A Man from Another Land How Finding My Roots Changed My Life
By Washington, Isaiah
Center Street Copyright © 2011 Washington, Isaiah
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781599953182
“What Part of Africa Are You From?”
For most of my life I have walked the streets of cities such as New York, DC, Chicago, Houston, LA, and others. I have traveled around the world, spending time in countries such as Germany, the Philippines, Japan, England, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, France, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Sweden. Yet, while each of these places is very different, no matter where I traveled there was one thing that was always the same: everywhere I went, native Africans asked me, “What part of Africa are you from?” On buses, on planes, on the sets of my acting gigs, inevitably someone would stop and tell me I looked just like a close relative from West Africa.
I would reply as I always did, “I was born in Houston, Texas.” And each time they would look at me as if I were lying. After each encounter, I was always left with a feeling that these Africans knew something that I didn’t. I prayed that one day I would understand what it was they saw in me, what it was that made them believe I was from Africa.
“Gimme yo’ money, you punk-ass faggot! Whatchu got?” One of the Frazier sisters shoved me to the ground. I was six years old and had just started walking myself to school. My mother would give me an extra quarter to buy a snack to go with my lunch, and every day, without fail, one of the Frazier sisters would beat me up and take it away from me.
The Frazier sisters were two light-skinned black girls from my neighborhood. Because my complexion was darker, many, including the Frazier sisters and their family, perceived me and my family as poor. They acted as if they were superior to me and took it upon themselves to subjugate me by calling me names like “little black monkey,” “black sambo,” “frog eyes,” and “black boy” as they harassed me daily for my school money. They acted as if in order to walk the streets I had to “pay them a toll.” They felt they owned the neighborhood because they were light skinned and perceived as better off than my darker-skinned self.
I was a laid-back, scrawny little kid with toothpick legs and kinky hair. I always avoided confrontations, even when they came right at me. I fought with my older sister, but when it came to anyone else, I was docile. I always ducked. Even though they were just a few years older, to me the Frazier sisters seemed like giants.
One day my grandmother, who we called Muh’ Dear, happened to see what they were doing to me. As usual, the sisters had taken my money and taunted me all the way to the front gate of Muh’ Dear’s house. I walked up the front steps to the screen door, but when I tried to open it, it was locked. My grandmother stood right behind it and looked down at me, her eyes steeled with a hardness I had seen her reserve only for what she called the “triflin’-ass Negroes” in the neighborhood.
“You been runnin’ home almost every day,” she said. “It stops now.”
“Muh’ Dear, please…” I pleaded.
“No!” she said sternly.
I turned around and saw that the Frazier sisters were still standing at the gate. They were smirking at the fact that my grandmother was quietly scolding me. But they wouldn’t have been smiling if they could have heard what she was saying. “If you don’t fight those girls standing at my gate talkin’ shit, you will never come in this house again.”
I was afraid of the sisters for sure, but I was even more afraid of my grandmother. I tried to open the screen door again, but it wouldn’t budge. Her foot was propped up against it. She was serious.
“Mickey,” she said, using my family’s nickname for me, “you betta get them nasty heifers out from in front of my gate.”
That fifteen-step walk from the porch back to the gate felt like a mile. My eyes were already tearing up. I believed, one way or the other, my life was going to end. I slowly pushed open the gate.
“Whatchu want, punk-ass faggot?”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and swung my Hee Haw metal lunch box as hard and as fast as I could. Fear turned to fire, or else I just got lucky, because my swings connected. I hit them both. I felt the vibration from the blows through my lunch box as they screamed and cried out. I opened my eyes to see them running off down the road.
I looked down at myself. My shirt was a little ripped, but otherwise there was no damage except to the thermos whose shiny glass insulation had cracked into a million pieces when it flew out of my lunch box and hit the ground. I didn’t feel proud or boastful. I only did what I had to do… garner some respect.
I walked up to the gate, up the steps, and found Muh’ Dear standing there with the screen door wide open. She didn’t say a word. She just gave me a simple nod as I walked past her into the kitchen.
My grandmother Savannah Mae Holmes was the true matriarch of the family and a culinary genius. She could “throw down” in the kitchen, as the kids say. She loved and doted on me, but she was also as tough as nails.
My grandmother despised the Frazier girls and their “light-skinned” family. They were a constant reminder of how she herself was treated badly by her two lighter-skinned sisters. Although her sister and my Aunt Gussie never treated me poorly when I spent summers with them in Conroe, Texas, I do remember being interrogated by Muh’ Dear about being spoiled by my “highfalutin” grandaunt. Muh’ Dear said her cooking was better than my Aunt Gussie’s “rich whitefolk cooking.”
None of this made sense to me. Light skin versus dark skin, “good hair” (soft, wavy, long) versus “bad hair” (short and kinky). The battles around these issues that played out in my family, church, school, and neighborhood confused me. To me people were people, what did it matter if they were light or dark, had straight hair or an afro?
Muh’ Dear wore a wig all the time and insisted that my “nappy hair” be shaved from my head, fearing that it would bring me even more pain and problems than my dark skin would with people like the Frazier sisters. In fact, in all of my childhood photos, I am bald! The sentiment seemed to be that being dark skinned with kinky hair wasn’t okay, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I felt fine about who I was, it was other people that seemed to have a problem with me.
Serendipity or Destiny?
In 1972, when I was nine years old and living in my native Houston, Texas, I started having a recurring dream. I’d wake with the distinct feeling that I had been running from something, but I never knew what. The dream always had me running through a jungle or a forest. The terrain was always green, really green, and the ground was always a deep reddish brown color, like the dirt on my Aunt Gussie’s farm in Conroe, Texas. The scent of sweat and dirt would permeate my nostrils.
There were always women and children in the dream, staring at me, pointing and looking as if they knew me but weren’t sure that I belonged. I always ran the same path, never straying, always ending up in the same African village.
At first, I would have this dream only during Houston’s extremely hot summers. But as I grew older I’d have it at other times; it followed me for years. I never told a soul about it for fear of being ridiculed or simply ignored. The dream started to occur so often that it became a kind of companion, a friend that I could rely on. I fondly named it “the Rerun.”
It first occurred during the summer when bike riding was the favorite pastime in my neighborhood. I’d ride with my friends through heavily wooded areas, down “trails” that were really beaten down paths made by neighbors taking shortcuts through the woods.
I was never one to stay on the beaten path. I always wanted to take the uncharted course through the woods and beat my friends to whatever destination we had chosen. My quest to create my own path, to be first, usually meant suffering the penalty of huge welts or cuts on my face, arms, and legs. It was the price I paid for riding through the previously unexplored and unruly branches and rigid foliage.
Even at a young age, I was always trying to break barriers, aspiring to do things that people told me I couldn’t, or others thought were strange or unattainable. I was willing to stay the course, take the unbeaten path no matter what got in my way, when others would give up and go home.
The sting from the vines lashing at my arms and legs seemed to urge me to pedal faster and faster. Not once did I ever consider retreating or worry about getting lost. Once, when charging through a particularly dense thicket, I stalled and lurched off my bike, landing hard on the dirt. My body itched and ached from the angry burrs that held fast to my clothes, skin, and hair. It was as if they were chastising me for disrupting their order. But, I remained undaunted, ignoring the pain of the razor-sharp weeds tearing at my hands as I yanked my bike’s chain, pedals, and wheel spokes away from their snaking grasp and ripped them away from my legs.
I reached down and grabbed a piece of glass from a broken bottle I found lying on the ground near my leg and used it to chop away the weeds that still entangled my bicycle and me. Once free, I began to run using the bicycle as a makeshift plow, pushing and ripping my way forward as if my life depended on it. I had no idea where the hell I was or the path I took to get there. Gazing up I could see the sun begin to peek through the canopy of tall trees looking down on me. Suddenly I broke through to a cavernous opening in the forest that I thought just might lead me to our meeting place. I looked around, but none of my friends was in sight.
Was I late? Was I lost? No, I could see in the distance the greenery of Independence Heights (Studewood) that we were racing to. “Am I first?” I thought. “Yes!” Then I jumped on my Huffy and tore off the rest of the way as if I were on fire. I arrived at the park before the rest of my friends.
I lay down on the ground, sweating profusely, and tried to catch my breath, waiting for the others to arrive. As they rode up minutes later some of them looked at me, puzzled. “Ah, man! You did it again?” Then the usual litany of “He cheated!” “You’re crazy!” “What happened to your face?” and “How did you get here so fast?” followed. I just looked at them, smiled confidently, and said, “What took you so long?”
They all jumped on top of me and took turns playfully punching me. Nobody mentioned the scratches and welts on my face and body after that. I felt they just accepted me, even though I was different. Those scars represented something only I understood, endured for the privilege of being first.
They were a rite of passage, a precursor to the journey toward a different life, and a connection to a culture that would eventually confirm the inklings, the innate feelings I had inside about myself. Feelings that told me I could achieve greatness, that I was from greatness. Certainly, as a child, I could not yet know that as I would later, but even at nine years old I felt it.
In a way, I was proud of the scars on my face. They represented the fight in me, a pure, raw determination that kept me from ever giving up until I got what I wanted, until I came in first. I couldn’t name it as a child, but in my neighborhood, at church, at home, I sensed a feeling of resignation. There was a veil of complacency over many of the people around me. They didn’t expect much from their lives, and didn’t expect much of me either. It seemed as if it was just enough for many of them to get by in life. They looked for work to put food on the table, but they had no thoughts of striving for a career; people would work to finish high school but not stretch themselves to attend college: some would get married to someone who was considered a good “provider,” but they wouldn’t seek to find a supportive, passionate love and life partner. Those attitudes are actually quite common in African American men and boys. Colonization taught us to smile more, bow more, and conceal our ambition in order to be accepted by those in power. My grandmother raised me and insisted that I be better than those around me at the time.
In the woods that day, a game of cops and robbers broke out. We threw small rocks at each other and I expertly dodged them. I was always the robber who refused to die when hit. This always led to an argument by the two sides. The slowest runners always suffered the worst consequences, eventually having some kind of unpleasant encounter with a big rock.
We took our rock throwing very seriously and often competed to see who could throw the farthest and most accurately. I was an extremely accurate thrower. I never aimed to hit my aggressor, rather I worked to whiz one by his head just to let him know the power of my throw. I mastered a thumb-and-index-finger technique that served me well when we played, and that could rival the power of any slingshot.
We concocted shields out of garbage can lids, car hubcaps, and cardboard boxes. Ultimately, someone would get hit in the head, hand, or face and the game would come to a screeching halt as we all gathered around the victim to assess the damage. A knot on the head or an open laceration would shut the game down immediately, and we’d turn our focus to erecting a solid story for the parents about what happened. If it was just a welt or minor scrape, we would just battle on. Thinking back on those days, I am still amazed at how invincible we thought we were as children.
Later that day, it began to rain while the sun continued to shine brightly. One of my friends shouted, “The devil is beating his wife!” This was what we said when the sun would shine but it would rain at the same time. This was an old wives’ tale shared and believed by many people I knew growing up in the Independence Heights area of northeast Houston. It was a phenomenon that I would see many times in my life in different ways, both literally and figuratively. “Yep, she gettin’ her ass whupped!” I replied as we all jumped on our bicycles. There were dark clouds looming on the horizon threatening to consume the sun at any moment.
Another race was on. We pedaled as fast as we could, trying to outride the rain and beat it home. This time I rode with the pack through the streets, glancing over my shoulder at the path I made for myself earlier that day. I could feel the wind tickling the hard-earned scars on my hands and arms. I considered taking the treacherous path back, ensuring that I would beat them all home. But I had already proven my point, that I was different, willing to take chances, that I would do almost anything to come out on top.
I checked over my shoulder on the progress of the ominous rain clouds, and it seemed we were making little headway, not moving at all, as the storm continued to barrel toward us. I could smell the rain coming and feel its coolness as it caught up to us. I pedaled as hard as I could, faster and faster, dodging parked cars on the street and stray dogs running and barking alongside of us.
I felt a nip at my foot from one of the dogs, but I just nonchalantly tapped him on his nose with the tip of my sneaker, never losing my stride. Now just one hundred yards from our neighborhood street at Thirty-second and Airline, we were forced to stop at a busy intersection. As we waited for an opening in the high-speed traffic that would allow us to cross the road, I looked back to see huge raindrops marching down the middle of the street like a giant paintbrush coloring the once-dry concrete street a slick dark black. The rain hungrily came over us like an angled wall of scattered shimmering strings. It looked so ominous. Then, out of nowhere, growled a grinding rumble of thunder. As we looked up a flash of lightning streaked across the dark clouds… crack!
Frightened by the furor of the coming storm, I launched my bike into the crowded intersection, making it across to the other side just inches past the bumper of a honking, speeding car. Once again separated from the pack, I stopped and turned to see my friends become engulfed by the torrential downpour. It was as if the rain stopped moving and stalled on the other side of the highway. I watched my crew get drenched, like Moses watching Pharaoh’s men being engulfed by the closing of the Red Sea.
In the spot where I sat on my bicycle, it was not raining at all. Not a drop. I sat there still in the sunshine. I blinked and then the rain started to fall on me too. Once the traffic slowed and my friends were able to join me, they just shook their heads, acknowledging I had won again. We all said our hurried and wet good-byes and rode off in different directions toward our homes on the block.
That day I simply had a burning desire to be first in a bike race. Today, as a man, I know that desire stems from the fact that I share a storied history, the same DNA, with great Africans and men of incredible courage. Men like Sengbe Pieh—Joseph Cinque as he was called during his historical trial—who had the bravery to lead the Amistad revolt. That history, that DNA, reflects a past of great accomplishment that eventually led me to my own place in history.
Why did I take that risk? Why did I not get hit by a car that day? Why did it seem to be raining on them and not on me? This situation has played out in so many different ways throughout my life and it still does.
That same summer I attended a party with my mother. As we entered the house, I immediately noticed a man with what I considered to be very strange hair, wearing nothing but a leather vest and bell-bottom jeans. He was cut, with huge muscles, and smelled of a burning mixture of sweet flowers that I found pleasant and intoxicating as we walked past him.
My mother said a brief hello to him and then moved on to greet other friends at the party, leaving me behind. The air was thick with the smell of barbecue sauce and hickory wood. I roamed around the house, bobbing my head to the loud music and grabbing food off the tables. But mostly I was transfixed by this strange-looking man. He noticed my stare and finally walked over to me.
“Hello, little brother,” he said as he approached me, “What is your name?”
“Isaiah Washington,” I answered.
He stepped back in mock surprise and with a broad smile replied, “Isaiah Washington! What a beautiful and powerful name, my brother! I hope that you grow and live up to it!”
He had what I thought then was a funny accent. I now know it as West Indian. And his strange hair, I now know to be African locks or dreadlocks as the Rastafarians called them. His intoxicating smell was oil of frankincense and myrrh.
I was drawn to something about him. Perhaps it was how he looked. His features and skin tone were similar to mine. The way he held himself was powerful, and at the same time he was very kind. He seemed a bit mysterious, and the way he spoke suggested he was quite intelligent. Years later, when I arrived in New York, I eventually found myself emulating him. The way he talked, the way he carried himself. He was different from anyone I knew at the time. This seemingly unimportant encounter would leave an indelible impression on me that would manifest itself fifteen years later when I would take on one of the most challenging and life changing projects of my life. Continues...
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