When I was little I lived in the upstairs apartment of 141 Lincoln Place, Brooklyn, America. My parents were determined that I have a balanced sense of myself, especially being a black child growing up in, “the belly of the beast” or “Babylon” as my father refers to this country. To have balance in such a system required being extreme. According to them, The Jeffersons, Tarzan, King Kong, The Brady Bunch, Good Times all had some quiet insidious message that could damage my identity as a black child.
Somewhere in the middle of my growing up, my Dad was fed up with the “nonsense” on television and threw ours out. In its place my parents filled me up with black people stuff. I had to read about and listen to messages about black people and the general “theatre of engagement between African people and Europeans throughout the Diaspora.” I was carted off to listen to people like Judge Bruce Wright, Minister Farrakhan and James Baldwin. They took me to see August Wilson’s, Piano Lesson. I went to see Sarafina with Hugh Masekela in the orchestra pit. I went to Alvin Ailey nearly ever year at City Center. I had to go to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to do reports on significant black people who have helped shape the world. They took every opportunity to bring me to gatherings of black people who were engaged and committed to positive ends. It is clear that what my parents were trying to do was to fill a void in my education, to complete the landscape of images and reality that influenced my development. They sought to specifically connect black people with substantive accomplishment and positive imagery in my mind.
I am not sure exactly what the black community is or what our boundaries are, but a lot is said about how it lacks positive images. It is an old and painful mantra that the children of the black community lack positive role models. The second part of that mantra is that it is acutely true for black boys. I can see now that my parents were conscious of this reality and went to extraordinary lengths to find examples for me. Their efforts went so far and were so consistent that the examples of black people of substance, stature and consequence were not like figures in a museum, but were just a part of my landscape. They created balance.
Sadly, the black community is still beleaguered as Ossie Davis said in Malcolm X’s eulogy. In many ways though, things have changed for the better and have helped redefine the level of effort required for parents now who were little the way I was.
Tonight I was lying down on the floor in my daughter’s room while we waited for my wife to come. I said to her that tomorrow we are going to elect Barack Obama to be the first black president in the history of the United States. She said, “I know. He is going to win and live in the White House, right?” She paused for just a second and said, “Is there still going to be swimming class tomorrow?”