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Chapter IV: "A Better Neighborhood"
My father's announcement took us children by surprise. My mother was part of the announcing, standing next to my father, her face a study in pride and determination. Any apprehension in her expression was held firmly in check beneath the weight of the first two.
My father explained to us that even before we'd arrived from Trinidad, he had been searching everywhere for a better home for us. Now, with the help of the Lord and our good mother, he had found what he was looking for. We would be moving in about two weeks, for our parents had bought us a house.
"Praise the Lord," Mummy Olga sighed audibly. "Praise His holy name."
It would be a better neighborhood, my mom said. We would have more living space. The streets would be quieter, less crowded, and the children would have more freedom. It was close to a school. My mother really emphasized that we would be moving to a "good neighborhood." I do not recall if she mentioned that it would be a white neighborhood, but it was.
The house was farther up in the Bronx, on Amethyst Street, in the Morris Park/White Plains Road area, not far from the Bronx Zoo. We would discover that the neighborhood was heavily Italian with a strong admixture of Irish. It was respectable working class, "ethnic," and very, very Catholic. On one side it bordered Pelham Parkway, across which was a predominantly Jewish enclave.
Ours would be the first, and for much of my youth, the only African family in that immediate neighborhood.
Because we were children, it never occurred to us to wonder why or how my father had been allowed to buy into that block. Nor how, on a single income my father's, for our parents were very clear that my mother would stay home and mother us full-time they could have scraped together the down payment. Or from what reserves of inner will and determination these two young immigrants had summoned the optimism and courage to take this major first step in pursuit of the American Dream.
I do recall the excitement of packing for the move, my sisters' and my gleeful anticipation of the promised space and freedom. How big would our house be? How fancy? Would we have our own rooms? This excitement lasted until we actually saw our new home.
It was a dump. I mean, it was a serious, serious dump. In fact, it was the local eyesore, and the reason I now understand clearly my father had been able to get the house with no visible opposition was because it was, hands down, the worst house on the block. It was so run-down, beat-up, and ill kept that no one wanted it. If that house were a horse, it would have been described as "hard rode and put up wet." A creature in dire need of a little care and nurturing. My dad was the "sucker" the owners had "seen coming" on whom to unload their white elephant. Which is one reason, I'm sure, the race question was overlooked. Who else could have been expected to buy such a wreck?
When we first saw it, we children were shocked. We looked around the house and at each other. I mean, even the cramped quarters at Stebbins looked like a mansion compared to what we were moving into. I mean, small, little, squinched-up rooms, dark, sunless interiors, filthy baseboards, a total mess and not at all inviting.
But our initial disappointment did not, of course, take into account my father his supreme confidence in his skills and resourcefulness. He had indeed spent a long time looking for just such a house. Seeing not what was, but what could be. The neighborhood was quieter, and the house just three houses down from a school, and by the grace of God, sufficiently derelict and decrepit as to be available and affordable. Perfect. The Lord do move in mysterious ways.
My father had cased the joint purposefully and assured himself that the foundations were solid enough to afford him a base on which to build. He'd figured out exactly what he was going to do with this house.
Immediately when we moved in my mother used to tease him fondly that he unpacked his tools before he unpacked his bed my father set to work, even though it was January and cold. The remake took a long time, continuing in some way as long as he lived there. On those happy days when he had a construction job, my father worked on our house at night. On those all too many days when the union hiring hall failed to refer him to a job, he worked on our home day and night. Before he was through he had added rooms upstairs and down, knocked out walls to create more space, put in windows and doors. In a word, he completely transformed that wreck.
We learned later that as the neighbors looked on, amusement turned to skepticism, skepticism to wonder, and wonder to respect. They were, after all, working men and respected industry and competence. And as they watched the transformation from eyesore to one of the more attractive and well-maintained homes on the block, the neighbors recognized that because of my father the value of their property had not, as expected, plummeted by reason of our black presence, but had instead been enhanced.
The school three houses away on Hamilton Avenue was P.S. 34, where I and my three hearing sisters were immediately enrolled. The eldest, Umilta, who was deaf, attended a special school downtown. Naturally, for us, there would be the necessary period of adjustment the new-kids-on-the-block syndrome. That we were African undoubtedly contributed something to this tension at first, but I must say clearly that I can remember no instances of overt racism from the neighborhood kids.
Whatever their elders' attitudes might have been, once we were accepted in "da hood" by the other kids, that was it. Once we became familiar presences on the turf, so to say, citizens in good standing of the neighborhood, we were to be defended against any strangers from outside, whatever their color. But there would be a period of adjustment.
Our mother was always at home and overwatchful with one eye tuned in on the street. She at first tried to keep us at home as much as possible, and for a long time she was never really completely comfortable with our visiting other children's homes. For this reason, my father built a clubhouse in our backyard for my friends. Our backyard became a focus of youth activity, which made my mother happy, as most of my time was spent where she could watch my movements and make sure I was not being subjected to racist insults.
I believe my status among the boys was determined early by my mom and a stocky, muscular kid named Paulie Henry. Paulie was Italian/Irish, and most bellicose. He would, as they say, fight at the drop of a hat and drop the hat himself. One day early on, Paulie slapped around a friend of mine called Billy. I mean, ol' Paulie, like Stack O' Lee in the blues, had laid a hurtin' on poor Billy.
According to my mom, she came out and found me crying along with Billy. I guess, sensitive kid that I was, I was comforting Billy by helping him cry. Billy explained what Paulie had done and added that Paulie had promised to come back and beat me up too. In fact, he had gone to round up his boys to help him administer said beating.
"And where's this Paulie now?" my mother asked.
"Over in the school yard," Billy sobbed.
Before the words were well out of his mouth, my mother stormed into the school yard, trailed a little hesitantly by me and Billy.
"Which one of you is Paulie?" she demanded. Whereupon she declared in a loud and carrying voice obviously she was sending a message beyond just the school yard that I was not Billy. And she was not Billy's mother. So everybody, I mean, everybody, better understand that if they laid a finger on her son, she would come back with her husband's ax and set to chopping.
Upon which a chastened, deeply impressed Paulie hastened to assure her that this did not involve her son at all. That they had absolutely no intention in the world of touching her son. This was purely between them and Billy.
It had been a dramatic performance on my mom's part, and quite convincing. It certainly convinced Paulie and his gang, and even I was not entirely sure whether my mother had been serious. Which, I suppose, is exactly what she intended.
For it sure worked. I was probably the only kid on that block Paulie never fought with. In fact, he became a friend, and later, something of an influence.
In all of P.S. 34, there was but one other African family, the Stovalls. But they lived farther down in the Bronx, on the edge of the district. The oldest Stovall was a good athlete and, by reputation, rough, a "real toughie." I suppose as only the second African boy to come through, I basked in some of his reflected valor. Strangely enough, I never became real close with the Stovalls, perhaps because they didn't live in our immediate neighborhood. A case of the dominance of geography, "turf" over race, I presume.
In my class, the fifth grade, the acknowledged baddest dude was an Italian kid named Nicky. I had not been in school two weeks when, for some reason, Nicky challenged me. Again, the teacher gets wind of it and lets me out early. This time, though, there was no uncertainty on my part. I had learned with Jay precisely how to work this one.
In the end, it was almost a total rerun of P.S. 39 and Jay, as Nicky also decided it best that we not fight. Unlike Jay, however, we never became friends. Our relationship remained cool, but correct, a kind of peaceful school-yard coexistence.
Here at P.S. 34 I would find my peers undisciplined, less so than at Stebbins, but undisciplined nonetheless. Also just as destructive, breaking pens and pencils to throw at each other, dashing their books to the ground to fight each other. Which again raised the same question for me: Why were American children so undisciplined and even self-destructive? I still have no answer for that, but as I got more and more into the neighborhood, I would get to see this self-destructiveness at close hand.
By constantly reminding us that we were going to a better neighborhood, my mother had created certain expectations. Yet I would discover that just as much stealing was occurring in the "better" neighborhood, and this would come to touch me quite poignantly.
Despite my mother's efforts to keep us at home or in the backyard, inevitably, my being a boy and older, I would eventually begin to roam the neighborhood. This was almost always in the company of my new and close friend John DiMilio. John and I were inseparable, so close that the neighbors called us the Bobbsey Twins one being fair and the other dark. They said, "Wherever you see one, you look for the other, he won't be far." We were constantly in and out of each other's home, and before long I was deeply immersed in the ambient local Italian culture.
What little sponges children can be. I loved the food, both the taste and the sound of it, those final vowels and rolling consonants: spaghetti, macaroni, pizza, calamari, antipasto, mozzarella, and so forth. Because of Umilta's deafness, our family had learned to sign to communicate with her. This might explain my fascination with the expressive vocabulary of gestures that was so much a part of Italian conversation. I picked up these gestures naturally, and soon I could curse fluently in Italian to the accompaniment of eloquent gestures, much to the amusement of the adults. "Yo, kid, wad-daw-yah, a wise guy? Gi-dudah-heyah!"
I must in truth have been a sight, a pint-size paisano in blackface. A real wise guy. Everyone knew me even if they did not know my name. The street name they gave me, because I was dark, was Sichie, short for Sicilian. (Later I would learn from Malcolm X the role of Africans in the history of that island and the extent to which the Moors had left their indelible imprint on Sicilian architecture and on the complexion of the populace.)
Naturally, I also picked up the prevalent political attitudes of the Italian community. They did not particularly trust the government, in particular the FBI and the IRS. Of the two agencies, the IRS was truly to be feared while the FBI, in vernacular translation "Forever Bugging Italians," was bush league. My neighbors had scant respect for either that agency or its director, noting that it had consistently failed to make a single racketeering charge against Al Capone stick, while the IRS had busted him on tax evasion.
In the Harlem barbershop where my hair was cut, I would hear an African version of this conventional street wisdom. "Better you kill someone than cheat on them taxes, baby. Yo kin get away with murder easier than taxes. Mes wit his taxes an' Uncle Sam will git you. Yes he will, swear befo' God. Look what happened to Capone."
I know my mother regarded my integration into the local culture with considerable ambivalence. On the one hand, she was pleased with my easy acceptance and local popularity. On the other, a caveat. Her mantra became "Remember now, you can't be doing like these little white boys. Something happen out there in the street and you know who will get the blame." And that familiar nostrum of black parents: "Your little white friends got it made. For you to make it, you will have to be three times better than them. You best remember that, now." That, as it turned out, proved not all that accurate, failing as it did to take into account the serious consequences of class, culture, and gender.
However, my mother's misgivings were well founded, for the youth culture of that block was even then at considerable odds with the values and expectations of the parents.
When I began to hang out after sunset, she imposed a 9:00 P.M.. curfew, which, of course, I stretched as much as was prudent, which did not escape her notice. There would be frequent confrontation. Whenever I pulled in at 9:20 or 9:30, I'd hear about it in no uncertain terms.
One evening, fortunately for me, nothing very interesting was going down in the street. I went home early and retired quietly upstairs to my room. I read some and fell asleep.
At nine o'clock, my mother became incensed, "I know that boy's been running the streets. Well, when he comes in tonight, I am going to catch him. And he will hear me."
Whereupon she fetches up some of my Dad's two by fours and nails and proceeds to batten down the front door as though in preparation for a hurricane. I mean it was a sho'nuff barricade, Jack. By about ten, she's worried. Ten thirty she's besides herself. She rouses my father. "That son of yours is out running the streets again. You better go find him."
"Course I'll go. But, May, you done nailed up the door," my father pointed out.
I hear my name and call down. "Did someone call me?"
"You upstairs?" my mother cried. "Stokely, you upstairs?"
"Yes, ma'am. Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing. Nothing at all," she cries. "Stay in your bed." But by then I'm coming downstairs, trying (without great success) to keep a straight face at the sight of the door.
"Oh, what happened to the door?" I ask innocently. "Is a hurricane coming?"
"Yes, Mr. Man. You go ahead and laugh. But the night I catch you, we'll see how you laugh then."
Did my mother have reason to worry? Absolutely. More reason to worry, in fact, than she ever suspected, even though she tried everything possible to keep me out of trouble. Everything possible. Just like John DiMilio's mother; just like Cookie Delappio's mother; just like Paulie Henry's mother. And many, many other mothers like them. They do their best to keep their children out of trouble in this society...and fail. They do all in their power to keep them out of jail, to keep them off drugs, away from the many dangers that are out there in America, and too often they fail.
That's why I laugh when I hear people say that it is the parents who are to blame. It's not the parents, it's the society, stupid. The society with its venal, backward, and predatory values. This is what must be changed.
So, what was it that my mother did not really know? Well...start with the bellicose Paulie, he of the ax-lady incident. Among his age group on the block, Paulie was a leader, in fighting, in stealing, in breaking into neighborhood stores, and such like antisocial actions. All potentially self-destructive. A nice friend otherwise, but this was just his undisciplined streak. Something I found so rampant in America.
I knew that some of my Italian friends were breaking into the little mom-and-pop stores around the neighborhood, and that Paulie was coordinating much of this. But, I thought they weren't very bright about it. Working in groups of three, they would break into a store one night. A couple of nights later, another group would break into the same store. They would keep breaking into the same stores until the police apparently even less bright would finally catch a few. I knew that, but figured it wasn't my duty to be preaching at them. So I left it alone.
What follows I am not at all proud of. But in a book like this, one has an obligation to be brutally honest. Perhaps it can serve as a lesson to others about the dangers of peer pressure.
Now, I'd heard about this petty thievery and simply did not understand it. As I said, fifty-six years old and still trying to fathom America. I'm pretty sure none of us were in dire need of money. I certainly wasn't. And I'm sure the others weren't either, even Paulie. Because once he broke into these little stores, all he could get is the change left overnight, $20 tops. It all seemed so stupid and risky to me, and for what? But as I told myself, it wasn't my business to be preaching to them. Possibly I didn't want to seem square.
Until that one night when I was hanging out and Paulie proposed that we rip off a store. And as he did so, he seemed to be looking straight at me. It was a test of some sort, that was clear.
I had to calculate rather quickly. I understood clearly the stupidity of this act, but there was the pressure to belong. It was very much "All right, are you down with us or not?" Very much as if, you punk out now and you won't be able to hang no more. We'll know who you are. That kind of pressure.
So I had to calculate, these are my friends, my boys...anyway, I calculated to do the wrong thing. But at least I was clever. I told Paulie, "No big thing. We can rip off a store. No problem. But it can't be a store around here...that's too close to home." So we went a little bit aways down from the neighborhood. Three of us. In those days these small neighborhood stores had little side windows above the doors. Since it was a quiet neighborhood, the owners usually left these little windows open. Paulie, being relatively small and muscular, could easily boost himself up with our help and climb in the window. Which was good, for I certainly wasn't going into that store. Paulie didn't mind, partly, I suspect, because we had to take his word about whatever money he found. Since the money didn't matter to me anyway, I didn't much care whether he shorted us on the take.
Anyway, Paulie went in. We stood watch outside. He got the money, which we split, and went home.
That really affected me because I had never thought I'd ever allow myself to slip to that degree.
That night I experienced what one might call a serious crisis of conscience. All the way home and before I fell asleep, all I could think was why? I certainly didn't need it. I kept thinking about my mother, seeing the pain and anger in her face. I wasn't worried about her anger, as in her beating me, 'cause as I figured it, I would be in jail where she couldn't reach me anyway. But the hurt, you know. I kept seeing her before me, all she had done, how valiantly she'd tried, how she'd worked so hard...and here was this huge failure I had stupidly brought upon her. The disgrace, that is what really touched me as I'm sure it touches many other youths.
That night we were successful but I told myself I would never, ever do that again. And I never did.
I often reflected on what the consequences for my life might have been had we been caught for this first criminal act, which would have been breaking and entering and petty larceny. All of us would have gone down together for sure, and it would have meant at least a juvenile record. I have no idea forget the family crisis where that first arrest would have led me. I know for Paulie exactly. His undisciplined streak led him to arrest after arrest after arrest.
Recently, I've been reunited with John DiMilio and he's confirmed that of that group of neighborhood friends only about two went to college and the rest have done some jail time on one charge or another. So, as it turned out, these little white, working-class boys did not have it nearly as "made" as my mother had initially thought. Course, I have been in jail, and not only in this country. But I'm thankful to be able to say that none of my arrests were on criminal charges. All were political.
Here too some say, "Well, you escaped. You made it. If you did, the others could too." No. No. No. It is not nearly so simple. I had or was lucky to find alternatives, and the movement may also have saved me. I'm convinced that the deck is so stacked that only a certain number can get through. I happened to be one of that certain number. That's all.
For one thing, I was really never as completely integrated into the neighborhood's young male culture as it might have appeared. In spite of my street "gang" activity, my fluency in Italian invective, and my popular name Sichie, clearly I was in that culture but really not of it. We were black and the neighborhood was white. Our socializing and our identification were with an extended family of Africans, at first mostly of Caribbean origin, but growing to include Africans born in the United States. On holidays, on Sundays after church, we would exchange visits for elaborate Caribbean meals, music, and conversation. Or there would be picnics in one or another of the city parks where we'd enjoy our music and games of soccer. So although we lived comfortably in a Little Italy, we depended for our social life and cultural expression and renewal on an extended network of friends and family that crisscrossed African communities in three boroughs of the city: Brooklyn, Queens, and Harlem.
On these visits the young Carmichaels dressed in their Sunday best and under heavy, heavy manners (our best impress-the-relatives behavior) earned accolades for excellent deportment. Which was, in one respect, a little ironic.
Because of Umilta, all five Carmichael children had learned to sign. This ability proved heaven-sent during those long visits with Caribbean adults, some of whom were firm believers in the Victorian dictum that "children should be seen and not heard." Dutifully we sat, silent as mice, while signing outrageous comments among us. Sometimes even venturing to make fun of the unsuspecting elders at the table.
"My Lord, look at that hat!"
"Yeah, it looks like a crow's nest, eh?"
At some point before we left, there would be some recognition of our admirable deportment. "Oh," someone of the seen-and-not-heard persuasion would gush to the delight of the proud parents and the muted giggles of the children, "your children are so well-behaved. They were so quiet all that time, they never said a word."
Yeah, sure. Thas only because you didn't hear what Umilta said about your funny ol' hat, Lady.
Another thing that distanced me somewhat from much of the petty outlawry of the neighborhood guys was that I loved to read and my parents encouraged this. These were two extremely intelligent and resourceful people, but without much formal education. They were literate enough, but hardly literary. So while they were convinced of the crucial importance of reading and encouraged me in it, they could not offer much guidance about what to read. My mother would buy all kinds of books that seemed to her "educational." She certainly bought a lot of encyclopedias, seduced no doubt by the salesmen's line about "giving your children every educational advantage." I also spent hours in the library enduring the taunts of the neighbor kids about being "a bookworm." With Olympian impartiality, I read everything and anything.
In addition, there was the threat of punishment. My mom was the first line, the cutting edge of family discipline my father being held in reserve for really serious offenses and she was particularly vigilant and strict with me, the son. But as long as I stayed at or near the top of my class, she would cut me some slack. So I contrived to stay there and pretty much did. Whatever I knew would please Mother, that I tried my best to do. Anything I knew would displease her, that I'd try to avoid. For this, she has earned my undying gratitude because, without her firm restraining presence, undoubtedly I'd have ended up in jail like so many of my neighborhood buddies. Thank you, May Charles, thank you, thank you. (In Africa, when you mean to thank someone seriously, you have to do it thrice.)
The other thing that contributed to my escape was that P.S. 34, the neighborhood school, went only to the sixth grade. For the seventh and eighth grades, we'd have to go to P.S. 83, which, while only about a fifteen-minute walk away, was something of a different world.
The year was 1954. For us, it marked the onset of puberty, the age when, as they say in the Caribbean, "A boy begin to smell him mannish." So the antisocial activity on the block became a little more ambitious, therefore potentially more serious.
Because P.S. 83 was a magnet school and a lot larger, a wider range of students would be feeding in from different elementary schools. Now there would be Jewish kids from across Pelham Parkway; more Irish and Italians from farther down Morris Park Avenue; and Africans, the same two from P.S. 34, the Stovall kid and me.
Since the school was larger, the kids from my neighborhood were split up in different classes. I imagine there must have been some kind of academic tracking in effect, for John DiMilio and I tended to find ourselves in classes with the more academically serious students from different neighborhoods. Some of the new students with whom I became friendly had rather more intellectual interests than my local circle. These new friends and I began to exchange visits, and this served to distance me somewhat from the neighborhood circle.
But in the evenings and on Saturdays we'd still hang out. The stealing continued but I steadfastly refused to participate. But that didn't mean I was completely uninvolved, because while I myself would not steal, I would hide the others' stolen goods for them. A nice distinction without a real difference, huh?
It was a contradiction and it preyed naggingly on my mind no matter how hard I tried to dismiss it. This was rendered even more troubling because my father was so scrupulously, resolutely, and unambiguously honest a man. "If you didn't work for it," he'd always say, "don't look for it. If you didn't sweat for it, don't even think of it." In all the time we lived together, I never knew him to deviate in the slightest from that principle. In fact, some of his fellow craftsmen would visit and sometimes talk about taking materials from the big construction jobs as, so they said, compensation for the discrimination they endured. Paying the bosses back, they said. Why didn't my father? But he was resolute: "If I didn't work for it, I ain't looking for it."
How I would ultimately have resolved this contradiction I do not know, but two events, coming at about the same time, intervened to make the decision for me.
I am pretty sure it was Paulie who first suggested we form a gang to be called the Morris Park Dukes. Never heard of them? Neither has anyone else. The Morris Park Dukes were never to etch their name in "glory" or infamy in the violent folklore of New York youth gang culture.
On Saturday the Dukes used to go to a movie theater on Boston Road and Pelham Parkway. The main reason for our going was to fight. You'd find some guy from another neighborhood who for some reason you didn't like and you'd both go to it. Innocuous perhaps, but certainly senseless: Go and fight someone you don't even know? Actually, this too was certainly copycat behavior influenced almost entirely by Hollywood's youth-culture, "urban jungle" movies of the time Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, and so forth. What ever happened to Sal Mineo, who was very much a model and culture hero to my Italian friends?
Anyway, someone decided that we Dukes needed to take it to the next level. This meant making zip guns, the primitive, distant ancestors of the Glock nines, currently the weapon of choice in urban youth warfare. The manufacture of a zip was simplicity itself. First you steal the aerial from someone's car, preferably a car parked well outside your neighborhood. Then you procure a cap pistol and file its firing pin to a point. A suitable length of aerial is cut off, filed down, and inserted into the barrel of the cap pistol. Then you stretch a number of stiff rubber bands around behind the firing pin and in front of the trigger guard.
Now you position a .22-caliber bullet in the barrel under the pin. Pull the pin back and release it. If the alignment is correct about one time in twenty the pin will strike the detonator on the back of the shell and the gun will fire. Of course, where the bullet will go is anybody's guess.
So we decide to make zip guns. Why we were making them is, to this day, still not clear to me. I suppose we were to take them up to the theater on Pelham Parkway. I guess.
The next Saturday about twelve of the Morris Park Dukes went to a five-and-dime to buy the cap pistols. En route, someone was visited by insight: we the Dukes, we can't be buying no pistols. That's beneath us, a kid action. So just like that, we walked out of the store without paying. That evening we find cars with suitable aerials and break them off. When the owners woke up, their cars had no aerials. When the zips were made, some actually fired, most didn't. I can't now remember whether mine did. But this was the final act in my flirtation with the destructive behavior of our wanna-be gang.
Now that we had guns that fired at least a few did were we really going to shoot, possibly maim or even kill, some kid we didn't even know? I am sure the Dukes never did, but I sure wasn't about to tag along to find out.
Not long after that I went to a store not the same five-and-dime with one of my sisters, and when we came out, she proudly showed me something she'd boosted. I was outraged, absolutely livid. My sister cannot possibly be involved in something so stupid! What if she is arrested? What of the embarrassment to our parents? Instinctively, without hesitation, I order her to take it back. She refuses. "Look," I warned, "if you don't take it back, I'm gonna tell Mother." Apparently she did not believe me, so I did.
My mother took my sister back to the store, either returned or paid for the merchandise, and gave her a proper beating right there in the store. I'm fairly confident none of my sisters were ever tempted to shoplift after that.
That relatively trivial incident proved the straw that busted my camel's back. It forced me to face the real implications of all I had been doing, however halfheartedly, with the guys. No further rationalization was possible. The deep and abiding sense of guilt and shame that I experienced was awful. I mean, I can't remember feeling so absolutely wretched again. The hypocrisy of turning my sister in for shoplifting when I was doing much worse seriously haunted me.
I now think that those two accomplices guilt and shame are probably together the most corrosively painful scourges the human spirit can experience. Precisely because they always and only stem from one's own failure to keep faith with one's truest self. With one's private conscience, one's most cherished and basic principles, with one's sense of honor. For me it was an important lesson too painful to ever forget. I may not have known the word integrity, but that is what that was about. That simple incident first taught me that no matter how private or hidden the betrayal, one cannot live with oneself without integrity. The pain is too great. My late father had a much used saying that, because it seemed so unforgiving, puzzled me greatly as a young boy. It occurs to me that this is what it was about: integrity. "You can tell the truth every day of your life," my father would say, "and if, on the day of your death, you tell a lie...that is what will matter."
That very day I began seriously to separate myself from the antisocial behaviors of the street.
What is curiously inverted in the macho street code of my young friends is that they would, in all likelihood, have found my action quite natural and understandable. Not, as one might expect, an indignant "Jeez, whaad'ya say? Ol' Stokes ratted the kid out? Ged audda heah!" But an instinctive and complete understanding that considerations of family honor (and particularly that of the womenfolk) had left me no choice. For them, the women in the family, like "Caesar's wife," must be beyond reproach. Considerations of family honor that were, oddly enough, not seen to be threatened in quite the same way by our own escalating thuggish behavior in the street.
In September of 1954 a momentous year in contemporary black history I went to P.S. 83, and I left in June of 1956. That is, I went to P.S. 83 just a few months after the Supreme Court's Brown decision and left just prior to the final victory of the African community in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. At the time, both events could not have seemed more remote from my immediate circumstances and for that matter to each other. But they were, in fact, closely related and both would significantly determine the trajectory of my life.
My two years at P.S. 83 the seventh and eighth grades were important formative ones. From the perspective of forty-five years it is easy to see how the streams of cultural influence that were to imprint my personality, inform my consciousness, and determine the trajectory of my life had begun to emerge during those two years.
On the one hand, this period of my youth could without too much irony be called my most "all-American" period. At school I was completely surrounded by whites and, as far as could be seen, appeared to have been completely accepted by them. I was placed among the high academic achievers and pretty much flourished in that environment. So much so that in the eighth grade, a friend, Donald Sweetbaum, drafted me to run for vice president of the Student Council.
I was not at all sure I wanted to do that. I was very conscious of being the lone African in the class and I wasn't entirely ready to test at the polls how the class really felt about me.
But, when we sat down to discuss it, Sweetbaum was confident. "I know you gonna win, man, everyone knows you," etc., etc. Well, how could they not know me, I was the proverbial fly in the buttermilk. Then he clinched the argument: "Look buddy, how can you lose? I got the winning slogan." And he produced one of the more memorable jingles in American electoral politics before the advent of the Reverend Jesse Jackson: "Okeydokey, vote for Stokey."
Sweetbaum proved to have had his finger unerringly on the pulse of the electorate we smoked the opposition. I'm glad for his sake that we then had no idea of the grand theft dough, the obscene sums of corrupt money political consultants would command from a terminally corrupt system today. Sweetbaum, an otherwise nice, decent kid, might have been drawn into a life of crime like the others we now see on TV.
Without question, P.S. 83 was a good, nurturing experience for me. The best proof of this would be that the school selected me among its candidates for the citywide competitive entrance exam for the Bronx High School of Science. The school's good judgment in my case was vindicated because I won a place in the "highly competitive, elite" Bronx Science. And this was 1956, a decade before any such notion as affirmative action was even contemplated. Therefore, I had earned this high academic honor purely on sheer individual, intellectual merit, untainted by any suggestion of demeaning "racial" preference. Well, you may believe that if you wish. (I'm sure my proud mother still does, and I got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to interest you in....)
I was very, very clear, even at age fourteen, that my selection was heavily indebted to racial politics and the ongoing struggle and agitation of my people. Yeah, I had good grades, but I have no illusion that my being their sole African student didn't have something to do with the middle school's decision to nominate me. Or that Bronx Science did not understand clearly that they had to make room for at least a few Africans or risk being denounced for racism by the African community. Even in 1956, we had a word for it. We called it tokenism.
How did I know this? True, that this kind of discussion was really not a part of daily conversation at P.S. 83, given its racial composition. Actually, my nappy, nappy African hair, my "natty dreads," had saved me from that cocoon of willed "innocence" in which white America famously entombed its youth during the fifties.
See, when we first moved to Amethyst Street, we had gone to every neighborhood barbershop and failed to find a single barber who knew how to cut my hair. Or who would admit that he did. Which meant that, until I left for college, I'd have to go into Harlem every two or three weeks to have my hair cut.
At first the trips to the barbershop with my father I believe it was on 145th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues were a little disconcerting. I mean, simply because of the sharp difference in style, sound, feel, and look between Harlem barbershop culture and the Italian/Irish ambience of Amethyst Street. For one thing, everyone and everything, even to the pictures on the walls, was black, or at least not white. Then too the shop was popular, so I often had to wait my turn in the chair. This became the one time in my life that I actually enjoyed sitting around waiting for anything.
A constant stream of men came through the shop; some, from their accents, were from the Caribbean. Most though, from the soft, slow cadences and rhythms and the "bluesy folk" images of their speech, were from somewhere close to the heart of Dixie. Some men seemed to come in simply to talk and listen, for conversation that sometimes reached the level of art. There was the woofin', the jiving, the stylin' and the signifying and the dozens. No, there weren't the dozens, I mean, I ain't going to lie on my people now. This was a respectable establishment and the real "dirty dozens" would not have been appropriate, being entirely too "low-lifed." Now, there was occasionally a slight flavoring, a hint of the dozens, at least, the form of it. But only between two very good friends. And it certainly never got down and dirty the way the nasty dozens s'posed to be: "Yo' mamma doan wear no drawers," etc. But there was otherwise the full range and vast repertoire of African-American colloquial discourse.
Apart from the pleasures of the style, which reflected the African pleasure in language for its own sake, the content of the discussions was the real revelation to me. On a good day, a wide range of political opinion and commentary, and community, national, and international news was to be heard and dissected. There came into the shop old Garveyites, race men, street players, black Republicans and Black Muslims, nationalists of all descriptions, and the rappers, poets, and wordmen who seemed to talk simply for the joy of hearing their own voices.
That barbershop became for me a necessary corrective, an early window into an African-American worldview and sensibility, a crucially important counterpoint of reference for those.
Take for example the Korean War, excuse me, the "police action." I know that it was in the barbershop that I first heard the saga of Pork Chop Hill, that bloodiest of battles, where the white brass MacArthur? Ridgeway? I forget who, but a white man anyway cynically used hundreds of African-American troops, black men, as cannon fodder.
For a better example, during my two years at P.S. 83, two events would be of profound significance for African-Americans in my age set. They would not only affect race relations in the country but the psychology of an entire generation. But I can remember no organized discussion in school, in Sunday school, or any casual mention in the streets of the Bronx community of either the Supreme Court's Brown decision or, the next year, the lynching of young Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi.
But at the barber's, they were the central subject of discussion and analysis, the topic of debate, the source of anger and eloquence, the catalyst for poignant reminiscences, in short, for the handing down of collective history. For me, the barbershop was a necessary emotional and cultural corrective to the hospitable, quite comfortable but essentially alien vibe of the home turf.
When we first moved to Amethyst Street, our family had no car. This meant that church became a major chore for my mother each Sunday. The church we had gone to near Stebbins Avenue was John Wesley Methodist, a small church of a few Caribbean families. My father, always a devoted man, was in his element there, spiritually and culturally.
But getting there was onerous, particularly for my mother, who had to rise at the crack of dawn or before, cook the Sunday dinner, then supervise the preparation of five children. We then had to ride the bus or the train down to the church and back. So my mother decided to join a Methodist congregation within reasonable walking distance of our house. Westchester Methodist on the edge of the Parkchester district must have been the closest Protestant outcropping in that ocean of Catholicism. We children went to Westchester Methodist with my mother while my father would continue to worship at John Wesley Methodist among his own.
The congregation of Westchester Methodist, like all else in the immediate vicinity, was lily-white. So we Carmichaels integrated it. We were made welcome by the pastor and received warmly by many of the members, though for some time, some heads would continue to turn when we walked in.
I said "many" members received us warmly, because I can recall nothing from those members with whom we interacted except the kind of fellowship and hospitality one would expect from fellow Christians. If any in the congregation felt otherwise, they would, naturally, have kept their distance so we would not have gotten to even meet them.
We attended the Sunday School at Westchester and I would join the Scout troop. I have always, like my father, loved music. My mother, seeing this, had enrolled me for lessons with a local piano teacher. This was a short-lived investment in my cultural development, since it soon became clear that I was not destined to be a concert pianist. (Also, piano lessons were a little awkward to explain to Paulie and the Dukes.) But my brief foray into "higher" culture was by no means a total loss. Actually, I'd quite forgotten this until reading in a national magazine recently that I "played the piano at Westchester Sunday School." Which makes it sound as if I had been the resident pianist. What happened was that once I performed that beloved staple of all piano teachers for their beginners, Beethoven's simple and lovely melody, Für Elise. Proud mothers do tend to exaggerate, even forty-five years later.
In this Sunday school, I made many new friends Ronald Zemati, with whom I also joined the Boy Scout troop, and Bob Johnson come to mind. Bob and I became really friendly and would visit each other's house. Nothing unusual in that except that Bob lived as did many of the church members in Parkchester, which at that time did not allow black residents. So when Bob and I would pass through Parkchester, there would be stares and raised eyebrows, which, naturally, we ignored.
If, however, we were with a group of young people from the Sunday school, and if I happened to be walking next to, or in conversation with, a girl, then heads and hackles would be raised, not just eyebrows. So, from a young age I clearly understood this aspect of American racism. Besides which my mother had, at about this time, begun to seriously caution me about white girls, and in particular that I should never even think about anything remotely resembling a white wife. If any such idea ever broached my consciousness, I should forget about it "like bullfrog forgot about tail" in the Caribbean proverb. The next year after the revelation of the Till atrocity a note of real anxiety and alarm crept into my mother's warnings on the subject. The issue would come up only once in high school, and I'll discuss that at the proper time.
Ron Zemati and I joined the Scout troop together, where once more I was the lone African presence. We went camping and on hikes, which provided a welcome opportunity to explore nature and the outdoors after being cooped up in the city. I learned a lot I would not otherwise have learned so I really enjoyed scouting a lot, becoming a Life Scout.
Among the merit badges that I earned was the one for religious knowledge. I was at that time, like my father, very religious and I really enjoyed reading the Bible for that badge. So religious, in fact, that I seriously contemplated a clerical vocation. Mummy Olga played quite a role in that. Still living with us, she was a religious woman. She was particularly taken with a blind radio evangelist, to whom she listened (religiously) every Sunday without fail. I cannot remember the preacher's name, but he calculated that if one read two chapters a day, one could read the entire Bible in a year and a half. This struck my aunt as a most excellent undertaking, particularly if I would read with her. So every night before bed we'd read our two chapters, and on Sunday evening we'd listen together when the preacher commented learnedly on the week's fourteen chapters. Mummy Olga would have been delighted had I fulfilled her fond predictions and gone into the pulpit. I always tease her that I came close and that she is responsible for my always quoting the Scriptures in my political speeches.
In rereading this account, my father, while a constant enough presence, seems but a vague one, hovering somewhere in the middle distance, indistinct, while my mother vibrantly commands the narrative foreground. This is true only in the obvious and limited sense that May Charles was very much, day to day, the center of our little domestic universe while my father was out in the world securing our family's livelihood by the sweat of his brow.
That is exactly how they both wanted it. To them, this was not just the preferred arrangement, the proper ordering of our world, but the only conceivable one. In this, they were full partners, completely content and confident in this division of responsibilities.
As an adult I now understand just how precarious that daily bread had been. With the benefit of hindsight and adult experience, I can fully understand exactly how extraordinary a couple my parents were, but we always somehow knew that they were special (aren't all parents), but not how unique.
As individuals they would appear to be as strikingly different in their personalities as a man and a woman could be. As a couple, though, they were splendid, a perfect complement.
For one thing, I believe that until the last moment of their life together, they were in love. More than that, they were in the fullest sense of that word helpmeets: partners whose shared respect, trust, and confidence in the other was unqualified. Their major priority being, of course, their children.
Yet they patently did not see or engage with the world in anything remotely like the same terms. In a curious way, their individual styles and personalities were as different as their essential values were indivisible. My mother was, and remains to this day, voluble, passionate, impulsive, and excitable. Her spirit is fiercely confrontational. But she was also pragmatic, provident, and practical. She was an excellent seamstress, sewing much of our clothes. She also sewed for a small circle of customers for cash. So that in any financial crisis when extra money was needed, we could usually depend on May Charles to produce it from somewhere.
Adolphus, my father, was in contrast a deliberate man. Not excitable, quiet, thoughtful. Not physically very large, he was wiry and strong. He seemed to have boundless energy and was certainly one of the hardest-working men I've ever known. I've tried to emulate that quality in my own life and work. His face was spare, the skin taut over a prominent forehead and cheekbones with large, deep-set eyes that were steady and quiet. A face without lines or an ounce of superfluous skin or fat.
His demeanor was serious, but without being in any way stiff. His manner always seemed calm, almost relaxed. A very social man, he loved music and was an exquisitely graceful dancer. His words were always thoughtful. He was not verbose, but we always knew that whatever our father said in his quiet voice, he truly meant. We never disobeyed him. At dinner he'd always ask each of us, "Well, what did you learn today?" If someone came up shaky, he'd shake his head. "You know, the day on which you learned nothing is a wasted day. Enough of those and what've you got? A wasted life."
My sister Janeth (now Nagib) remembers that "because he said so little, we girls paid total attention to anything he did say." She also remembers that sometimes when they were small and had been bad, our mother would greet him with a litany of complaints about the girls' shortcomings in his absence.
"Adolphus, you've got to punish them." Sometimes he'd summon them sternly to the bedroom, take off his belt, and fetch the mattress a number of resounding whacks.
"What you all waiting for? Go ahead and cry."
What I most remember about our father is his ineffable calm, understated air of confidence. He knew his own worth and so was under no pressure to prove anything to anyone. Nothing, and in particular, no problem in carpentry or craftsmanship, ever seemed to intimidate him.
"Well, now," he'd say as he studied the problem. "There's always more'n one way to skin a cat." Sooner or later he came out with an approach often not the conventional one but one that would get the job done, and often more efficiently. When his fellow workmen visited, after a drink or two my father did not drink, but he'd be hospitable one or another of them would often get expansive: "Boy, you know your father's a great man?" And would brag about some process my father had devised to solve a problem that had stumped their foreman on the job.
But he never learned to like America. Never. Which was the greatest underlying difference between our parents. My mother was determined to make America work for us. The whole dream, for she was determined that in America we should not merely survive, but that we would triumph. In everything that America offered hence the piano lessons, the better neighborhood, the big "white" church, and so on. We would, so far as her striving, upwardly mobile spirit was concerned, take our rightful place in the mainstream and seize whatever the American Dream had to offer that appealed to us.
My father had absolutely no argument with that. Except perhaps that he was more selective. I think somewhere in his consciousness lurked the notion that we were not only as good as anyone else, but possibly a little better. He was content with himself, with his people, his culture, and more than anything, with his principles.
For, as we children were to discover, something about him was very pure. Whatever he professed, that would he perform. Not only would he not lie, he never really expected that other people would. Again, my sister Nagib. She told me this recently, which had to have happened when she was very young:
"I will never forget the day our father discovered that white folks would lie. I heard them. He was in the bedroom talking with May Charles. It had something to do with his being able to join the union. He said, 'But, Mabel, he lied.' My mother said something. 'But, Mabel, the man lied to me. The man lied, Mabel, flat out, he lied.' I will never forget," my sister told me, "the disillusionment in our father's voice that day."
The story I remember came a little later, after he was a dues-paying member of the union in good standing. He had dutifully presented himself to the hiring hall for almost a month and was still waiting to be referred to a site. Our mother, ever pragmatic, suggested he give the representative "a little something." She'd heard that was how it was done. Everyone did it.
"You mean bribe him?" My father was incredulous. "That ain't right. I don't have to bribe anyone. God is my bribe."
So quietly my mother got some money together, as usual. But given my father's moral scruples, she couldn't do anything as crude as a bribe. A present, though, was another matter, a gesture of respect and goodwill. She gave the money to my uncle Albert who, as "Lord Hummingbird," a calypsonian, worked on a tour ship. This was sometime after the war when French perfume and silk stockings were at a premium but could be had from the black market at the French docks.
When my uncle brought back the contraband, she called up the union rep, saying she simply wanted to meet him and, of course, "here's a little present for your wife."
Next day, my father came home beaming. "Told you I didn't have to bribe anyone God is my bribe." And he gathered the family together to say a prayerful word of thanks. My mom prayed as thankfully as anyone.
I don't want to give the impression that my father was sanctimonious or, as they say in the South, "plu-pious." He was nothing like that, but he saw ethical principles in religious terms, and religious terms were for him inviolate. He would, for example, say by way of rhetorical emphasis that even if his children were starving, he would never work on Good Friday. For, even as Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice his son on the mountain, so would he.
Except that we knew that the last thing he would ever tolerate was that we, his family, should be in need. My father loved his family and had a great sense of responsibility to them. He had to make sure that everything we needed was there, and he would do anything to ensure our happiness and well-being. To him, providing for us was his paramount responsibility. In capitalist, racist America, with six hungry mouths to feed, that was a feat.
Even when he had a union job, he would sometimes drive a cab at night. In the winter he'd drive the cab and also do occasional carpentry, a room here, a door or window there. After work, he went to electrician school to get a license. Sometimes in the winter he'd sign on as a carpenter or electrician on a merchant ship and ship out. He was at home only to sleep. "Why you working so hard all the time?" I asked.
"Only for you" was his simple answer. "Only for you." I have always believed this country forced my father to work himself to an early grave. And it was "only for us."
So, largely because of our indefatigable parents' resourcefulness during our childhood, our family was never poor, certainly not in the grinding sense that I would encounter poverty in Mississippi, Alabama, or even in Northern cities during my life's work.
The one time when we children would really feel the cold breath of want and hunger closing in on us was when my father fell ill and was hospitalized for some weeks. Then I discovered what it means for a family in a capitalist society to have a single wage-earner, and to have that person fall ill. Left to the rapacious forces of the market economy, the family is in serious trouble. You really go backward economically. That's what happened to us, but God moves in mysterious ways....This is what my sisters ruefully refer to as our "time of milk and brownies."
As you might recall, Mummy Olga was a widow twice over. In Trinidad she'd had one particularly persistent and faithful suitor, Mr. Dowling Charles. We children knew that Uncle Dowling really wanted to marry Mummy Olga. But like in the Paul Robeson song, she always answered, "Oh, no, John, no John, no John no."
We children thought this most unfortunate 'cause we loved Uncle Dowling and just knew that he would have been the perfect husband for Mummy Olga, because he really cared for her, and the care extended to us. But perhaps after the premature deaths of two husbands, Mummy Olga got to believing the conventional folk wisdom that she was one of those unfortunate women who were death on husbands.
Whatever the case, when Mummy Olga brought us to America, Uncle Dowling was not far behind. His stated reason for coming was to study to be a mortician, but we all knew he was following Mummy Olga. He wanted her, once he completed his studies, to return home with him as his wife, which Mummy Olga declined to do. (Maybe his choice of occupation contributed something to her resistance, I don't know.) But while he was studying, he supported himself by working in a little restaurant. It was such a tiny place that it bought supplies day to day, and their dessert menu consisted of one item milk and brownies. When the restaurant closed at night, all that was usually left over was the dessert.
The restaurant was in Brooklyn, where Uncle Dowling reported for work every evening after school. During my father's illness, every night Uncle Dowling would ride the train all the way up to the Bronx with as much milk and brownies as could be made to fit into his briefcase. Until my father recovered, we had brownies and milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even today, whenever I see a brownie, I recall vividly, inside and out, their taste, their consistency, even their smell.
Uncle Dowling later returned to Trinidad. Sometime in the late seventies, I heard that our uncle was terminally ill. I was, at that time, prohibited from entry into any country of the British Commonwealth by a British ban. However, I was determined to say goodbye to this decent, caring man. And to do so in person. I'm happy to say this proved relatively simple to do on a brief "illegal" visit. It turned out that the ban decreed from "on high" was, at least in my case, very, very loosely enforced by my kinsmen below.
One winter when my father shipped out, one of the ports of call was Accra, Ghana. Independent Ghana. My father came back transfigured, almost glowing, and with many little African artifacts as presents for us. I will always remember the awe and wonder with which we looked at these beautiful and exotic objects that came from Africa, our motherland. Nagib recently showed me the elegant little ivory woman's head that had been her present. She's treasured her father's African present over all these years. What I've treasured are the stories about Nkrumah and his struggle for independence and my father's palpable pride and joy in the telling, and at having been among a free nation of African people. I was enthralled by these accounts and never even remotely dreamed that I might ever get to meet such a legendary figure.
One story my dad told with such dramatic description and feeling that the picture he presented etched itself indelibly in my imagination to this day.
It was the opening of Parliament in independent Ghana. Pomp and ceremony. The members are all seated. The gallery is full. World's press in attendance. An air of great expectancy. Everyone is waiting for the new government team to appear. Then they do. The Prime Minister, Mr. Nkrumah, leads his cabinet on to the floor of the hall. There's an audible gasp, surprise, outrage, pride, but mostly, astonishment. Then applause. Here my father's eyes glowed with pride and wonder and a tremor came into his voice.
To a man, the entire cabinet is wearing, not the British ceremonial top hat and tails, but the drab, shapeless, dehumanizing garb of British colonial convicts. The humiliating uniforms they had worn while in prison during the struggle.
"Boy, you hear me, those black men marched right out of prison and into power," my father exulted. Of course, my heart was touched by my father's obvious emotion. However, I could have had no idea then, that one day I would be able to share my father's pride in the telling of his story with the Osageyfo himself.
I was a sophomore at Howard when my father died. He had been a great lover of music of all kinds, particularly gospel and, of course, calypso. Often when I came in at night, he'd be sitting up in the living room listening to his music. "Come here, boy, listen to this!" and he'd put on something, maybe the latest Nat King Cole album. One evening I brought in a single that was the rage of Harlem, kind of a modified calypso by a young man in the Nation of Islam. "Okay, Dad, you listen to this. What you think?" He listened intently and had me play it twice. When he looked up, he had a tear in his eye.
"Bet you," he said, "they'll never play that on the radio."
The song was "The White Man's Heaven Is the Black Man's Hell," and the singer-composer was Louis X. You now know him as Louis Farrakhan. I'll never forget how his song brought a tear to my father's eye.
Copyright © 2003 by Kwame Ture and Ekwueme Michael Thelwel