My name is Miles Johnson. I grew up in Oakwood, a mid-sized Northeastern suburb a stone’s throw from The City. You can see The City’s silhouette from some parts of town—the wedges, spires, and arcs of buildings that symbolize networks of enterprise and ambition. Many of my friends’ parents prospered there as business owners, lawyers, accountants, and corporate managers. Oakwood neighborhoods that didn’t enjoy city vistas still offer the cocoon of well- swept streets canopied by the branches of maple, ash, and oak trees. In spring and summer, when the light is just right, reflections from the leaves of those trees give the houses, ranging from modest multifamily dwellings to mansions, a greenish tinge and gently dancing patterns of sunlight and shade.
But I would soon find out in the starkest terms that a boy must struggle to become a man even in my peaceful town —where squirrels dart across quiet streets dappled with shadows. And even in my town, with its strong African -American presence—where proud talk of our Black heritage, our great African past, and the symbolic meanings of kente cloth take on an almost magical significance —a black boy needs guidance on his quest to become a black man.
And so it was with me in the year 2000. I was a 13-year-old on a hot but mercifully dry Saturday afternoon in early August, sitting on a metal folding chair in the middle of our front lawn. Behind me, the modest, three-story colonial house I shared with my widowed father, my grandmother and my twin brother and sister—seven-year-old Douglass and Ida.
My thighs formed a ledge for each elbow as I leaned forward from the waist.
My forearms slanted into a steeple peaked by my clasped hands, upon which I rested my chin. Headphones covered each of my ears with cushioned black circles the size of Oreo cookies, and a thin black cord snaked down connecting them to the Walkman cassette player hooked to my belt. The headphones and player were birthday gifts I had received nine months ago from Dad, and ever since then, the rhythms and rhymes of hip-hop groups like Brand Nubian and Naughty by Nature and rappers like Q-tip and Nelly had been the heartbeat and lifeblood of nearly every move I made.
Today, although the headphones still covered my ears, the music had stopped, and the rhythmic clapping and the voices of my little sister chanting along with one of her friends seeped in:
Down, down, baby
Down, down the roller coaster
Sweet, sweet, baby
I’ll never let you go
They and Douglass and several of his friends stood at the edge of the lawn near the sidewalk. The girls played their hand game beside a card table draped with a paper tablecloth decorated with a kente-cloth pattern at its border. Taped to the side of the table facing the street was a carefully stenciled sign whose bold black letters read: LEMONADE – 75 Cents. COOKIES 25 – Cents Each. Douglass was behind the table. He had just finished tipping the enormous cylindrical cooler, so the final drops of lemonade trickled from the spout into a paper cup. He had picked up the cup and extended it to the last customer, a tall, middle-aged woman made even taller by the Rollerblades she wore. Dark-skinned with a medium-length, platinum-colored natural haloing her head, her resting facial expression resembled Maya Angelou’s look of serene bemusement. She wore cherry red shorts and a white tank top. In her hand, she held a bill she’d fished out of the blue denim fanny pack decorated with black Adinkra symbols slung just beneath her waist. She received the drink with one hand, and with the other, gave Douglass what he later told me was a five-dollar bill.
I saw her mouth the words, “Keep the change, baby.” Then, holding the brimming cup just above her waist, she silently glided away on the sidewalk without spilling a drop of the beverage.
Shimmy, Shimmy cocoa pop
Shimmy, Shimmy pow
Shimmy, Shimmy cocoa pop
Shimmy, Shimmy pow!
I remember being lost in thought and staring blankly in the general direction of my siblings. As recently as a month ago, I had worked the stand with my brother and sister on the Fourth of July. It was a tradition in our family – selling refreshments in front of our house every Independence Day since I was four or five years old. It was the perfect spot, with the parade passing in front of our house.
After the lemonade sold out, and it sold out every Fourth of July, I, and later with the twins, counted up to $50 in profit — a king’s ransom for a child at that time, even splitting the money three ways. We would open the stand on occasion throughout the summer, even though the reduced foot traffic on our street meant business was far from brisk without a parade.
But I had turned thirteen the previous December and felt I had outgrown selling lemonade or getting excited about surprise visits to Toys R Us. Working at a lemonade stand when there was more fun than profit now seemed childish. So at the end of this past Fourth of July, I decided I would no longer work the stand and would leave it to my little brother and sister alone. As I watched them chatting with their friends, my mind started to wander over the prospects for the coming school year. I would be starting a new school, high school, and as a ninth grader, I knew I would be on the school’s lowest rung. Don’t get me wrong – I was proud of graduating and moving on to high school, but I also anticipated my loss of status, which counted for a lot. I know that now, but I had an even keener sense of it then. I felt as if I was being sent back to the end of a long line.
“Miles! Miles!” I was familiar with the sharp demand of that voice. My attention snapped away from my reveries and my head whipped around in the direction of the voice. It was Dad, who was standing on our front porch about twenty feet behind me. Forty-three years old at the time, he was not imposingly tall, but his lean muscular frame testified to his health-conscious diet and years of self-defense training. His skin was the color of a brand new penny, and his squarish face and short-cropped black hair made many people mistake him for the dad in the television sitcom Moesha.
“Miles!” Dad called out again, slightly louder and with more aggravation in his voice.
When his urgency finally registered with me, I pushed the headphones down so the earcups hugged my collar bone. The outside world flooded in.
“Go help your brother and sister pack up, Son,” he continued. “I need all of you to lend a hand with dinner.”
I rose from my perch and walked over to Ida and Douglass as they said goodbye to their friends.
Douglass was a linguistic trapeze artist, swooping, swinging, and diving among puns, alliterations, rhymes, and other kinds of wordplay with precocious ease. Douglass, always advanced when it came to English, had begun playing with foreign languages about a year earlier, during his daily phone conversations with Dad, who had been on a two-week-long business trip in Europe. He used a different language for saying goodbye to each of his friends: Adios; Au revoir; Ciao; Auf Wiedersehen. Ida said goodbye to her friend in her usual quiet voice.
The rest of the family and I constantly reminded Ida to speak up, but she still spoke so reticently you’d think she was a member of Michael Jackson’s soft-spoken clan.
By the time I reached the twins, they had started to make a mess of dismantling the lemonade stand. My sister had put the lid on the shoebox full of the day’s earnings and was trying to carefully peel the sign from the table. My brother staggered toward the house, awkwardly gripping the plastic bag filled with the remaining paper cups with one hand while embracing the empty 10-gallon cooler by gripping its two handles with both. The container alone would have been difficult to carry for someone his size.
“Need any help, Douglass?” I asked.
“No, thanks,” said Douglass, who had put down his cargo and was rubbing the pain from his hands.
“Be careful,” I cautioned him. “You don’t want to hurt yourself.”
I quickly freed the handmade sign and gave it to Ida to carry along with the shoebox. Then I folded up the table, grabbed it by one edge with one hand, and lumbered back to the house, seizing the metal chair by the back with my other hand along the way.
As I crossed the lawn, then walked over the driveway to the back door of our house, my attention began drifting again, this time to Dad’s expectations for me.
Throughout my life, Dad had emphasized excellence. He did so less through lectures than with a couple of well-chosen words and very firm action: bad test— no sports that weekend; teacher reports inattentiveness in class—no television.
That may sound tough, perhaps too exacting, and unforgiving. And I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But looking back on it as an adult, I think I was blessed.
I remember long before any conversations about having high standards, my father began suggesting behaviors that would “assure progress even in an unfair world,” he liked to say. For instance, he often recommended I “Eat the frog first,” which meant to attack the unpleasant parts of a task before moving on to the rest. “Before you start anything,” he’d say, “scan it for the most difficult parts” and “go over your work after it’s finished.” Dad would make suggestions like these time and time again and encourage me to take “skull notes” of his recommendations and review them before doing homework assignments, practicing piano, or starting any other activity.
If I were going through a rough patch when it came to academics, Dad would work patiently with me, guiding me through the lesson, calmly helping me look at a problem first this way, then that way, then another way to help me find the answer for myself.
My bookshelf groaned under the weight of soccer, T-ball, softball, and basketball trophies I had earned since kindergarten, playing in the town’s various leagues. Granted, some of them were participation trophies, but I never returned home from a game with a clean uniform. My involvement in the town leagues and traveling teams was due not only to my physical ability – Dad would not have let me join any extracurricular sports if I hadn’t kept up with my grades.
But Dad wasn’t only a stern taskmaster; He supported me no matter what at sports events. When my team won or I performed particularly well, he gave me enthusiastic high-fives; at a loss, a discreet hug or rub on the shoulder. I half resented what I thought was “babying,” but looking back, I’m grateful for his vote of acceptance and confidence that said, “You’ll always be a winner to me.”
Since my 13th birthday, however, there had been a sea change in the emotional climate of our household. Storm clouds of doubt gathered over what had been the light and warmth of my father’s encouragement. Razor-toothed flashes of impatience were followed by the crack and rumble of oppressive “lessons.” Just before school let out for summer vacation, he talked to me yet again about the importance of black achievement. I had had enough of him shoving his anxiety down my throat and pushed back. “Why do we always have to explain ourselves to other people? Why do we always have to be well-behaved and always be at our best? It’s exhausting!“
Anger flared from his eyes, and I involuntarily flinched, fearing he was going to haul off and hit me, although he had never struck me before. But he took a deep breath. And then another.
“This is not about other people,” he said deliberately. “And sometimes the only sensible thing to do is to misbehave, to break rules created solely to hold you back.” He was about to say something else but stopped short as if an unexpected thought popped into his head. “Why would you look for an excuse to do anything other than your best?” he asked, puzzled.
“Dad,” I replied, exasperated, “I just want to be left alone. I just want to be myself without expectations, explanations, or apologies!”
He thought for a long moment, furrowed his brow, and finally responded with the concentration of a software engineer debugging a code so that a program works properly.
“Listen, Son,” he began, “I’ll ask you this: When you start a basketball game, do you go in hoping it will end with a tie or even with your team losing?”
Trick question. I wanted to roll my eyes at its absurdity. But I didn’t dare do that – Dad was clearly not in the mood for any kind of “lip.”
“I guarantee you,” he continued, when I withheld my response, “the other team, even if you know some of them as friends, have come ready and willing to beat you. Whether they can is up to you. People will grin ear to ear and tell you it’s OK to aspire to be just OK. They are neither your friends nor your allies. They are enemies rooting for you to lose.”
I longed for a return to the casual and easy conversations Dad and I used to have. I loathed what was happening now – talks that almost always deteriorated into harangues mostly centering around the words “black man.” Dad would repeat those words in these lectures. It was as if he believed he could conjure this “black man” out of me by repeating those words often enough, yet he never explained to me exactly what a “black man” is. And for reasons that elude me to this day, I felt embarrassed to ask him.
I first remembered hearing that pair of words at the beginning of the year, shortly after my birthday. It was a snowy day, and Dad and I were buying the Sunday newspaper from Blackmun, whose full name was Charles A. Blackmun, the owner of a corner convenience store in town. Our family had known Blackmun since we first moved to Oakwood a decade earlier, and he and my father had become friendly, if not friends. But Dad always made a point of praising Blackmun’s entrepreneurial spirit and attention to detail to me.
Blackmun was coming up the basement stairs located in an alcove a few feet behind the counter when I made a comment to my father — I don’t remember what exactly —but the response it elicited from Dad and Blackmun remains vivid in my memory. The two men beamed.
Looking at my father and pointing an approving thumb in my direction, Blackmun said, “Spoken like a black man.”
“Like a true black man,” Dad added proudly.
I was confused by their comments – and somewhat taken aback. What did being black have to do with anything?
As I entered the mudroom through the back door of our house on this August day, I leaned the table and chair against a wall and continued into the kitchen. The dreamy tones of a vibraphone – Bobby Hutcherson’s rendition of “Maiden Voyage” – floated from the radio sitting on the countertop underneath the kitchen cabinets. With each tap of a mallet on the instrument’s metal bars, a brief, glittering plume of sound seemed to appear in mid-air. A mouth-watering aroma filled the room; Dad was steaming up the place, making jambalaya for dinner. Ida and Douglass raced in and began to bang around as they made trips to the cupboard and drawers under the countertop for plates, silverware, and glasses to set the picnic table in our backyard. I spread out a dishtowel near the sink, turned on the faucet, and put my hand under the streaming column of water until it ran cold. I then began to pull the leaves from the head of iceberg lettuce for the salad. I washed, shredded, and dried the leaves, then put them in the teak wood salad bowl. Dad noticed I had not pulled all the leaves from the head and some of those in the bowl were still quite damp.
“Son, I’d like you to pull all the leaves off the head of lettuce, then dry them
completely,” he said firmly. “Now, take it back and do it again.”
I dumped the leaves in the bowl on the dishtowel with a violent shake, then started ripping the remaining leaves from the head. What’s the big deal, I wondered to myself. A little water wouldn’t hurt anybody. Besides, the salad was going to be wet with dressing eventually. But I didn’t raise those points with Dad. I knew that to do so. I’d risk getting another one of those lectures. And over the past nine months, I had already received enough to last a lifetime – maybe two or three lifetimes.
As I pounded the leaves dry, I heard Dad ask, “Are you about through with that lettuce?” “UmHmm,” I grunted barely audibly, hoping that minimal response would keep him at bay.
“Miles, I asked you a question.”
Mercifully, just then, I heard the familiar crunching sound of car tires rolling over our gravel driveway. Dad’s mother was returning from her week-long trip to Oak Bluffs, a town on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
“Grandma’s home,” sang out Douglass, who had finished setting everything on the table. Perhaps I had been given a reprieve. A few minutes later, Grandma stepped through the back door. She was a trim woman of medium height. She looked stylish, as always, today wearing her favorite dress – a white Tracy Reese- designed sleeveless sundress with red floral print, which Grandma had made herself from a dress pattern. It complemented her cappuccino-colored skin with its spray of freckles, concentrated primarily on her face. Smiling broadly, she was about to speak, probably about her adventures with her Delta sorority sisters during her time away, but the moment her eyes alighted on the twins, she bent down, opened her arms wide, and exclaimed joyfully, “Give Grandma some sugar!” as they rushed and playfully tackled her in their eagerness for a hug and a kiss.
Although Grandma was sixty-five years old, there was a timeless effervescence about her. Looking back, I think part of her lively appearance came from her eyes. I had noticed with most people around her age, their eyes seemed to go dull as if clouded over with cataracts and fatigue. Grandma’s eyes had an alertness and clarity that reminded me of my siblings’ eyes. She looked at the world avidly. It seemed you could see her pupils dilate as she looked around as if she were attempting through a gentle force of will to ingest all the things and sensations of life so they became a part of her. I never knew Grandma’s husband, my grandfather – he died before I was born. Although she dated and had lots of friends and otherwise kept occupied with volunteer work at a local hospital, she focused her energies on being the female figure in the household and helping Dad raise us.
“Something sure smells goooooood!” Grandma said melodiously. She approached the kitchen cart Dad had wheeled near the stove where he had been fixing dinner. The top of the cart was neatly arrayed with stainless steel measuring spoons and Pyrex measuring cups.
“You just won’t give up using these things, will you, Son,” Grandma said, shaking her head in feigned exasperation. She picked up a measuring spoon and gave it a comically thorough inspection – pretending to check its depth, flexibility, weight – tapping it on the cart then putting it next to her ear and periodically nodding as if “listening” to its whispered cooking tips. When she noticed Dad was too busy rummaging around for something in the back of the refrigerator to appreciate her antics, she stealthily turned her attention to the jambalaya simmering in a covered cast-iron Dutch oven on the stovetop. Like a culinary Ninja, Grandma, in one silent swoop, grabbed the oven mitt hanging from a magnetized hook on the oven door, lifted the hot lid off the pot with it, and quietly laid the cover on an unused burner. So far, so good. Peeking over her shoulder to make sure Dad was still preoccupied, she picked up the wooden spoon lying next to the burner, dipped it into the pot, brought it to her lips, and frowned. A row of half a dozen small stainless-steel bowls, each filled with a different spice, sat on the portable cart next to the measuring cups. Grandma grabbed the bowl containing ground cayenne pepper and stirred two large pinches of it into the pot. When she tasted the stew this time, she smiled, then swiftly returned the bowl to the cart. A nano-second later, Dad shut the refrigerator door, turned around, and moved towards the stove. Grandma gave him a wide “cat that ate the canary” grin. When Dad stopped, seemingly confused by her expression, she flashed him the “PEACE” sign with fingers tinged with the incriminating red dust from the pepper. Now it was Dad’s turn to shake his head in feigned exasperation.
Grandma had been living with us since my mother’s death from a brain tumor shortly after the twins’ birth. Mom had always placed flowers strategically around our house to make it a home. Or she’d decorate our mantel with a simple, colorful piece of fabric to cheer up the place. Even when Dad was struggling to get his public relations business on its feet, and there wasn’t a dime to spare, Mom had found a way to brighten everything around us. At least, that is what relatives later told me. Regardless, I know now Grandma added a spot or two of radiance to our home – a seasonally appropriate wreath on the front door, wind chimes on the back porch, large woven baskets lined with cotton sacks for our dirty laundry instead of plain plastic clothes hampers.
“We’ve finished setting the table,” Ida announced to our father after Dad turned his attention back to the stove. “May we watch T.V.?”
“First, I’d like you both to finish those arithmetic problems I gave you. There are only five of them.”
“But, Dad,” Douglass whined, “a show on Africa is about to come on!”
“The most African thing you can do right now is to deal with those problems,” Dad said. “Then, if there’s time, you can watch whatever you want until dinner is on the table.”
Grandma looked at me quizzically for what seemed like a long time before whispering, “Looks like your father has been giving you a hard time again.”
“I wouldn’t call it a hard time, Mom,” Dad said, interrupting Grandma’s comment, his full attention suddenly focused on us. Abruptly concentrating on me alone, he continued, “Look, Miles, you’re at an age where I don’t need to sugarcoat the truth for you. Life can be good, yes, and it can be wondrous. But life is also full of struggles; it is also full of obstacles. Embrace both the wondrous and the struggles with discipline and joy. When I was your age, my father told me something I’ll never forget….”
And on and on and on – a barrage of words rat-a-tatting towards me like machine-gun fire and so predictable over the past few months I practically had them memorized. I could even quote the next lines, which ran through my head before they had left Dad’s mouth: Everybody chooses from a toolbox of attitudes and actions when dealing with the difficulties of life. Your choice of tools determines the distinction and effectiveness with which you meet your trials. You can choose ignorance, indolence, and pessimism—or intelligence, diligence, and hope… What puzzled me was why Dad was wearing out his words of wisdom and why now? There was also a good portion of worry in his voice when he launched into this subject. I resented the worry more than the words themselves. I had always done well in school – I was in the accelerated math class in junior high, for Christ’s sake! But Dad’s nagging seemed like he was contradicting what he had been telling me all my life until then. I felt he was suddenly saying, I don’t believe in you!
A couple of hours later, the jambalaya and Grandma’s secret recipe sweet potato pie were just tasty memories, and it was time for the twins to get ready for bed. As usual, they went up to the second-floor bathroom they shared with me. Downstairs in the living room, I could hear the water running as they brushed their teeth and washed up. Typically, they would run the few steps to their bedroom and put on their pajamas – Ida’s favorite had images from Disney’s “The Lion King;” Douglass favored his Power Rangers sleepwear. Douglass would then scamper to the second-floor landing and announce, “We’re ready, Daddy!” Dad would walk up the stairs and read them a chapter from one of the Harry Potter novels, Julius Lester’s version of the Uncle Remus stories, or tales based on the Arabian Nights. But their favorite story, and mine too in the days when Dad tucked me into bed, was a story he made up. It was about protagonists around our age outfoxing a wide range of foes while riding their “Night Mare” – a horse Dad described as “the color of a moonless sky” decked out in colorful enchanted quilts that served as armor.
That night, not long after Dad had gone to their room, I made my way to my bedroom, which was across the hall from the twin’s room. When I reached the landing, I heard Dad capping off the evening ritual by reciting Ida and Douglass’s special prayers, the way he had once said them to me:
“Dear God,” Dad said to the twins in a firm, resonate voice. “thank you for giving my daughter, Ida, and my son, Douglass, strong, healthy minds and strong, healthy bodies. Thank you for making them successful in everything they do.
Then, to the twins, he gently ended with the coda, “I’ll see you in your dreams, my chocolate prince and princess. And you’ll be in my dreams. I love you both very much. Ni-night.“
I’d been in my room for about thirty minutes listening, as usual, to music on my headphones when I thought I heard a commotion in the house. The music was so loud, though, I wasn’t sure. I pulled my headphones down from my ears, and the full-bodied bass from Missy Elliott’s, The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly), became a tinny vibration against the front of my neck. I pushed the Walkman’s off button and, in the ensuing silence, made my way downstairs to the living room where the twins soon joined me – the three of us were astonished at what we saw. The room looked as if a wrecking crew had passed through. A chair lay on its side; the marble- topped coffee table was askew because one of its legs had been broken. A ceramic vase cherished by my mother lay cracked on the floor; the arrangement of hydrangea, roses, jasmine it held splayed halfway out of the vase in a puddle of water. Grandma was sitting cross-legged on the floor quietly sobbing, cradling Dad’s head in her lap. Dad’s lips were slightly parted, his breathing shallow, his complexion waxen.
“Your father passed out,” Grandma said. In the panic beginning to envelop me, I heard the piercing caterwauling of an ambulance. “I’m going with him to the hospital,” Grandma continued. “I’ll call you as soon as we get there.”
I ran to open our front door just as the ambulance rolled up in front of our house. Two EMTs jumped out of the cab and walked briskly to the back of their vehicle. They flung open the back doors, pulled the gurney out, and snapped the legs into place. The black polyurethane wheels made a muted clickety clackity sound as the paramedics rushed the gurney over our concrete walkway up the wooden porch steps, through our foyer, and into the living room, where Dad and Grandma were. The paramedics pitched quick questions to Grandma about Dad’s condition and lifted him onto the gurney, where they ran an IV line into his arm and put an oxygen mask over his face. I caught a glimpse of something I’d never thought I’d see in Dad’s face: fear.
In a blur, the paramedics whisked the gurney through the house and out the front door. Grandma, the twins, and I followed.
“Pray for your father,” Grandma said to Ida, Douglass, and me once we were outside. The twins and I remained standing in front of the house while Grandma hurried to catch up with the EMTs heading back to their ambulance.
As Grandma approached the gurney, my soul inexplicably divided: part of me gazed at my siblings and me against the backdrop of our house as we looked on in stunned helplessness at the scene unfolding in front of us. Simultaneously, part of me floated just above Grandma’s right shoulder as she bent over Dad, speaking to him constantly, reassuringly – low and fast – as they made their way along our walkway and into the ambulance. Her patter reminded me of the sound of water coursing over rocks, but it was the reverberation of Grandma’s voice, repeating something over and over and over again, a torrent of words – an incantation.
I tried to understand what Grandma was saying but could seize upon only one thing, one word that repeatedly punctuated the river of sound streaming over her lips. After the strobing red and white lights of the ambulance were swallowed up by the semi-darkness provided by our suburban street lamps and the a-rhythmic yelping of the siren faded into a spooky silence, I ushered the twins into the house, but the resonance of one word, the word Grandma had repeated continuously, like a chant, lingered in my ears.
Hours after the ambulance had left, the word’s ghostly reiterations remained.
I opened the front door and returned outside into the warmth of the night, and silently mouthed the word to myself.
And the word I mouthed was Love.