All my life I’ve watched my father struggle to put young relatives from his and my mother’s villages through school. My father was born in a small village in Nigeria into a family that wasn’t rich. He is now an engineer and project manager for a well-known oil company. Education got him out of the village. He hammered the importance of education into my siblings and my relatives who sometimes lived with us (and were treated like one of my parents’ children). It’s the most important thing, he told us. It’s the only thing that will give you a standing chance at being an equal in this world. He didn’t have to spell it out, but we knew what he meant: we’re black and we’re African. It’s very easy for the world to tell black people that they aren’t equal to anything positive. And, thanks to the media, Africans in America tend to be approached with a pity which ultimately translates to condescension.
Some of these kids had come from rough backgrounds. Because there was little to no adult supervision from the time they were children, they had already been exposed to violence, drugs, unsafe sex, and a profound sense that they were unimportant. When one of them would slide back into their old ways, and a neighbor would come to our house livid, reporting what atrocity one of ours had committed, I often wondered why my parents kept trying, kept taking these kids in and bleeding so much money and time into them if they were just going to throw it back in their faces. Then during the first few minutes of this year, as we watched Times Square celebrating the beginning of a new year on a muted television screen, my father said to my brothers and me, “Your life is not meant only for you. It’s meant for all the people around you who don’t have what you have. In fact, your life is meant for everyone else.”
All the kids my parents took have either graduated from college, or are getting ready for college.
Don Belton’s essay “Voodoo for Charles,” which originally appeared at Beacon Broadside, is a moving depiction of the struggle my father taught me to partake in as a privileged black person: when (or if) you get yourself out of poverty, illiteracy, violence, dead ends, etc., go back into the pit and save as many of your brothers as you can.
—by Adaeze Elechi
Voodoo for Charles
By Don Delton
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.
Read the full essay at Beacon Broadside.