I had it out with the boy last night, and then again this morning on the way to the bus stop. When I reflect back on how I came up, it's interesting how "having it out" has evolved. Indeed, when I was young there was no "having it out." Moms and Pops was the butcher, whenever I had beef.
My Moms once busted my lip after I tried to literally look down on her. I was 13 and had recently grown taller than her, and thus thought I could intimidate her. Heh. I was left singing that old Ice Cube riff, "With a right-left, right-left your toothless\And then you say godddamn they ruthless." My Moms came up in the projects and used to walk miles to school, and miles to church. She spent her summers in the country down on the Eastern Shore. She was raised by Negroes who did not play, and she took the lesson.
This is hard for a lot of people to hear, but in my family, in my neighborhood, and in my community this is what part of what parenting meant. If you weren't feeling the edge of the sword on your ass, then you were responding to the possibility of it. One thing I learned, while touring for my book, was that a lot of people consider this to be child abuse. It really was news to me and ultimately unthinkable. Almost everyone I'd ever known had come up the same way. My book editor would joke, while reading, the manuscript about his grandmother coming up from the South and making him go search for a switch. In Harlem.
Which isn't to say I, or people who came up like me, are without a critique. I smacked my son's hand until he was four. And then spanked him until he was seven. Most of this was about him sucking his teeth at his mother, or some such. We're done with that now, and at least in my presence, he doesn't exhibit that kind of disrespect. When he's staying with my people in Baltimore he doesn't earn any immunity, and he's subject to the same threat of the sword as his cousins. I get the argument against corporal punishment. But there's something elemental in me, that recoils at modern parenting. I was on the train the other day and watched a kid repeatedly say to his father, "Daddy, you're a jerk." Wow. I confess that my immediate thought was, "that kid need his ass whipped."
Anyway, as I said we don't do that here anymore. Still, I sense that me and the boy are entering into that "I don't like my Dad" phase. He'll be ten this year. He's tall, and smart. He's friendly, big-hearted, charismatic and really passionate. I love all of that about him, and I tell him that all the time. But I basically see my job as it was laid down all those years ago--the molding of a responsible black man.
That was my parents mission, and it was dutifully enforced by my Pops. I think back on it now, and would say that between the ages of eight and seventeen, I really didn't like my Dad much. I respected the hell out of him. Loved the hell of out him. Thought he was the most honorable, most fair man I'd ever known. I was also intensely afraid (well into my 20s) that I would not live up to his example. But like him? No, I didn't much like him. If you asked him, I think he'd say that this was done by design. His guiding emotion was a fear that one of his seven kids would end up in jail, get killed over some dumb-shit, or be out on the corner. Childhood, in my house at least, wasn't a respite before the real work of adulthood, it was practice for adulthood.
It's a little sad, because I see me and my son entering into that same place. I think he may like me more than I liked my Dad. But I won't be to him, what his mother is to him. That isn't our relationship. We have another eight years together. There's a lot to learn, and some unavoidable portion of it will hurt. What gives me some hope is that I've retained my respect for my Dad, I like him a great deal now. He's one of my best friends, and my ultimate mentor. God willing, me and the boy will get to that same place.
*The photo was taken in Brooklyn in the summer of 2001, right before 9/11. We'd come to New York, that very summer, pursuing a mutual dream to work in magazines. Kenyatta had a job. I did not. I was 25 and dead-ass broke. It got worse before it got better. The kid had just turned one.