harvard by 1981. Jennings became a high-school teacher, at Concord Academy among others, agonizing over the decision to out himself; he promoted the creation of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) to protect students from the kind of harassment he experienced firsthand. When his national crusade brought him back home to speak at the same Winston-Salem school system where his "young soul had almost been crushed," Jennings writes of his journey with graciousness and candor. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Chronicling his own life, Jennings manages to fashion a meaningful picture of a life caught between conservative religion and homosexuality. As the son of a fundamentalist preacher, Jennings figured out quickly that there was no room in heaven for homosexuals. From his proud mother, he learned never to take anything for granted and never to complain. His father's death on his eighth birthday only intensified their already difficult lives. Jennings managed to survive school-no easy feat for anyone but made even more difficult by his increasing feelings of being outside of everything. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he not only found intellectual stimulation but also an atmosphere that allowed him to live, finally, as an openly gay man. Finding his calling as a teacher, he was again required to hide himself. After witnessing the struggles of fellow homosexuals forced to live a lie, Jennings was determined to find a way to not only to offer them a safe environment but also to provide legal protection from discrimination. Although this memoir recounts the struggles of one man's life, it is much larger than that. Categorizing this memoir as a work of "gay studies" underestimates its potential. The writing is at times unpolished, but the voice and the message are clear. Everyone feels outside of things at one time or another; it is only by relying on each other that one may find one's way. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2006, Beacon Press, 267p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Heather Hepler
Library Journal
One usually hopes for inspiration or at least an education of sorts when reading rags-to-middle-class memoirs, but this title only partly delivers. Jennings, founder of a national advocacy group that supports safety and equality for students and teachers in public education, grew up in an impoverished Southern home, the son of an itinerant Baptist preacher and an outspoken firebrand of a mother. Self-described trailer trash, he fought against a sickly childhood, the early death of his father and the resulting feelings of guilt, and his own nascent homosexuality. He overcame these challenges and more to win an undergraduate scholarship to Harvard. This part of the story is well told, but the second half of the memoir bogs down in the less-than-riveting minutiae of his subsequent career as a history teacher at several exclusive New England prep schools and as the founder of the Gay and Lesbian Straight Education Network. Editorial errors in the advance proofs (e.g., recalling that as a child he looked at his mother's face through an "opaque" oxygen tent, identifying the lowest elevation in America as Britton Hill, FL) are distracting, and one hopes that they will be remedied. More suitable for larger queer collections. Jeff Ingram, Newport Lib., OR Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Horatio Alger meets Dorothy Allison in this debut memoir about growing up and coming out. The author's father, a fundamentalist minister, died during the boy's eighth birthday party. The family had always been dirt-poor, and now his mother had to find a way to scrape by on her own. Jennings loved reading, and whenever life in his North Carolina trailer park got him down, he escaped into books. But school was a trial: He was chubby, too smart for his own good-and attracted to other boys. A scholarship to Harvard got him out of the rural South into classrooms and dorms where it was okay to be brainy and, at least in the more progressive corners of Cambridge, okay to be gay. But Jennings's awakening didn't end in Harvard Square. The most affecting passages here describe his experiences teaching at elite private schools in New England. His students adored him, but administrators got nervous when Jennings wanted to speak publicly about his sexual orientation. This subtle but unequivocal discrimination eventually led him to found the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which works to make schools safe for gay students. Jennings describes the evangelical, racist South in which he grew up, without a trace of condescension. His mother emerges as a heroic, working-class feminist: fighting to keep food on the table, she eventually became the first woman in the Winston-Salem area to break through the glass ceiling at McDonald's and be promoted to manager. When Jennings came out to her, she was initially perplexed and upset. But seeing that her diffidence was driving a wedge between them, she founded a gay parents' support group. This memoir, which ends with Jennings delivering theeulogy at his mom's funeral, would make any mother proud. Generous and illuminating.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807071465
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 8/15/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Jennings taught high school in New England after graduating from Harvard and is best known for his work creating safe schools for LGBT students. In 1988, Jennings helped establish the nation's first Gay-Straight Alliance for students, and in 1990 he founded GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, to bring together teachers, parents, students, and community members to end anti-LGBT bias in schools. Mr. Jennings led GLSEN to success in making Massachusetts the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation, and he helped establish the Safe Schools Program for Gay & Lesbian Students. Under Jennings's guidance, GLSEN has become a national education and civil rights organization with a presence in all fifty states. Newsweek named him one of a hundred people to watch in the new century. Jennings tours extensively and makes frequent media appearances as an advocate and spokesperson for LGBT youth. The author of One Teacher in Ten and Always My Child: A Parent's Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning Son or Daughter, Jennings also wrote and produced the historical documentary Out of the Past, which won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2006

    Even Better the Second Time Around

    When I read this book for the first time, I loved it. I was touched. I rooted for Kevin I wanted to read it quickly to find out if, indeed, he had come out a winner. The gay boy stayed with me. The son, the brother, the activist, intrigued me. When I read it a second time I discovered the book inside the first one. It is a book written by a historian. It has all sorts of asides that effectively situate you in the times and the places along the way. Jennings cannot ignore any teachable moment, and he is superb at it. The social commentaries had me nodding in recognition frowning and laughing, too. Jennings knows his Bible and is both reassured and haunted by it. Every step of his journey is influenced or explained -for good or evil-by quoting the passages memorized in his youth. He does a superb job at it. They wrap around the story like a subtle veil that strengthens and validates it, taking you progressively to the end in a sort of a story within a story. You begin to understand that this man has spent the better part of his life analyzing it, analyzing himself and analizing others. He is a constant observer. He is now at a point where he can put it all together and make sense of it. His prose is as quick as his wit he does not seem to want you to cry for too long. He wants no pity, but he wants you to feel and he wants you to think. Most of all, he wants you to examine yourself and, especially, he wants you to understand and to make others understand, too. The 'first time' book is about being gay, about being angry and about being stubborn enough and smart enough to succeed just to 'show them'. The second time around I found it to be a book about being Kevin Jennings. We already know he is gay. We already know of his struggle. We know his message and we know GLSEN. Now we are free to meet him as a boy trying to survive a life that is not quite what it should be. He is a boy who is perceptive-perhaps too perceptive for his own good. We meet the adolescent who knows that the only way is the way out. Ignoring Mother is the only way to do it. The pull of her love and her determination are too strong better to pretend he does not care. We meet the man who has a purpose and a plan, who goes back home and back to Mother to feel the reward of her pride in him, and also to feel redeemed in her forgiving embrace. We get to know the fighter and the lover, the self-deprecating and the lighthearted Kevin. He is a young man with an old life. We are fortunate he chose to tell it to us.

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