I ’M TELLING YOU, MAN, the world is a place.”
“Say, the world is a place, huh.” “That’s just what I’m saying.”
We were walking back to the car after dinner in Hyde Park, and Johnnie was in an expansive mood. He often got like this, especially after a good meal and wine. The first time I met him, when he was still working with a downtown civic group, he had started explaining the relationship between jazz and Eastern religion, then swerved into an analysis of black women’s behinds, before coming to a stop on the subject of Federal Reserve Bank policy. In such moments his eyes would grow wide; his voice would speed up; his round, bearded face would glow with a childlike wonder. That was part of the reason I’d hired Johnnie, I suppose, that curiosity of his, his appreciation of the absurd. He was a philosopher of the blues.
“I’ll give you an example,” Johnnie was saying to me now. “The other day, I’m headed for a meeting up in the State of Illinois Building. You know how it’s open in the middle, right…big atrium and all that. Well, the guy I’m supposed to be meeting with is late, so I’m just standing there looking down at the lobby from the twelfth floor, checking out the architecture, when all of a sudden this body flies past me. A suicide.”
“You didn’t tell me about that-”
“Yeah, well, shook me up pretty good. High up as I was, I could hear the body land like it was right there next to me. Terrible sound. Soon as it happened, these office workers rushed up to the guardrail to see what was going on. We’re all looking down, and sure enough the body’s lying there, all twisted and limp. People started screaming, covering their eyes. But the strange thing was, after people got through screaming, they’d go back to the railing to get a second look. Then they’d scream and cover their eyes all over again. Now why would they do that? Like, what do they expect the second time around? But see, folks are funny like that. We can’t help ourselves with that morbid shit….
“Anyway, the cops come, they rope things off and take the body away. Then the building crew starts cleaning up. Nothing special, you know-just a broom and a mop. Sweeping up a life. Whole thing’s cleaned up in maybe five minutes. Makes sense, I guess…. I mean, it’s not like you need special equipment or suits or something. But it starts me thinking, How’s that gonna feel to be one of those janitors, mopping up somebody’s remains? Somebody’s got to do it, right? But how you gonna feel that night eating dinner?”
“Who was it that jumped?”
“That’s the other thing, Barack!” Johnnie took a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke roll from his mouth. “It was a young white girl, man, sixteen maybe, seventeen. One of these punk rock types, with blue hair and a ring through her nose. Afterward, I’m wondering what she was thinking about while she was riding up the elevator. I mean, folks musta been standing right next to her on the way up. Maybe they looked her over, decided she was a freak, and went back to thinking about their own business. You know, their promotion, or the Bulls game, or whatever. And the whole time this girl’s just standing there next to them with all that pain inside her. Got to be a lot of pain, doc, ’cause right before she jumps, you figure she looks down and knows that shit is gonna hurt.”
Johnnie stamped out his cigarette. “So that’s what I’m saying, Barack. Whole panorama of life out there. Crazy shit going on. You got to ask yourself, is this kinda stuff happening elsewhere? Is there any precedent for all this shit? You ever ask yourself that?” “The world’s a place,” I repeated. “See there! It’s serious, man.”
We’d almost reached Johnnie’s car when we heard a small pop, compact and brief, like a balloon bursting. We looked in the direction of the sound, and watched a young man appear from around the corner diagonal to us. I don’t clearly recall his features or what he wore, although he couldn’t have been older than fifteen. I just remember that he ran at a desperate pace, his sneakered feet silent against the sidewalk, his lanky limbs pumping wildly, his chest jutting out as if straining for an imaginary tape.
Johnnie dropped flat onto a small plot of grass in front of one of the apartments, and I quickly followed suit. A few seconds later, two more boys came around the same corner, also running at full speed. One of them, short, fattish, with pants that bunched around his ankles, was waving a small pistol. Without stopping to aim, he let out three quick shots in the direction of the first boy. Then, realizing that his target was out of range, he slowed to a walk, stuffing the weapon under his shirt. His companion, skinny and big-eared, came alongside.
“Stupid motherfucker,” the skinny boy said. He spat with satisfaction, and the two of them laughed to each other before continuing down the street, children again, their figures casting squat shadows on the asphalt.
Another fall, another winter. I had recovered from the disappointments of the asbestos campaign, developed other issues and found other leaders. Johnnie’s presence had helped relieve my workload, and our budget was stable; what I’d lost in youthful enthusiasm I made up for in experience. And in fact, it may have been that growing familiarity with the landscape, the counsel of time, that gave me the sense that something different was going on with the children of the South Side that spring of 1987; that an invisible line had been crossed, a blind and ugly corner turned.
There was nothing definite I could point to, no hard statistics. The drive-by shootings, the ambulance sirens, the night sounds of neighborhoods abandoned to drugs and gang war and phantom automobiles, where police or press rarely ventured until after the body was found on the pavement, blood spreading in a glistening, uneven pool-none of this was new. In places like Altgeld, prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation; during my very first days in Chicago I had seen the knots of young men, fifteen or sixteen, hanging out on the corners of Michigan or Halsted, their hoods up, their sneakers unlaced, stomping the ground in a desultory rhythm during the colder months, stripped down to Tshirts in the summer, answering their beepers on the corner pay phones: a knot that unraveled, soon to reform, whenever the police cars passed by in their barracuda silence.
No, it was more a change of atmosphere, like the electricity of an approaching storm. I felt it when, driving home one evening, I saw four tall boys walking down a tree-lined block idly snapping a row of young saplings that an older couple had just finished planting in front of their house. I felt it whenever I looked into the eyes of the young men in wheelchairs that had started appearing on the streets that spring, boys crippled before their prime, their eyes without a trace of self-pity, eyes so composed, already so hardened, that they served to frighten rather than to inspire.
That’s what was new: the arrival of a new equilibrium between hope and fear; the sense, shared by adults and youth alike, that some, if not most, of our boys were slipping beyond rescue. Even lifelong South Siders like Johnnie noticed the change. “I ain’t never seen it like this, Barack,” he would tell me one day as we sat in his apartment sipping beer. “I mean, things were tough when I was coming up, but there were limits. We’d get high, get into fights. But out in public, at home, if an adult saw you getting loud or wild, they would say something. And most of us would listen, you know what I’m saying?
“Now, with the drugs, the guns-all that’s disappeared. Don’t take a whole lot of kids carrying a gun. Just one or two. Somebody says something to one of ’em, and-pow!-kid wastes him. Folks hear stories like that, they just stop trying to talk to these young cats out here. We start generalizing about ’em just like the white folks do. We see ’em hanging out, we head the other way. After a while, even the good kid starts realizing ain’t nobody out here gonna look out for him. So he figures he’s gonna have to look after himself. Bottom line, you got twelve-year-olds making their own damn rules.”
Johnnie took a sip of his beer, the foam collecting on his mustache. “I don’t know, Barack. Sometimes
I’m afraid of ’em. You got to be afraid of somebody who just doesn’t care. Don’t matter how young they are.”
After I was back in my own apartment, I thought about what Johnnie had said. Was I afraid? I didn’t think so…at least not in the way Johnnie had meant it. Wandering through Altgeld or other tough neighborhoods, my fears were always internal: the old fears of not belonging. The idea of physical assault just never occurred to me. Same thing with the distinction Johnnie made between good kids and bad kidsthe distinction didn’t compute in my head. It seemed based on a premise that defied my experience, an assumption that children could somehow set the terms of their own development. I thought about
Bernadette’s five-year-old son, scampering about the broken roads of Altgeld, between a sewage plant and a dump. Where did he sit along the spectrum of goodness? If he ended up in a gang or in jail, would that prove his essence somehow, a wayward gene…or just the consequences of a malnourished world?
And what about Kyle: How did one explain what he was going through? I leaned back in my chair, thinking about Ruby’s son. He had just turned sixteen; the two years since my arrival had given him several inches, added bulk, and the shadow above his upper lip, first efforts at a mustache. He was still polite to me, still willing to talk about the Bulls-this’d be the year Jordan took ’em to the finals, he said. But he was usually gone whenever I stopped by, or on his way out with his friends. Some nights, Ruby would call me at home just to talk about him, how she never knew where he was anymore, how his grades had continued to drop in school, how he hid things from her, the door to his room always closed.
Don’t worry, I would tell her; I was a lot worse at Kyle’s age. I don’t think she believed that particular truth, but hearing the words seemed to make her feel better. One day I volunteered to sound Kyle out, inviting him to join me for a pick-up basketball game at the University of Chicago gym. He was quiet most of the ride up to Hyde Park, fending off questions with a grunt or a shrug. I asked him if he was still thinking about the air force, and he shook his head; he’d stay in Chicago, he said, find a job and get his own place. I asked him what had changed his mind. He said that the air force would never let a black man fly a plane.
I looked at him crossly. “Who told you that mess?”
Kyle shrugged. “Don’t need somebody to tell me that. Just is, that’s all.”
“Man, that’s the wrong attitude. You can do whatever you want if you’re willing to work for it.”
Kyle smirked and turned his head toward the window, his breath misting the glass. “Yeah, well…how many black pilots do you know?”
The gym wasn’t crowded when we arrived, and we had to wait only one game before we got onto the court. It had been at least six months since I’d even seen a basketball, and the cigarettes had taken their toll. On the first play of the game, the man guarding me stripped the ball clean out of my hands and I called a foul, causing the players on the sidelines to hoot with derision. By the second game I was walking across the half-court line, feeling slightly dizzy.
To spare myself further embarrassment, I decided to sit out the third game and watch Kyle play. His game wasn’t bad, but he was guarding a brother a few years older than me, an orderly at the hospital-short but aggressive, and very quick. After a few plays, it became clear that the man had Kyle’s number. He scored three baskets in a row, then started talking the usual talk.
“You can’t do no better than that, boy? How you gonna let an old man like me make you look so bad?”
Kyle didn’t answer, but the play between them became rough. The next time down the floor, as the man made his move for the basket, Kyle bumped him hard. The man threw the ball at Kyle’s chest, then turned to one of his partners. “You see that? This punk can’t guard me-”
Suddenly, without any warning, Kyle swung. His fist landed square on the man’s jaw, dropping him to the floor. I ran onto the court as the other players pulled Kyle away. His eyes were wide, his voice trembling as he watched the orderly struggle to his feet and spit out a wad of blood.
“I ain’t no punk,” Kyle muttered. And then again, “I ain’t no punk.”
We were lucky; somebody had called the security guard downstairs, but the orderly was too embarrassed to admit to the incident. On the drive back, I gave Kyle a long lecture about keeping his cool, about violence, about responsibility. My words sounded trite, and Kyle sat without answering, his eyes fixed on the road. When I was finished he turned to me and said, “Just don’t tell my momma, all right?”
I thought that was a good sign. I said I wouldn’t tell Ruby what had happened so long as he did, and he grudgingly agreed.
Kyle was a good kid; he still cared about something. Would that be enough to save him?
The week after Johnnie’s and my adventure in Hyde Park, I decided it was time to take on the public schools.
It seemed like a natural issue for us. Segregation wasn’t much of an issue anymore; whites had all but abandoned the system. Neither was overcrowding, at least in black neighborhood high schools; only half the incoming students bothered to stick around for graduation. Otherwise, Chicago’s schools remained in a state of perpetual crisis-annual budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions; shortages of textbooks and toilet paper; a teachers’ union that went out on strike at least once every two years; a bloated bureaucracy and an indifferent state legislature. The more I learned about the system, the more convinced I became that school reform was the only possible solution for the plight of the young men I saw on the street; that without stable families, with no prospects for blue-collar work that could support a family of their own, education was their last best hope. And so in April, in between working on other issues, I developed an action plan for the organization and started peddling it to my leadership.
The response was underwhelming.
Some of it was a problem of self-interest, constituencies misaligned. Older church members told me they had already raised their children; younger parents, like Angela and Mary, sent their children to Catholic schools. The biggest source of resistance was rarely talked about, though-namely, the uncomfortable fact that every one of our churches was filled with teachers, principals, and district superintendents. Few of these educators sent their own children to public schools; they knew too much for that. But they would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before. There wasn’t enough money to do the job right, they told me (which was certainly true). Efforts at reformdecentralization, say, or cutbacks in the bureaucracy-were part of a white effort to wrest back control (not so true). As for the students, well, they were impossible. Lazy. Unruly. Slow. Not the children’s fault, maybe, but certainly not the schools’. There may not be any bad kids, Barack, but there sure are a lot of bad parents.
In my mind, these conversations came to serve as a symbol of the unspoken settlement we had made since the 1960s, a settlement that allowed half of our children to advance even as the other half fell further behind. More than that, the conversations made me angry; and so despite lukewarm support from our board, Johnnie and I decided to go ahead and visit some of the area schools, hoping to drum up a constituency beyond the young parents of Altgeld.
We started with Kyle’s high school, the one in the area with the best reputation. It was a single building, relatively new but with a careless, impersonal feel: bare concrete pillars, long stark corridors, windows that couldn’t be opened and had already clouded, like the windows in a greenhouse. The principal, an attentive, personable man named Dr. Lonnie King, said he was eager to work with community groups like ours. Then he mentioned that one of his school counselors, a Mr. Asante Moran, was trying to start a mentorship program for young men at the school and suggested that we might want to meet him.
We followed Dr. King’s directions to a small office toward the rear of the building. It was decorated with African themes: a map of the continent, posters of ancient Africa’s kings and queens, a collection of drums and gourds and a kente-cloth wall hanging. Behind the desk sat a tall and imposing man with a handlebar mustache and a prominent jaw. He was dressed in an African print, an elephant-hair bracelet around one thick wrist. He seemed a bit put off at first-he had a stack of SAT practice exams on his desk, and I sensed that Dr. King’s call had been an unwelcome interruption. Nevertheless, he offered us seats, told us to call him Asante, and as our interest became more apparent, began to explain some of his ideas.
“The first thing you have to realize,” he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, “is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period. They’re operated as holding pens-miniature jails, really. It’s only when black children start breaking out of their pens and bothering white people that society even pays any attention to the issue of whether these children are being educated.
“Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn-the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity.”
Asante leaned back in his chair, his hands folded across his belly. “Is it any wonder that the black child loses interest in learning? Of course not. It’s worst for the boys. At least the girls have older women to talk to, the example of motherhood. But the boys have nothing. Half of them don’t even know their own fathers. There’s nobody to guide them through the process of becoming a man…to explain to them the meaning of manhood. And that’s a recipe for disaster. Because in every society, young men are going to have violent tendencies. Either those tendencies are directed and disciplined in creative pursuits or those tendencies destroy the young men, or the society, or both.
“So that’s what we’re dealing with here. Where I can, I try to fill the void. I expose students to African history, geography, artistic traditions. I try to give them a different values orientation-something to counteract the materialism and individualism and instant gratification that’s fed to them the other fifteen hours of their day. I teach them that Africans are a communal people. That Africans respect their elders. Some of my European colleagues feel threatened by this, but I tell them it’s not about denigrating other cultures. It’s about giving these young people a base for themselves. Unless they’re rooted in their own traditions, they won’t ever be able to appreciate what other cultures have to offer-”
There was a knock on the door, and a gangly young man peeked into the office. Asante apologized; he had another appointment but would be happy to meet with us again to discuss possible youth programs for the area. Walking Johnnie and me to the door, Asante asked me about my name, and I told him about my background.
“I thought so!” Asante smiled. “You know, that’s where I went for my first trip to the continent. Kenya. Fifteen years ago, but I remember that trip like it was yesterday. Changed my life forever. The people were so welcoming. And the land-I’d never seen anything so beautiful. It really felt like I had come home.” His face glowed with the memory. “When was the last time you were back?”
I hesitated. “Actually, I’ve never been there.”
Asante looked momentarily confused. “Well…” he said after a pause, “I’m sure that when you do make the trip, it’ll change your life, too.” With that, he shook our hands, waved in the young man waiting in the hall, and shut the door behind him.
Johnnie and I were quiet for most of the ride back to our office. We hit a patch of traffic, and Johnnie turned and said, “Can I ask you something, Barack?”
“Why haven’t you ever gone to Kenya?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m scared of what I’ll find out.”
“Huh.” Johnnie lit a cigarette and rolled down the window to let out the smoke. “It’s funny,” he said, “how listening to Asante back there made me think about my old man. I mean, it’s not like my old man is real educated or nothing. He doesn’t know anything about Africa. After my mother died, he had to raise me and my brothers on his own. Drove a delivery truck for Spiegel’s for twenty years. They laid him off before his pension vested, so he’s still working-for another company, but doing the same thing every day. Lifting other people’s furniture.
“Never seemed like he really enjoyed life, you know what I mean? On weekends, he’d just hang around the house, and some of my uncles would come over and they’d drink and listen to music. They’d complain about what their bosses had done to ’em this week. The Man did this. The Man did that. But if one of ’em actually started talking about doing something different, or had a new idea, the rest of ’em would just tear the guy up. ‘How’s some no-’count nigger like you gonna start himself a business?’ one of ’em’d say. And somebody else’d say, ‘Take that glass away from Jimmy-that wine done gone to his head.’ They’d all be laughing, but I could tell they weren’t laughing inside. Sometimes, if I was around, my uncles’d start talking about me. ‘Hey, boy, that sure is a knobby head you got.’ ‘Hey, boy, you starting to sound just like a white man, with all them big words.’”
Johnnie blew a stream of smoke into the hazy air. “When I was in high school, I got to feeling ashamed of him. My old man, I mean. Working like a dog. Sitting there, getting drunk with his brothers. I swore I’d never end up like that. But you know, when I thought about it later, I realized my old man never laughed when I talked about wanting to go to college. I mean, he never said anything one way or the other, but he always made sure me and my brother got up for school, that we didn’t have to work, that we had a little walking-around money. The day I graduated, I remember he showed up in a jacket and tie, and he just shook my hand. That’s all…just shook my hand, then went back to work….”
Johnnie stopped talking; the traffic cleared. I started thinking about those posters back in Asante’s office-posters of Nefertiti, regal and dark-hued in her golden throne; and Shaka Zulu, fierce and proud in his leopard-skin tunic-and then further back to that day years ago, before my father came for his visit to Hawaii, when I had gone to the library in search of my own magic kingdom, my own glorious birthright. I wondered how much difference those posters would make to the boy we had just left in Asante’s office. Probably not as much as Asante himself, I thought. A man willing to listen. A hand placed on a young man’s shoulders. “He was there,” I said to Johnnie.
“Your father. He was there for you.”
Johnnie scratched his arm. “Yeah, Barack. I guess he was.”
“You ever tell him that?”
“Naw. We’re not real good at talking.” Johnnie looked out the window, then turned to me. “Maybe I should though, huh.”
“Yeah, John,” I said, nodding. “Maybe you should.”
Over the next two months, Asante and Dr. Collier helped us develop a proposal for a youth counseling network, something to provide at-risk teenagers with mentoring and tutorial services and to involve parents in a long-term planning process for reform. It was an exciting project, but my mind was elsewhere. When the proposal was finished, I told Johnnie that I’d be gone for a few days but that he should go ahead with some of the meetings we’d scheduled, to start lining up broader support.
“Where’re you going?” he asked me.
“To see my brother.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother.” “I haven’t had one that long.”
The next morning, I flew down to Washington, D.C., where my brother Roy now lived. We had first spoken to each other during Auma’s visit to Chicago; she had told me then that Roy had married an American Peace Corps worker and had moved to the States. One day we had called him up just to say hello. He had seemed happy to hear from us, his voice deep and unruffled, as if we had talked only yesterday. His job, his wife, his new life in America-everything was “lovely,” he said. The word rolled out of him slowly, the syllables drawn out. “Looove-leee.” A visit from me would be “fan-taaas-tic.” Staying with him and his wife would be “nooo prooob-lem.” After we got off the phone, I had told Auma that he sounded well. She looked at me doubtfully.
“Yah, you never know with Roy,” she had said. “He doesn’t always show his true feelings. He’s like the Old Man in that way. In fact, although they didn’t get along, he really reminds me of the Old Man in many ways. At least that’s how he was in Nairobi. I haven’t seen him since David’s funeral, though, so maybe marriage has settled him down.”
She didn’t say much more than that; I should get to know him for myself, she said. And so Roy and I had arranged a visit; I would fly to D.C. for the long weekend, we would see the sights, it would be a wonderful time. Only now, as I searched the emptying gate at National, Roy was nowhere to be found. I called his house and he answered, sounding apologetic.
“Listen, brother-you think maybe you can stay in a hotel tonight?”
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“Nothing serious. It’s just, well, me and the wife, we had a little argument. So having you here tonight might not be so good, you understand?”
“You call me when you find a hotel, okay? We’ll meet tonight and have dinner. I’ll pick you up at eight.”
I checked into the cheapest room I could find and waited. At nine, I heard a knock. When I opened the door, I found a big man standing there with his hands in his pockets, an even-toothed grin breaking across his ebony face.
“Hey, brother,” he said. “How’s life?”
In the pictures I had of Roy, he was slender, dressed in African print, with an Afro, a goatee, a mustache. The man who embraced me now was much heavier, over two hundred pounds, I guessed, the flesh on his cheeks pressing out beneath a thick pair of glasses. The goatee was gone; the African shirt had been replaced by a gray sports coat, white shirt, and tie. Auma had been right, though; his resemblance to the Old Man was unnerving. Looking at my brother, I felt as if I were ten years old again.
“You’ve gained some weight,” I said as we walked to his car.
Roy looked down at his generous belly and gave it a pat. “Eh, it’s this fast food, man. It’s everywhere. McDonald’s. Burger King. You don’t even have to get out of the car to have these things. Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese. The Double Whopper with cheese.” He shook his head. “They tell me I can have it right away. My way! Fantastic!”
He threw back his head to laugh, a magical, inward sound that made his whole body shake, as if he couldn’t get over the wonders this new life had to offer. It was infectious, his laughter-although I wasn’t laughing as we made our way to dinner. His Toyota was too small for his bulk-he looked like a kid in a carnival bumper car-and it didn’t seem as if he’d yet mastered a stick shift or the rules of the road, including the speed limit. Twice we almost collided with oncoming cars; once, at a turn, we careened over a high curb.
“You always drive this way?” I shouted over the music blasting out of his tape deck.
Roy smiled, shifting into fifth. “I’m not so good, eh? Mary, my wife, she’s always complaining, too. Especially since the accident…” “What accident?”
“Ah, it was nothing. You see I’m still here. Alive and breathing!” And again he laughed and shook his head, as if the car worked independently of him, as if our safe arrival would be yet one more example of God’s ample blessings.
The restaurant was Mexican, beside a marina, and we chose a table with a view out over the water. I ordered a beer, Roy a margarita, and for a while we made small talk about my work and his accounting job at a large mortgage finance company. He ate with gusto, drank a second margarita; he laughed and joked about his adventures in America. But as the meal wore on, the effort he was making began to show. Eventually, I came around to asking him why his wife hadn’t joined us. His smile evaporated. “Ah, I think we’re getting divorced,” he said.
“She says she’s tired of me staying out late. She says I drink too much. She says I’m becoming just like the Old Man.”
“What do you think?”
“What do I think?” He lowered his head, then looked at me somberly, the flame of the tea candles dancing like tiny bonfires across the lenses of his glasses. “The truth is,” he said, leaning his weight forward, “I don’t think I really like myself. And I blame the Old Man for this.”
For the next hour, he recounted all the hard times that Auma had spoken of-of being yanked away from his mother and everything familiar; the Old Man’s sudden descent into poverty; the arguments and breakdown and eventual flight. He told me about his life after leaving our father’s house; how, bouncing from relative to relative, he had gained admission to the University of Nairobi, then secured a job with a local accounting firm after graduation; how he had taught himself the discipline of work, always arriving at his job early and completing his tasks no matter how late he was out the night before. Listening to him, I felt the same admiration that I’d felt when listening to Auma talk about her life, the resilience they had both displayed, the same stubborn strength that had lifted them out of bad circumstances. Except in Auma I had also sensed a willingness to put the past behind her, a capacity to somehow forgive, if not necessarily forget. Roy’s memories of the Old Man seemed more immediate, more taunting; for him the past remained an open sore.
“Nothing was ever good enough for him,” he told me as the busboy took our plates away. “He was smart, and he couldn’t ever let you forget. If you came home with the second best grades in the class, he would ask why you weren’t first. ‘You are an Obama,’ he would say. ‘You should be the best.’ He would really believe this. And then I would see him drunk, with no money, living like a beggar. I would ask myself, How can someone so smart fall so badly? It made no sense to me. No sense.
“Even after I was living on my own, even after his death, I would try to figure out this puzzle. It was as if I couldn’t escape him. I remember we had to take his body to Alego for the funeral, and as the eldest son, I was responsible for making the arrangements. The government wanted a Christian burial. The family wanted a Muslim burial. People came to Home Square from everywhere, and we had to mourn him according to Luo tradition, burning a log for three days, listening to people cry and moan. Half these people, I didn’t even know who they were. They wanted food. They wanted beer. Some people whispered that the Old Man had been poisoned, that I must take revenge. Some people stole things from the house. Then our relatives began to fight about the Old Man’s inheritance. The Old Man’s last girlfriend, the mother of our baby brother, George-she wanted everything. Some people, like our Aunt Sarah, sided with her. Others lined up with my mum’s side of the family. I’m telling you, it was crazy! Everything seemed to be going wrong.
“After the funeral was over, I didn’t want to be with anyone. The only person I trusted was David, our younger brother. That guy, let me tell you, he was okay. He looked like you a little bit, only younger…fifteen, sixteen. His mother, Ruth, had tried to raise him like an American. But David, he rebelled. He loved everybody, you see. He ran away from home and came to live with me. I told him he should go home, but he refused. He didn’t want to be an American, he said. He was an African. He was an Obama.
“When David died, that was it for me. I was sure our whole family was cursed. I started drinking, fighting-I didn’t care. I figured if the Old Man could die, if David could die, that I would have to die, too.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in Kenya. As it was, there was Nancy, this American girl I had been seeing. She’d returned to the States, so one day I just called her and said I wanted to come. When she said yes, I bought a ticket and caught the next plane out. I didn’t pack, or tell my office, or say goodbye to anyone, or anything.
“I thought I could start over, you see. But now I know you can never start over. Not really. You think you have control, but you are like a fly in somebody else’s web. Sometimes I think that’s why I like accounting. All day, you are only dealing with numbers. You add them, multiply them, and if you are careful, you will always have a solution. There’s a sequence there. An order. With numbers, you can have control….”
Roy took another sip from his drink, and suddenly his speech slowed, as if he’d dropped deep into another place, as if our father had taken possession of him. “I am the oldest, you see. In Luo tradition, I am now head of the household. I am responsible for you, and for Auma, and for all the younger boys. It’s my responsibility to set things right. To pay the boys’ school fees. To see that Auma is properly married. To build a proper house and bring the family together.”
I reached across the table and touched his hand. “You don’t have to do it alone, brother,” I said. “We can share the load.”
But it was as if he hadn’t heard me. He just stared out the window, and then, as if snapping out of a trance, he waved the waitress over.
“You want another drink?”
“Why don’t we just get the check?”
Roy looked at me and smiled. “I can tell you worry too much, Barack. That’s my problem, as well. I think we need to learn to go with the flow. Isn’t that what you say in America? Just go with the flow.…” Roy laughed again, loud enough for the people at the next table to turn around. Only the magic was gone out of it now; it sounded hollow, as if it were traveling across a vast, empty distance.
I caught a flight out the next day-Roy needed to spend some time with his wife, and I didn’t have the money for another night at the hotel. We had breakfast together, and in the morning light he seemed in better spirits. At the airport gate, we shook hands and hugged, and he promised to come visit me once things had settled down. The entire flight back to Chicago, though, and through the rest of the weekend, I couldn’t rid myself of the sense that Roy was in danger somehow, that old demons were driving him toward an abyss, and that if only I was a better brother, my intervention would prevent his fall.
Roy was still on my mind when Johnnie walked into my office late Monday afternoon.
“You’re back early,” Johnnie said. “How was your trip?”
“It was good. Good to see my brother.” I nodded, tapping on the edge of my desk. “So what happened while I was gone?”
Johnnie dropped into a chair. “Well,” he said, “we met with the state senator. He committed to introducing a bill to get funding for a pilot program. Maybe not the whole half million, but enough.”
“That’s terrific. How about the high school principals?”
“Just got back from a meeting with Dr. King, the principal at Asante’s school. The rest of ’em haven’t returned my calls.”
“That’s all right. What did Dr. King have to say?”
“Oh, he was all smiles,” Johnnie said. “Said he really liked the proposal. He got real excited when he heard we might get funding. Said he’d encourage the other principals to work with us and that we’d have his full support. ‘Nothing’s more important than saving our youth,’ he said.”
“Right. Sounds good. So then, I’m about to walk out of his office when suddenly he gives me this.” Johnnie reached into his briefcase, pulled out a piece of paper, and handed it to me. I read over a few lines before handing it back.
“Not just any résumé, Barack. His wife’s résumé. Seems she’s kinda bored around the house, see, and Dr. King thinks she’d make an ‘excellent’ director for our program. No pressure, you understand. Just once the money is allocated, some consideration, you know what I mean.”
“He gave you his wife’s résumé-”
“Not just his wife’s résumé.” Johnnie reached into his briefcase and pulled out another piece of paper, waving it in the air. “Got his daughter’s, too! Tells me she’d make an ‘excellent’ counselor-”
“I’m telling you, Barack, he had the whole thing figured out. And you know what? The whole time we’re talking, he’s not batting an eye. Acting like what he’s doing is the most natural thing in the world. It was unbelievable.” Johnnie shook his head, then suddenly shouted out like a preacher. “Yessuh! Doctah Lonnie King! Now there’s a brother with some nerve! An enterprising brother! Program hasn’t even started yet, he’s already thinking ahead.” I started to laugh.
“He don’t just want one job! He gotta have two! Go in to talk about some kids, he gonna hand you his whole goddamn family’s résumé….”
I shouted out, catching the spirit. “Doctah Lonnie King!”
“Yessuh! Doctah Lonnie King!” Johnnie started to giggle, which made me laugh even harder, until soon we were doubled over in loud guffaws, catching our breath only long enough to repeat that name again“Doctah Lonnie King!”-as if it now contained the most obvious truth, the most basic element in an elemental world. We laughed until our faces were hot and our sides hurt, until tears came to our eyes, until we felt emptied out and couldn’t laugh anymore, and decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and go find ourselves a beer.
That night, well past midnight, a car pulls up in front of my apartment building carrying a troop of teenage boys and a set of stereo speakers so loud that the floor of my apartment begins to shake. I’ve learned to ignore such disturbances-where else do they have to go? I say to myself. But on this particular evening I have someone staying over; I know that my neighbors next door have just brought home their newborn child; and so I pull on some shorts and head downstairs for a chat with our nighttime visitors. As I approach the car, the voices stop, the heads within all turn my way.
“Listen, people are trying to sleep around here. Why don’t y’all take it someplace else.”
The four boys inside say nothing, don’t even move. The wind wipes away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed, standing in a pair of shorts on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. I can’t see the faces inside the car; it’s too dark to know how old they are, whether they’re sober or drunk, good boys or bad. One of them could be Kyle. One of them could be Roy. One of them could be Johnnie.
One of them could be me. Standing there, I try to remember the days when I would have been sitting in a car like that, full of inarticulate resentments and desperate to prove my place in the world. The feelings of righteous anger as I shout at Gramps for some forgotten reason. The blood rush of a high school brawl. The swagger that carries me into a classroom drunk or high, knowing that my teachers will smell beer or reefer on my breath, just daring them to say something. I start picturing myself through the eyes of these boys, a figure of random authority, and know the calculations they might now be making, that if one of them can’t take me out, the four of them certainly can.
That knotted, howling assertion of self-as I try to pierce the darkness and read the shadowed faces inside the car, I’m thinking that while these boys may be weaker or stronger than I was at their age, the only difference that matters is this: The world in which I spent those difficult times was far more forgiving. These boys have no margin for error; if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from that truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can’t admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them, or others like them, eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt. Their unruly maleness will not be contained, as mine finally was, by a sense of sadness at an older man’s injured pride. Their anger won’t be checked by the intimation of danger that would come upon me whenever I split another boy’s lip or raced down a highway with gin clouding my head. As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it will not drain out of the universe. I suspect that these boys will have to search long and hard for that order-indeed, any order that includes them as more than objects of fear or derision. And that suspicion terrifies me, for I now have a place in the world, a job, a schedule to follow. As much as I might tell myself otherwise, we are breaking apart, these boys and me, into different tribes, speaking a different tongue, living by a different code.
The engine starts, and the car screeches away. I turn back toward my apartment knowing that I’ve been both stupid and lucky, knowing that I am afraid after all.