“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
Early one morning in March 2000, I was awakened by a loud banging on the door of my Bronx apartment. It was about 6 a.m.; I was in bed with my wife. We had a young son, Damon, who was about to turn five. Several months earlier, I had been promoted to assistant professor at Columbia. Life was good. As we say back home, I was feeling myself. But I also knew that word of my success had hit the streets of South Florida. Indeed, I’d recently received what I thought was an absurd letter from a Florida court claiming that I was the father of a sixteen-year- old boy. The pounding became more insistent.
When I opened the door, I was met by a thick-necked white guy wearing an undersized suit and displaying a badge. He handed me some official paperwork and instructed me to appear before a judge. As it turned out, the boy’s mother had actually gone ahead and filed a paternity suit. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know her last name. But, in the fall of 1982, when I was fifteen and she was sixteen, we’d had a one-night stand. It started to come to me as I thought back; soon I had a vague memory of her signaling me to sneak in through her window to avoid alerting her mother that she had a visitor.
As the DNA test ultimately confirmed, I’d gotten her pregnant that night. For the next two years, prior to joining the U.S. Air Force, I’d lived in and around the Carol City neighborhood of Miami (known to hip-hop fans as the gun-and drug-filled home of rapper Rick Ross and his Carol City Cartel), but she had never even mentioned the possibility to me that I was the father of her baby boy. And I never even thought to ask, because I had engaged in this type of behavior in the past without noticeable consequences.
[blockquote type=”center”]But that’s the abrupt way I discovered that I had a son I didn’t know—one who was being raised in the place I’d tried so hard to escape; yet another fatherless black child of a teenage mother. [/blockquote]At first, I was enraged, horrified, and embarrassed. I thought I had at least avoided making that mistake. Here I was doing the best I could to raise the child I knew I had in a middle-class, two-parent family. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to do. Once I got over my initial shock, I was appalled to think about what it must have been like for my son to grow up without ever knowing his father. It really got me thinking about how I’d managed to thrive despite lacking those advantages.
I’d wanted to teach my children everything I hadn’t known as I grew up with a struggling single mother, surrounded by people whose lives were limited by their own lack of knowledge. I wanted them to go to good schools, to know how to negotiate the potential pitfalls of being black in the United States, to not have to live and die by whether they were considered “man” enough on the street. I also wanted to illustrate by my own example that bad experiences like those I had as a child aren’t the defining factor in being authentically black.
Now I had learned that one of my own children—a boy, whose name I learned was Tobias, had grown up for sixteen years in the same way I had, but without any of the hard-earned knowledge I could now offer.
Later, I’d discover as well that he’d taken the very path I feared most. He had dropped out of high school and fathered several children with different women. He had sold drugs and allegedly shot someone. What could I tell my sons about how I’d escaped from the streets? Could my experience and knowledge help change Tobias’s downward trajectory?
How did I really manage to go from being one of the black kids in the auxiliary trailer for those with “learning difficulties” in elementary school to being an Ivy League professor?
Though I now regret much of this behavior, like my newfound son I’d sold drugs, I’d carried guns. I’d had my share of fun with the ladies. I’d deejayed in the skating rinks and gyms of Miami performing with rappers like Run-DMC and Luther Campbell in their early gigs, ducking when people started shooting. I’d seen the aftermath of what the police call a “drug-related” homicide up close for the first time when I was just twelve years old; I lost my first friend to gun violence as part of the same chain of events. Indeed, my cousins Michael and Anthony had stolen from their own mother, and I had attributed this abhorrent behavior to their “crack cocaine addictions.” I saw what happened as the crack first took hold in Miami’s poorest black communities. Falling for media interpretations and street myths about all of these experiences had originally misled and misdirected me. Some of that, as we shall see, may ironically have helped me at certain times. But more often, it was a distraction, one that prevented me and so many others in my community from learning how to think critically.
So how could I now in good conscience study this scourge of a drug, even offer it to my own people in the laboratory? In the grand scheme of things, what was really so different between what I was doing in my research and what was likely to get Tobias arrested on the street?