This post is quite a bit longer than what we usually publish here at Beacon Broadside, but we hope that you'll take the time to read it in its entirety. The story is by author Don Belton, and was included in Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream, which was edited by Belton and published by Beacon Press in 1995. Don Belton's death on December 27th was a great loss, and we feel that this essay offers a fine example of the power and humanity of his work.On Christmas morning in 1991 I telephoned my nephew. I have two nephews: Charles, who had only just turned nineteen the week before, and Wayne, Jr., who is somewhere in his middle twenties by now. These are the children of my brother's first marriage. My nephews grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where much of my early childhood was spent, but that was before the conflagration of the 1967 riot and the razing of what remained of the city by the local, state, and federal governments in the name of an urban renewal which is yet to come. While Newark was not an easy city to live in, it was still, in any case, from the late 50s to the mid-60s (when I lived there with my great-grandmother in the black district called the Hill) a city. Today Newark is the ghost of a city. Its statistics for AIDS, black-on-black crime, infant mortality, and unemployment bear witness to dissolution.
Charles was living in Newark in 1991. I had not spoken to him in over four years. I hadn't seen him in a longer time. The last time we'd spoken was by telephone. (For several years now, I seem to talk to the members of my family only on the phone.) By 1991 I still felt unresolved about our last conversation. I had been visiting my parents' house in Philadelphia, while they were away on a trip. "Uncle Don," Charles had said to me on the phone back then, "Where's Grandad and Gramma? I want to tell them I got shot."
His father had divorced his mother when Charles was six. My brother had married again after renouncing the street life he'd embraced almost his entire youth. His second marriage was to a middle-class black woman nine years younger than he (and one year younger than I). She was a preacher's daughter. My brother soon became an evangelical preacher himself. Since my brother has renounced what he often calls, from the pulpit, the sin and shame of his former life, he has also, tragically, renounced his sons. He is uncomfortable with them. It is as if they are his doubles. They are him, but with a frightening difference. They are projections of all the parts of himself that he has disowned in order to achieve his new life. They still know little more than the brutal reality of the streets he fled. They also remember him as the junkie who beat their mother, and they still bear the mental and spiritual wounds of that. He does not talk to them, any more than our father spoke to him, because to talk to them might mean confronting the past from which he is always running; allowing that past into his present. Instead, he quotes the self-hating apostle Paul when I criticize his abandonment of his sons, proclaiming himself a new creature in Christ. "All old things," he assures me. parroting Saint Paul, "are passed away." My brother now has three young daughters with his new wife. When his new wife was pregnant with the last girl, she called me on the phone and said, "Your brother wants a boy, but I pray it's another girl. It's easier for black girls than it is for black boys."
In the four years since I'd spoken to Charles, his mother had been murdered in the housing project where both she and her children were raised. Had it been easier for her? After having been shot (almost fatally, for refusing to run drugs for a neighborhood syndicate), Charles recovered and began his career as a drug lord in Newark. Recently he had been sentenced to three to seven years in prison for attempted murder, a sentence from which he was on the lam on Christmas, 1991. He was nineteen.
The phone rang several times before there was an answer at the number that another relative had provided. The voice that answered was a man's, husky, low. I wondered if this was the new voice, the man's voice for the mercurial black baby boy whom I'd helped to raise. I asked if Charles was there.
"Who is this?" the voice asked, gruff.
"I'm sorry," I said. I'd been told he was in hiding. "This is his uncle, Don."
"Uncle Don?" I listened to the voice come alive, filling with pleasure, softening, turning into a boy's. "Uncle Don?"
Suddenly I was afraid, awed by the power of the telephone to create the illusion that pushing a sequence of buttons was all that was required for me to reach Charles. He was, after all, now speaking into my ear-- this was his voice, we had each other on the line. I also felt regret that it had taken me so long to complete such a simple action.
He wanted to know where I was calling from. He said he'd heard I lived in Maine. I told him I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
"Minneapolis?" he asked. "Where Prince lives?"
He told me he'd seen the book I'd written, at his great-aunt's house in Newark. He said he wanted to read it. I promised to send him a copy. I told him I was writing another, a section of which I had dedicated to the memory of his mother when it was published in a literary journal. I don't really know much that is certain about his mother, though I knew her, except that she was mellow-voiced and pretty when she was young. Her skin was the color of yellowed ivory, she had freckles, and her name was the same as my own mother's.
"You're a teacher, aren't you? At a college?"
"Yes," I said. "I teach literature."
I wonder what Charles thinks of my life. I know he's been told I am a success, though I doubt he understands why. I doubt he knows mine is a success I sometimes can barely feel, though I live in a multicultural (predominately white, middle-class) neighborhood, where my white heterosexual neighbors tolerate my homosexuality, my blackness, my intellectual bent. A number of the neighbors have adopted children of color from the American South, Peru, Korea. Others are busy making babies. The parents accept me ostensibly, but they make certain I never babysit. I wanted to tell Charles I'm gay. I came out to most of the adults in my family years ago. I wanted him to learn from me that his uncle loves men.
I also wanted to tell him what it has been like for me teaching at a college whose faculty I joined in 1990, a college that has failed to tenure a single black professor in twenty years, about the stress of sometimes confronting a racism so covert and insidious our ancestors could not have imagined it. I wanted to tell him that although I was preparing a lecture I would give in a few weeks in Paris at the Sorbonne, my life felt permeated by a soul-sick sadness I inherited from my father and my father's father (both of whom were named Charles) and share with my nephew's father. Obviously Charles is a part of this, and I believed that if I could discuss this sadness with Charles (surely he was now old enough for this conversation), could share my names for it with him and hear the names he gave to it, then we might touch that hurt together and help each other heal. But something prevented me. I wasn't afraid that he would cease to look up to me if he knew my life isn't the magazine of success our relatives want to pretend it is; I was afraid of the incoherence that stretched out before me when I thought of naming the pain we were both a part of. Any words I might speak would have to be words used in faith, since I did no know their exact power to hurt or heal. To speak them I would have to trust myself and trust Charles, trust love. And I was unable to speak those words of faith that morning.
I did the best I could. I opened the door as wide as I could to my nephew, hoping he might, because of his youth or recklessness, push it further. "So how are things with you?" I asked him. "I haven't seen you in so long. Talk to me."
I listened as my nephew brought me up to date on his life with the same adolescent mixture of nonchalance, anxiety, and wonder with which I had once reported to my parents about a backpack trip to Quebec City in 1975, life in my college dorm, or meeting James Baldwin at his brother David's apartment on Manhattan's West Side when I was a sophomore.
Trying to listen beneath my nephew's words for his feelings-- for his life and my own-- my mind wandered over all I already knew of Charles's life. He had been out of my life for so long, and more importantly, since he had once been in part my responsibility, I had been out of his. I wondered would I even recognize my nephew were I to pass him by chance on the street in my city, or see his face in a video clip accompanying the all-too-familiar TV news narration about another anonymous (even when named) young black male criminal murdered, imprisoned, standing trial beaten.
I thought about the times when my nephews were little. Even though I was only thirteen when Wayne, Jr., was born and sixteen when Charles was born, I took my role as their uncle quite seriously. My brother had become a junkie shortly after Wayne, Jr., was born, and though my brother was clean when Charles was conceived, he'd begun using again before Charles was delivered. Between the births of my nephews, my star had begun to ascend. I received an academic scholarship to an exclusive Quaker boys' school in Philadelphia. Education, it seemed, was the sword I could use to vanquish racism. If I hewed the assimilationist line, studied and got good grades, dressed and spoke properly, went to church, I would become something better than a criminal or a corpse. I soon tried to pass these values on to my nephews-even though I had begun to feel a certain amount of ambivalence, distance, and irony in relation to these values even then. I knew instinctively from the moment I first saw my nephews that they were born into a world full of trouble.
I used to take them everywhere with me whenever I could be with them. I dragged them to the library, bookstores, plays. I remember, later, the train trips down from my exclusive New England college, arriving at Newark station-- a monstrosity always under construction and restoration, a sad remnant of the populuxe shrine to mobility I'd traveled through when I was a child, the times I shuttled back and forth between Philadelphia and Newark, between belligerently bourgeois parents and my Southern immigrant great-grandmother, a hickory-skinned crone with long, puff-of-smoke hair.
When I took the train down for my nephews, it was invariably a trial to find a cabdriver-- black or white-- willing to transport me to the notorious housing project where my nephews lived. I remember walking up stinking stairways and through dark hallways to find their apartment, sometimes finding their mother high on drugs with her boyfriend and her sister, or finding no one at home at all.
"Oh, Uncle Don," Charles was saying on Christmas morning in 1991, "did I tell you Aunt Geraldine died of AIDS?"
I remember searching the grounds of the project when no one was home, and finding Wayne and Charles in some glass-strewn play yard amid the wild bedlam of unsupervised children-- unsupervised except for the foxlike vigil of men and women whose preying on children takes various forms, all deadly. I would take my nephews to a friend's place in the country or to the city, to a planetarium, a museum, a movie, a historical site, anyplace that said to them there is someplace-- some way-- other than this.
By the time I moved from college to graduate school, I was spending more time with Charles because he was still young enough to be at home, while Wayne, Jr., grew harder to locate during my visits. Wayne, Jr., was running with a bad crowd, picking up the legacy his father had escaped and left for him in Newark's streets. When I did see my oldest nephew, I realized that in my absence he was rapidly becoming a man I didn't understand. (This was before the violent, misanthropic music he now favored and the disaffected style of dress he'd adopted was appropriated and commodified by the white media.)
I was worried about Wayne, Jr., increasingly unsure with him now that he was becoming a man. I went back and forth, reaching out to him and hoping he would reach out to me. I worried that it might not be good for him to spend too much time with me anymore, that I knew too little about that street world in which he was striving. I knew that though I'd come from Newark, the destruction waiting in its streets had not remained the same. It had metastasized. In that world he would have been my mentor. I might encourage his tenderness, and that might be his undoing in that world. I couldn't give him what he heeded to survive there. He knew that. I hoped to share with him some of what he might need to get out. If he wanted it. And I'd hoped to give him that from the first time I carried him across a room.
But Charles was still a child. He clearly needed me. I struggled to give him everything I'd given his brother too late, the experience of being prized. It had been an experience I'd somehow created or been given, perhaps by my great-grandmother, in my own early childhood. My story-telling, “part-Indian” great-grandmother with the smokecloud hair off-and-on my primary care-giver from my birth until I was nine years old. She chose me, chose me to invest with her stories and accumulated legacy, which is to say she loved me. With Charles I was in a hurry, because I knew that the world I left him in every time I returned him to his mother's apartment was a world in which children became old abruptly, without warning.
I told him the same stories I'd taught his brother. I told him about his great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, who moved his wife and children all over South Carolina before he came to Philadelphia around the turn of the century, always a step ahead of the Klan, because he refused to accept the large and small indignities white men meted out to colored men. In Saluta, South Carolina, he'd been the first black man to attend the auction of cotton he raised on his homestead, not because he was granted a special permission but because he demanded a basic right. In Philadelphia he had a "contract" with movie princess Grace Kelly's father, John B. Kelly, the brick magnate, to supply the work crews for building operations, though I cannot imagine what a contract between black man and an Irishman looked like in the early nineteen teens. He moved his family into a big house in the once-progressive neighborhood near Girard College in North Philadelphia.
I once took Charles to the ruin of this house, near Girard Avenue. We stood at the entrance and called our ancestor's name. We could see fro the entrance to the backyard. A tree was growing through the kitchen into the second floor. For a time Great-Grandfather had rented the house next door to help an ongoing chain of relatives from the South relocate and find work. He lost his mind after the unionization of his trade empowered newly arrived white ethnics and ousted black men from the professions of carpentry and masonry. My mother grew up with him living on the third floor of her family home, a withdrawn, bitter, old man who occasionally came to life when he took his fiddle down from the mantle and ordered his grandchildren to dance until they went crying to their mother, "Please, make Grand Pop behave!"
Charles learned old songs from my collection of reissued recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters. There was one Waters song that always broke him up; it had the spoken line Take it easy, greasy, . . . you got a long way to slide. Charles loved singing and language. He was a miraculous dark bird when he was little, always echoing and articulating. Before he turned two he had a good command of adjectives and adverbs. He was always narrating his experience. I am told small children usually exhibit exceptional verbal skills or advanced physical skills early. Charles exhibited both. He loved to run and climb and dance. He was fondest of his push toys. When he was four or five, I bought him toy boxing gloves and we practiced his jabs and footwork. I'd make the sound of the opening bell and he would start bobbing, weaving, and hooking. He had the classic combination down pat: the left jab followed by the right cross. I called him Kid Chocolate, after the legendary 1920s black boxer. I used to tell him his boxing technique was pure voodoo.
Charles was my heart. I was his uncle, almost his father, even if only for the day, the weekend, the week or summer we were together.
Once Charles fell riding his tricycle and split his tongue. I rushed him to the hospital emergency room and had to curse out the receptionist before he was admitted. "We can't admit him without the consent of his parent-- that means a mother or father," the receptionist had told me from a barred cage. I was standing there with Charles's blood drenching my polo shirt. "I'm his goddamned parent!" I railed. "What's it to you? What kind of shit is this?"
I believe I am being objective when I say Charles was the most beautiful baby I have ever seen, more beautiful than his brother, who was perfect, and, if pictures are any indication, more beautiful than his father or I had been. His skin was darker than ours at the same time it was more brilliant. He shone. His was a preternatural blackness dedicated to the light. His round face was like a thundercloud with the lightning of his eyes and teeth flashing constantly inside it. Charles was the resurrected promise of all our childhoods going back generations for our manhood. I loved that boy better than my life. He was my life. Only better. Even before he was born, I was always talking to him, reading to him. When his mother was pregnant with Charles, I used to sit by her and touch her stomach and read to him inside her womb. I read him James Baldwin's letter to his nephew from The Fire Next Time: "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don't you ever forget it."
But as I've said, by the time Charles was born, his father was back on heroin. My brother tried many times to save himself, to heal, to redeem himself, and no one knows better than I do that he was born into a world of trouble. And maybe the reason I loved his sons so much was because I loved my brother and I hoped I could redeem him if I could help redeem them.
The following is one of my earliest memories. It emanates from both my memory and my imagination. It is literally true, however, in terms of the organic infrastructure informing my life, it has the quality of supertruth. Once, when I was four and staying in Philadelphia for the summer, my brother and I were walking home from Sunday school. The afternoon was sultry-hot. We were in no hurry to get home. I held his hand, as I always did when we walked down the street together, and he swung our arms in a jovial way. Soon we heard thunder and saw the zig-zag lightning. The swinging of my arm slowed. As we walked, we were caught in the downpour.
The rain pounded so hard it hurt my small body. I had never been outside in weather like that, away from home, in the street, without my mother or my father. All I had was my brother to protect me. He was lanky, athletic, almost as tall as my father. We began to run. The rain poured like a mirror of heaven. My brother held my hand tight. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and I began to scream and cry.
I stopped running, and my brother stopped. I couldn't move. I was too terrified. I believed I would die. God was angry. He was tearing up the world and washing it away. I fully realize now what I only realized then in part, that my brave fourteen-year-old brother was terrified too. But he said, "It's all right. I'm with you. I'll get you home." This vow was punctuated by a burst of thunder so loud it threatened to crack open the street before us. My brother took me and ran first in one direction and then another. We rushed along the flowing curb. Then we were standing near a tree. We had reached the elementary school building two blocks from our house.
"We're almost there," my brother shouted over the ringing wind. "Do you want me to carry you?"
"No," I said, "I'm scared."
"All right," he told me. "We'll rest for a little while."
We ran from the tree to the awning leading into the school building.
As soon as we came up against the closed glass entrance, there was a big burst of lightning. For an instant the world went white. The skin of my neck and arms tingled. We held each other. I felt his heart leaping just above my head, but he held me, and I didn't cry. We stood there holding each other until the rain slowed. Then we walked home in silence.
My father was sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper. My mother came out from the kitchen. I was excited. I wanted to tell them how my brother had saved me from the storm and brought me home safe like he promised. "You better take off those wet things," my mother said immediately. "Go on upstairs." As we turned on the stairs, my father said my brother should leave his clothes off when he removed the wet things and remain upstairs in the bathroom. He said that he'd received a call from church, that Wayne had stolen money from the Sunday school collection. My father had also found money missing from the coin collection he kept hidden in our basement. He was going to whip my brother.
The terror I'd felt in the storm returned. My father was a strong but soft-spoken man. I waited in the bathroom with my brother until our father came in with the piece of ironing cord. Wayne and I had been sitting on the rim of the bathtub. He was naked except for his blue jockey shorts. I had dressed myself in my Daniel Boone outfit. I held my brother's hands, telling him not to worry. His saffron body was still marked from the last beating he'd received from our father that summer.
Our father put me out, but I turned and stood at the door. I could see him through the slightly opened door, lashing my brother's legs and back with the cord. At first Wayne fought back and my father lost his balance for a moment near the sink. He righted himself and bore down on my brother, muttering and striking him, lashing him into the floor with the ironing cord. I ran downstairs to my mother in the kitchen. I told her to call the police. I said Daddy was killing Wayne. She did not move. Had she ceased to be our mother? It was a long time that we stood in the kitchen, listening to the lashing and crying upstairs before she said flatly, "He's got to learn. Your father is beating him because he loves him. He's beating him so the police won't have to."
The last time I saw my nephew Charles he was fourteen or fifteen years old. I had taken him to lunch at a restaurant inside the John Wanamaker department store, an historic, illustrated text of upward mobility in downtown Philadelphia. I had been told by his mother that he was having trouble in school. This was nothing new. From the time Charles began school, though he entered able to read, write, count, multiply, and divide, he was labeled a problem child by teachers who were either unwilling or unable to address the accelerated needs of a child like Charles in an overcrowded Newark classroom.
At Wanamaker's, I talked to him about school, which he thoroughly hated by then, and about his young life, which he was coming to hate as well. As I listened to him I could hear that he had already arrived at his youth's end. His voice grumbled with loss.
"Listen here, Kid Chocolate," I said, about to launch into my value of-education talk.
"Don't call me that," he pleaded. "I hate my color. I hate it. I wish I was light-skinned like you, Uncle Don."
"Baby. Man," I said, "first of all, your uncle is not light-skinned," and I laughed (how could I?), "and even if I were, you're beautiful, man. You've always been beautiful."
But he wouldn't laugh. Not even for me. I think he even hated me a little that afternoon for trying to turn the light on his dark brilliance, since to be conspicuous by one's brilliance in the world to which he was always returned was only, to him, another liability.
I should have shaken him right in that restaurant in the bright, white department store. I should have shaken him. Held him. Rocked him. I should have told him what my great-grandmother told me in one way or another every day we were together, "You're the one the ancestors prayed for. You're all our hope." I should have told Charles, "You're the one. It belongs to you. You can't give up. You better win. Remember the Kid. Kid Chocolate. Knock that mean shit out. Where's your footwork, baby? Weave. Let me see your combination. Where's that spooky jab-hook-jab? Where's your voodoo?"
But I could see the enemies of my nephews and me knew how to manufacture the antidote to our voodoo and were now able to kill a black man-child's spirit early-- and the work had already been accomplished in Charles. It was harder and harder for a black boy in Newark to slip through the system as I had done-- which is not at all to suggest that my passage had been an easy one or that this nation sets no other snares for young black men besides ghettos.
Four years later, on Christmas morning in 1991, Charles was living with a thirty-year-old woman, waiting for his first child to be born. "As soon as the baby is born," he was telling me, "I'm going to turn myself in. I can do three years stiff. I'm not saying it's going to be all that easy, Uncle Don, but I can do it. Most of my friends from around the way are already in prison anyway."
"Guess what," he said, after I told him I loved him, that I believed he could still turn his life around, though I had no idea what I was talking about. I think I was in a mildly shocked state. I'd been hearing my own voice speaking to Charles as if from a distance.
"Guess what," Charles said again with a cheerfulness that finally undid me. "Now in Newark they even have surveillance cameras in the street lights."
We both realized it at the same moment: He was already in prison. He's been in prison most of his life. And because he, my heart, is in prison, so am I.
When I hung up I turned off the telephone. I sat at the house until it was dark, listening to records. Jelly Roll Morton. Marvin Gaye. Wayne Shorter. Sam Cooke. The Soul Stirrers. Albert Ayler. Jackie Wilson. Dexter Gordon. It was as though, through the voices of these black male artists I was calling a phalanx of ancestors to rise and protect my nephew. In the evening I made a light meal. I had planned to attend a dinner party. I plugged in the telephone long enough to excuse myself. "I'm fine," I assured my hosts. I said "Merry Christmas" and my hosts and I made plans to get together "soon."
Next, I cleaned my house. I swept dust from corners. I moved furniture, sweeping. I got on my knees and scrubbed the floors in the kitchen and the bathroom. I put clothes I no longer wore away in boxes, ready for the next week's trash collection. I did the wash and changed my bed. When I was done I felt better. I got into bed and fell into a hard sleep.
I awoke when it was still dark, the sheet and blanket twisted around my torso. In my sleep I had been dreaming and conjuring. I had awakened myself shouting, "I'll get you home."