Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A different world.

I know my parents love me,
Stand behind me come what may.
I know now that I'm ready,
Because I finally heard them say
It's a different world from where you come from.

Here's a chance to make it,
If we focus on our goals.
If you dish it we can take it,
Just remember you've been told
It's a different world from where you come from.
It's a different world from where you come from.

~ from "A Different World" (as sung by Ms. Aretha Franklin)


He couldn't have been any more than four years old. Yet somehow, someway someone had found a pair of designer "skinny fit" jeans that fit him exactly like the ones that the big boys wore. Tight on the calf and the ankle. Loose enough through the waist to fall just under the lower curvature of his gluteus maximus. More of his underwear was showing than not.

And, I am not kidding you, he could not have been any older than four.

Next to him, there was a very young woman. Her belly was taut with a late term pregnancy and it seemed that considerably less thought had gone into her look. Thread bare stretch pants slung up on her hips, a very tight t-shirt that likely fit much better before she was with child. Despite her pendulous appendages up front, she seemed to have little concern with restraining them by a bra. Or concern for much of anything beyond the conversation she was having on the cell phone in her hand.

"Ha ha ha. . . f--k that!" she said with a loud laugh to whomever was on the line. "Girl, I bet his dumb ass was lyin'!"  She paused for a moment and then erupted into more laughter, this time in likely response to what she heard on the other end.

Meanwhile, the little boy was standing directly beside her. Right there in the Grady lobby. I couldn't help but study his young face. There was this weird mixture of complete innocence yet comfort with everything happening around him. Unfazed by the bustling crowd of people pushing through those revolving doors. Not even the least bit conflicted by the profane words and mature conversation falling straight into his young ears. He yawned; then he plunged two of his fingers into his mouth and began sucking them mindlessly. At that point, his eyes seemed to retreat into some distant, soothing place.

"Why the f--k he think somebody gon' believe that sh-t? N--ga! That's some bullsh-t! F--k that! Sh----t, girl I woulda told that n--ga , 'Oh you got me f--ked up!'" She snapped her fingers at the little boy to get his attention. By now, he was twirling one of the short loc twists in his hair and zoning out with those two fingers. He didn't notice. She snapped two more times, this time louder, followed by her reaching over to pull his hand from his mouth at the elbow.

"Girl, uggh. Sticking his nasty ass fingers in his mouth like it ain't no germs up in here!" She kept talking into the phone and never even addressed the child. "Yeah, girl. We at Grady and this n--ga got his hands in his mouth like it ain't all kind of sh-t up in this b--ch." He glanced up into her eyes and then looked off again. And again, nothing about any of it seemed to alarm him in any way.

Which reminds me.

There was once this time when I was around Isaiah's age that my parents agreed to let me sleep over the at the home of these kids who lived on my street. These kids played double dutch with me under street lights and made up dance routines on roller skates to songs by the group Chic. So, yes, we were all compadres and mostly the same as far as I was concerned.

I remember asking several times if I could "spen-na-night" at their home back then and how we'd plot and plan all day for it after a long day of playing outdoors. Almost always, mom said no. But one day, I guess she was in a good mood and agreed.

Now. It wasn't like this house was a few blocks away. It was, like, only a few houses down so that yes became a party within just ten minutes. I stuffed a few Barbies and a toothbrush into a bag along with a nightgown and went sprinting out of the door.

Simple enough, right?

But you know? Here is what I remember from that night. While I was there, some adults got into an argument. A knock down, drag-out, hollering-and-screaming altercation. The profanity was amplified and uncensored. F-bombs were being slung all around and someone threw something like a cup or a plastic bowl at the other person. And all of it just kept escalating right there in front of us kids who happened to be sitting on the floor playing "Hungry Hungry Hippos."

I was terrified. That I absolutely recall. Yet the other thing that struck me that day was that my neighbors weren't afraid. They weren't. It was like those kids had been there and done that. And no, I don't think they particularly enjoyed any of it but they definitely weren't shaking with fear like me.

"I'm gonna go home," I said. I know I was crying when I did, too, because none of this was in my comfort zone. The response to that told it all.

"Why? Noooo!" My friends pleaded with me. They wanted me to overlook the flying Tupperware and expletives long enough to play another Hasbro game.

"I gotta go home. I . . gotta . . .go home." And with that, I grabbed my bag and scooted out into the night air toward my house. And you know? It wasn't until then that they started crying, too.


I knew then that my world was different. My innocence had been fiercely protected by my parents and those around me. And no, I didn't fully know how fortunate I was but I do know that I felt very relieved once I got back into my home. Mom and Dad didn't make a huge deal out of it, I don't think. We still played outside together and organized our neighborhood pop locking groups.

But I never spent the night again. Nor did I even ask.


That little boy in the lobby at Grady made me return to that memory. His ease with all of that took me back to the way my friend continued slamming her hand down on her Hungry, Hungry Hippo button despite all that chaos. It also let me know that my children are also in a different world.

All of this often makes me feel so . . .  so. . . . I don't know. While I look back on how committed our parents were to preserving our home environment, I'm so grateful that they didn't prohibit us from interacting with those whose lives were different than our own. And especially that their careful reactions to things didn't teach me to look down upon them.

A friend of mine recently lamented to me about a recent influx of "less-than-desirable" families at her child's school. And before anyone puffs out their chest, pounds their fist down on a table and says, "Define 'less-than-desirable' families!"-- just go ahead and admit that, though not a politically correct thing to say, you probably have some idea of what she meant. The people she described sounded a lot like that young, pregnant mother in her skin tight t-shirt dropping off her pre-schooler in his sagging True Religion jeans.  Ones that may or may not have some questionable parenting styles.

May or may not.

"Oh hell no," she said with a shake of her head. "No way." And I just listened and tried my best to sift it all through my brain. Like, what it means to intermingle your children with those kids who've already had their innocence robbed and what that means to your children and theirs. Whether it's okay to run hard and fast away from those folks willing to drop unabridged curse-word laden soliloquies under impressionable young ears. But also whether it's equally detrimental to quarantine our kids from all of that, too.

Kind of like the black male medical student I once advised who admitted to me that he was "sometimes uncomfortable" around large numbers of African-Americans. And that he felt most "at home" when surrounded by those who actually weren't culturally like him. Then again, maybe they were more like him culturally than his afrocentric peers. Now that? That I don't know how to feel about. I think I mostly didn't like hearing that and remember thinking to myself that I needed to do any and everything to make certain that my children didn't feel like that.


I don't know the answers. To any of it, to be honest. Like, I don't know where protection ends and bourgeoisie superiority begins. Where exposure and acceptance end and denial and discrimination begin. I don't.

And before I forget: Let me just also say that the friend with the school concern is a good soul with a heart for all people including her own. She is. And all of this is complicated because when it comes to our children, the ground rules all change sometimes. Wait. Don't they?

Hell if I know.

Man, I'm just looking for some kind of intermediate place. So I constantly reflect on my upbringing and try my best to wrap my brain around all of the awesome and intentional choices my parents made. Because I know for certain that they somehow achieved that happy medium. I know this because I don't flinch at Grady Hospital or when I ride the MARTA. I mostly see some piece of myself in most people and can find their beauty on most days. But admittedly, I'm not as good at this as Harry. And you know? He grew up in a different world than the one I came from.

Which wasn't a bad one. Just. . .less innocent, I'd say. Yeah. That.

And despite all that, the rules get muddy with our children. We want them to stay innocent. We want you to keep your slacked pants and exposed underwear to yourselves. And your big, bold expletives over there. And honestly, I'm sort of conflicted by all of that. Especially when it starts to separate my children from a lot of kids who look like them.

Or who simply don't have what they have. Because while parts of this may sound like a black thing, I know for absolute certain that socioeconomic disparities can affect every shade of the rainbow. And that? That's a whole separate blog post, man.


No. I don't have any of the answers. But these are things I think about. And I want to believe that the first step is just that. Always that.


Happy Tuesday. And thanks for letting me unpack.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . .


  1. This is what I think most of the time...we can still change the world ...we just have to make our world smaller. Sometimes I just feel like I can't take any more on...even the thinking part....but I want to. The one thing I remember the hospice nurse told my dad in his last days "You only have so much energy left...use it the way you want to". Like you this post makes me feel so...so ...I don't know. Sad I think...for the children.

  2. Thank you for this. Why are your posts so timely.....kind of like the song lyrics that you know were written just for you?! Thanks again.

  3. You said it...You have to try to see yourself in others. Amen.


  4. It's really sad that she has so much power to shape the next generation and she isn't mindful of the shape she is making.

  5. I like to think my wife and I are raising our kids in an environment more like the one you grew up in and less like the one your neighbors and the little boy in the lobby did. But I think this also extends a little further, to encourage our kids to be welcoming to this who might not have it as peaceful at home as we do, and to invite those kids into our home. One of my kids has a close friend who spends so much time at our house that I refer to her as my "accessory daughter". Nice kid, quiet polite, etc. I don't think her home life is a complete disaster, but it's much farther down the Leave-It-To-Beaver scale than ours is. We make a conscious effort to involve her whenever possible, in the hopes that some degree of normalcy and stability will pay off for her later in life.

    So that's what I would encourage your friend to do...encourage her kids to make friends with those kids, to bring them home and let those kids experience a little of life on the other side. This doesn't mean she needs to send her kid to those houses...if she's not comfortable doing so, she absolutely shouldn't. But a little kindness and example-setting for these "less-than-desirables" will go a long way for all of society.

  6. This post. You perfectly put into words the narrative that runs in my head, and in me and my husband's conversations about raising our boys. The conflict between protecting their innocence and not sheltering them too much. I was raised (mostly sheltered, I'll admit) in a mid-sized town in Alabama, and my husband was raised in a not so sheltered environment in the Bronx. Fortunately, we're on the same page about protecting our sons' innocence and childhood. However, everything is subjective, and sometimes we just have to laugh about the different ways we see things.
    I want my kids to love their people and culture, and I instill that into them. However, I have a real issues with a lot of what black culture is being portrayed as now. But I don't want my children looking down on others, either. Looking for that balance...

  7. I love this post! And truly appreciate you for writing it. As African-American parents of two amazing boys who are currently living in the race- and culture-rich London, England, this is a conversation that my husband and I have . . . often. It truly is a different world then where we come from -- Dallas, Texas and Newark, Delaware. That said, we, too, are seeking to find "the balance." So, if you run across it before I do, please let me know, and I promise to do the same! In the meantime, keep calm and carry on!

    1. From the deck of the Poop,
      Quite an interesting post. This process you write about is ever evolving. When your mom and I travelled the road you are describing, it was much less bumpy or you might even use term word "treacherous". Yet, we were still in uncharted territory for our young lives. If I recall my thoughts during the period you described; elementary school age, they were different as you guys hit middle school or junior high. When the older daughter got pregnant, we sort of shifted gears in terms of the level an type of involvement with the children that you write about . We didn't jump all the way to "you can't play with them anymore", but we talked to you guys more about how certain things (like a pregnancy) could have a major impact on your life and the kind of life you wanted live. I think we always tied the discussions to education, choices and consequences. As you got older the discussions changed but they never went away. And as you know, the discussions still take place. (Smile)
      So, what's the answer? There is none. Just keep paying attention and have the courage to keep talking!



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