Geez. It was 15 years ago that I wrote an autobiography of a future president before I’d even heard of our current president. It was in Shuteye Town 1999. And I’m pretty sure mine was funnier than his, though equally factual.
I was always too proud, Mama said. It was probably a veracious assertion, but what else can you do in a hood where you’re owned by the Man. Before they sold off my father, he said to me, “Kareem—“ (He named me Kareem Abdul, but Abdul wasn’t our last name. We didn’t have last names then, back in the days before there was even a Martinlutherking, if we had even known there would be such a mentor, which we didn’t, because we weren’t allowed to go to school or take correspondence courses in Black Studies, or anything. It was for shit in 1856. But to resume our tale…) “Kareem,” quoth my father, “you’ve got to be proud. Don’t let any man dis your name, your female companion, or your wheels. That is the name of that melody.”
Ah, how young I was, how less than fully mature, mayhap even callow. For it seemed to me ironic indeed that my beloved pater would specify his wheels as a particular object of pride. I myself found them humiliating, an unending catalyst for blushes and lamentably thin excuses. What Afrian-Amerian lad past puberty could tolerate being observed in the rumble seat of an 1842 Buick? Worse, the tape player was an eight-track, and the only cartridge my father possessed was an anthology of Henry Mancini, in whose lush overuse of the violins I was certain I could hear the dark white heart of oppression.
It would not be until years—nay, decades—later that I would recall the ephemeral bliss of sharing with my father, in that ludicrous wreck of a vehicle, the liberating AM voice of our only real heroes, the stars of the suppressed and poverty-stricken Negro Leagues. Such is the miracle of radio, though. For us it was impossible to hear the worn seams of Satchel Paige’s glove, the holes in Josh Gibson’s Nike’s. It sounded altogether as wonderful and rich—yes, rich—as the broadcasts of the fabled New York Dodgers, who in those days were white as a bleached bone, with nary a thought of choosing Jackie Robinson in the college draft, or Reggie Jackson, or Hank “The Hammer” Aaron—whose names we, of course, had never heard in the cotton fields of Virginia, and wouldn’t in our lifetimes. Thus was the wretchedness of an existence without more than a handful of positive role models. It made one feel as if there was no chance to attain stardom, to find the so-called good life out in the western paradise of Californica, where only white people were allowed to find gold and buy property in Beverly Hills. I had dreams, but they had to be kept small to avoid disappointment, or so I used to suppose.
Suppose, suppose. I have done a lot of that over the years. Suppose my Uncle Darrell hadn’t contracted AIDS, or cholera as we called it then. He was the only family my Mama had, and how she cried when he confessed that he had shared the rusty nail he used for a hypodermic with Michael, the young ne’er-do-well who lived in the next hut. “But he’s gay,” she wailed, her whole real-sized frame shaking with sobs. “You’ll catch the cholera from that N-word person!”
Yes, she was colorful in her language, at times outrageous. If I flinched at her use of the N-word, however, it couldn’t have been much more than a precocious foreboding of days I would never live to see. For in our piteous little hood, the N-word was ubiquitous, if not peripatetic. It was “N-word” this and “N-word” that, so that an outsider might have been pardoned for believing that we Afrian-Amerians had no given names, only this one all-encompassing descriptor to which we answered like so many dogs.
And so, it seems, we have completed a circle, returning once again to the matter of pride. My pride. Which was continually offended by everyone and everything. Until the day I determined upon an answer of sorts. An answer that seemed to me perfect, complete, and incontestably inevitable. Escape.
Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.