"It's important to know the stuff you came from."
-- Afeni Shakur
I travel east on I-20 as the sun sets behind me, passing exits I no longer recognize. Old fears of being lost on the highway in Stone Mountain, Georgia, resurface, even though I'm told it's no longer the crackerland of my childhood. Black folk live out here now, far beyond the parameters of my youth. Today, Atlanta stretches past Cumberland Mall, Six Flags, and even Stone Mountain. Things have changed and I missed the transition. I feel strangely stuck right in the middle of my life. There was a time when my life was all ahead of me. Today, there is a big chunk behind me and maybe just as much in front. All this means is, I still have time to change my attitudes and sensibilities, but I am just less inclined to do so. Let's say I'm just a little less flexible. Like an uncle of mine who still says "colored" instead of "black." He just never got used to saying "Black" or "Negro," and didn't understand what difference it made or why he had to make a change. The change was irrelevant to him..."African-American" was out of the question.
So, the irony of the famed revolutionary and impassioned mother of a rapper -- superstar Tupac Shakur -- now residing in suburban, once-Klan-country Georgia is not lost on me. In fact, I have learned to expect the unexpected from Afeni Shakur. Not because she means to be complex or contradictory, but because she just is. That is her truth, and it's a truth that fascinates me. I've grown to love my friend Afeni.
As I drive I think back to December 1, 1994, the day I met Afeni. At the time, I was writing a screenplay about a fictitious young woman in the '60s who was raising her daughter while still living with her own mother. The piece was, or still is if I ever get finished writing it, a three-generation piece about Black women. The young woman in the middle is a fictitious, composite character of Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur. My plan was to meet Afeni and hopefully have her help me develop this particular character and perhaps give me her insights on the other two.
The way I met her was not how I'd imagined, though. In fact, I was thrust into a tumultuous family trauma her son, my friend, Tupac, had been brutally shot five times in the foyer of a New York recording studio on a Sunday night; had left Bellevue Hospital on a Monday, and was in court on a Tuesday morning for a sexual assault hearing. So, on December 1, 1994, I was early for the court hearing and waiting in a vast hallway with Jada Pinkett, a close friend of mine and an even closer friend to Tupac Shakur. We were waiting to get a glimpse of Tupac on his way into court and let him know we were near and there for him. At that time, I didn't even know the charges or the circumstances of the trial. I just knew that Tupac was shot the night before in the entrance of the recording studio, and I needed to be there to support my friends -- Jada and Tupac.
The crazy events of the last two days had me reeling, but I tried to consciously stay in the moment. It is Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning. You're in New York. You're at the courthouse. I remember talking myself into the present moment of that day, but I kept slipping out. Tupac is shot. Someone shot Tupac. Today is Tuesday morning...Five times! Who did it? He's at Bellevue....That was Monday, which would be yesterday....He's out. Tupac's gone. He left. The hospital? He didn't feel safe up in there. At Bellevue? Monday, that was yesterday. Where is he? I don't know, but I'm going to New York. Here I am Tuesday morning at the courthouse. Just be here. Just be present. Someone may need you.
And that's where I was -- jumping back and forth in my head -- this Monday, the day I first saw Afeni Shakur. A tight group clustered at the end of the hall, surrounding a wheelchair holding an ashen, bandaged, diminutive Tupac. Two women headed the clan that hovered over him, and I later learned that his family was indeed a "clan." At the time, however, it just looked to me like a bunch of folk. I mistook the lady in charge to be Afeni at first notice, but the lady was Glo, Afeni's sister. Afeni stood beside her. Glo was stern and serious, as I had imagined Afeni would be, and Glo checked me out when she first saw me, like I was some little wannabee trying to get next to Tupac. Afeni, on the other hand, was warmer. She embraced me like I was an old friend. Little did I know I would grow to be just that -- an old friend.
I sit with this memory of December 1994 when I first met Afeni. I sit with this memory now in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as I approach the long driveway of Afeni's house -- the house Tupac bought for her. Eight years later, I get to sit with my Afeni, and I relish my time alone in her world. She wants to talk of origins, beginnings. She is ready now to reveal her own history. She is ready now because she's taken some time with herself to reflect on her life. She needed this time because her beloved son died. He didn't die the first time he was shot five times in the foyer of the New York recording studio, but he was shot again two years later in Las Vegas. And this time, she lost him. September 13, 1996. So, Afeni needed some time to look at her life and work out why she is still here. Now, she wants to tell her story, and she called me to tell it to. She says she's been back to her home and has spent some time with her people. She understands more about her mama, her daddy, and their mamas and daddies. She's had some time to go back home to Lumberton, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia, and revisit where her life began as Alice Faye Williams.
Her house is set back from the street. I park next to a few cars in the driveway, and I recognize one of them as Tupac's prized Mercedes. I smile and walk up the steps to Afeni's front door. It is ajar, so, I just step in and yell a few "hellos."
"I'm in the back," Afeni calls.
I follow her voice through the airy living room and wood-paneled den. On the walls are powerful oil portraits of Tupac. The photos on the mantel above the brick fireplace celebrate Afeni's babies, her grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews, and the offspring of her ex-comrades and their children's children. A generation has passed since the revolution. My baby, Imani, is up there too. And I realize I am part of this family as well, and I'm grateful for the inclusion.
I reach Afeni's bedroom only to find her backlit in the doorway of her veranda, her silhouetted arms reaching out to me. I get closer and I see her glistening eyes smile broadly. She hugs me, strong and hearty, as if she were a big ole man instead of the small-boned little lady she is. I enjoy Afeni's hug. It carries weight and time and the sense that it may be the last one. So I hold on tight. There aren't many people in my life this happy to see me and she always is.
"Afeni," I say. "I can't believe your house. It's so warm and inviting and -- "
"I got furniture," she proclaims.
We laugh and I add, "I didn't crawl over lumps of sleeping teenagers on the floor either. And it's light in here. And clear."
"Yeah," Afeni says. "I only smoke back here now, in my room and on my porch. 'Cause of the kids, you know."
"It's lovely, Fe. I'm proud of you." Having a house that is a home is a major accomplishment for Afeni, who has spent most of her adult life an impoverished gypsy. In dire straits she always stayed with her sister Glo, and dire straits were frequent.
"Come on out here." Afeni leads the way. "Come on out here on my porch."
The porch is deep and long, and wraps around the house like a huge knitted scarf. In one corner, Afeni's chaise lounge sits to the right of a small table. Another cushioned chair to the left of the small table faces the sprawling pine forest of her backyard. In the farthest corner a large color TV flickers, on mute, but full of CNN.
"Shit, you might as well move the bed out here, too," I exclaim. I've never seen a TV on an outdoor porch before. I nestle in my chair and let the warm, rich Georgia air rest on my face. God, I miss humidity.
"This is all I ever wanted," Afeni says. "This right here? This is the best thing Tupac ever did for me."
"It is nice, Afeni, and very peaceful." I began to see why she's in Stone Mountain.
"Land. We always wanted land. Shit, I come from sharecroppers. Of course, they wanted land, too. They understood the value of owning your own land, 'cause they never owned nothing. My great-grandmother, Millie Ann, she was the last person in our family to have land, and it has taken all this time for us to own land again Now, Black people want trinkets, cars and clothes, and shit. That's part of the genocide, the loss of values. It is killing us, as a people."
Afeni shakes her head. "Millie Ann had land, and she lost it. Her sons got busted, and she put the house up for bail. Then it burned down. Black people had land, you know, but we lost it. It was hard to keep it, though, but when that land got taken, it broke us down a little more. So, the next time the children came up, they didn't know it is the land that is important. Now, they think the trinket is important 'cause their parents and their parents before them didn't own shit."
"And they died owning nothing," I add.
"And nothing to pass down," Afeni says.
"The Cadillac parked in front of unit B in the projects," I say to Afeni, the vision dear to me. Having grown up near a project in Atlanta, I get what she's saying about our skewed values.
"Exactly, but if you got your land, that's what you work for. I don't need no clothes, jewelry, and shit. Because now I work to keep the land. I want a generator in case the electricity goes out. I want space so if someone needs a place to live, they can put a trailer up right there and have a home. I want my grandchildren to know how to garden and cultivate their own food. I want them to know because I come from farmers and people of the land and I lost it. You see that," Afeni points to a patch of dark soil with cabbage, lettuce, carrots thriving. "I tried to do that garden and I got calluses and shit. I burned my hands up! That shit is hard work. Them women in those days, my great-grandmother, my people, they worked their butts off from sunup to sundown to keep it up. You can't be spending your money on trinkets if you have to keep up your land."
I join in. "When I first got A Different World I bought a house. Actually, I did a Burger King commercial for sixty grand, and that was my down payment. Before I bought a nice car or a nice stereo system, I made sure I had a home that I owned."
Afeni taps my thigh. "Yes," she says excitedly. "Priority. And I'm glad your people taught you that. You knew early. It's taken me so many years to find my priority in life, only to come right back here where I began. Now, I know what I'm working for and striving for. The real estate man who showed me this place was happy to sell it to me, you know, until he found out who my son was. Then he wanted me to go and get a big ole fancy house."
"Yes, 'cause your son's a superstar! You need some marble and a fountain, some gates and some statues, a swimming pool!" I laugh because such showy opulence would be untrue to Afeni's real self.
"And I wanted the land, not the house. The land, to live on and to cultivate and pass on to my family."
Afeni inhales her Newport and surveys the deep forest green of her backyard. I notice new saplings planted on the edge of her small pine forest.
"Those new trees are what the babies planted," Afeni says proudly.
Afeni's "babies" are the Shakur family's next generation. The two sisters, Glo and Afeni, are at the helm -- they are the keepers of the brood. Sekyiwa, Afeni's daughter, and Tupac's sister, has two children -- Nzingha and Malik. Jamala, Glo's daughter, has one daughter -- Imani. Katari, Glo's son, has a daughter as well, Kyira, the same name as my daughter. And on any given day, these cousins roam Afeni's yard, raid her refrigerator, and laugh up the rooms of her Stone Mountain refuge.
"Nzingha wanted a pine tree. So, that's her tree right there. That one is Imani's. And Leeki [Malik], he wanted a fruit-bearing tree. This one's his and look...there's some fruit! We plant a tree for Tupac on his birthday every year. Either here or on the farm."
Afeni also owns a 56-acre farm in Lumberton, North Carolina. She invites me to go there often, but I'm reluctant to travel too far from my double-tall, two-sugar-in-the-raw nonfat lattes.
"You got to come, Jasmine," Afeni insists. "Bring the children. Children love it. I got cows and pigs. We grow our own vegetables -- organic vegetables, without those chemicals and hormones that are killing our kids. We give away these clean vegetables to the people of Robeson County. They work the land, and they sell the produce. It's for them and by them." Afeni gets excited. "You see, Lumberton is the poorest county in North Carolina. Robeson County -- the poorest. And what this means is..."
Afeni looks nothing like she did when I first met her in the halls of the courthouse doting over her bandaged son. Then, she was reticent, kind of caved in. She looked sad and tired, worried and scared. She was skinny then, too, maybe one hundred pounds and some change. Now, when I look at her beaming over her newly planted trees, her skin has some red in it, and her head is full of new thick hair -- short and healthy without the patches of distress that once wore through.
"I've got some Lumbees helping me with my land," Afeni continues. "They come every day and work the land."
"What's a Lumbi?" I picture little gnomelike creatures with green skin and snakelike tails that only till the land at night.
"Lumbee's are Indians indigenous to that part of North Carolina."
"Lumbee. Never heard of them. But isn't that Cherokee country?"
"No, the Lumbee Indian came from the Sioux and Cheraw. They mixed with some Spanish explorers early on. Then, you know, the English and Scottish came and they mixed with them, too. By that time, they started to lose their language and their customs and nobody knew what to call them. They were all mixed up."
"They spoke English?"
"Yes," Afeni is emphatic. "I'm telling you, they lost their culture and their language but they stayed separate. They knew they were Indians. They just needed a name. First they were Croatan Indians. Then they were Robeson County Indians. Then, the Cherokee of Robeson County. They've been called a lot of names. Lumbee came after a long fight to be recognized by the North Carolina legislature as a tribe. They named themselves after the Lumbee River."
Afeni takes a long drink of water, grabs her pack of Newports and continues. "I thought my great-grandmother married a Lumbee. Well, at least part Lumbee, part white dude, but he was just a white dude, really poor white trash."
"Was this your great-grandmother's second marriage?"
"No. This was her first."
"Then, this is your great-grandfather you're talking about. So, he's your grandmother's father," I reveal. "You act like he's no kin to you."
"Well," Afeni chuckles. "It's taken me a long time to deal with the fact that my great-grandmother married a white man. It will take a few more years to say he's my great-grandfather!"
"Damn, Afeni," I say. "You can't change the facts." But we are both laughing.
"But this is what I'm saying; I need to see things for what they are -- always. And that's what I taught my kids to do." Afeni takes a breath. "And these were not nice white people this man came from. These were po' white trash people, like I said, and they disowned him for marrying my great-grandmother....Tied him to a wagon and dragged him all the way through town."
"Some Jasper, Texas shit," I say, making reference to the recent torture killing of James Byrd.
"Not really, not like that, he wasn't killed. Because back then, kids played with wagons, draggin' each other around. So, it didn't kill you always, like what happened to James Byrd hooked up to that truck. This was more about humiliation, and him marrying my great-grandmother was humiliating to that white family. Even though they were po' white trash."
"Damn," I say, "Your great-grandmother married a white man in the twenties!"
"Earlier than that," Afeni responds. "My grandmother was born in 1899. So, her mama had to have gotten married before or around then."
"Deep." I'm surprised this couple made it through their marriage alive.
Afeni continues. "As a child, I'd tell people he was half Indian, 'cause my great-granddaddy being all white was too much for me to bear. I remember my great-grandmother. I have a picture of her in my house. Her and all her children. Half and half...like you." She nods at me. "But I said they were half Indian, at least till recently."
"What kind of Indian did you think they were?"
"Lumbee, probably..." Afeni says. "And that was cool with me because the Lumbee didn't take no shit from white folks. And sometimes Black folk would benefit from that. You know, them being in the middle was like a buffer. They did things we couldn't do as a group. They were unified and together. In fact, they ran the Klan out of Robeson County."
"Really?" I love to hear a good Klan-getting-their-ass-kicked story.
"Klan came in and tried to impose a ten o'clock curfew on the Indian and Black community. Posted notices up about race mixing and basically wanted to control the Lumbees and treat them like niggers. So, the Klan had a rally posted -- the time and place and everything."
"Wasn't no secret, and for weeks, we saw it coming."
"How old were you?" I ask.
"'Bout ten, I think. It was around my birthday, and the Klan had this rally near Maxton in some open field. Up until the day of that rally the Klan had been burning crosses and terrorizing folk in St. Paul's and were getting closer to Lumberton and Pembroke. They said they wanted to set the Indians straight, show 'em who's boss. Well, the Lumbees got guns and rifles and ambushed the Klan at their own rally. Folks say it was a mob scene. Shooting everywhere in the complete darkness of night. Black folk wanted to fight with them, but the Lumbees said they had it under control. They felt specifically challenged by the Klan, you know. They were like 'this is our battle.' So we all just waited to hear what went down in Maxton and rejoiced with the news that they ran the Klan out. Those white-hooded crackers ran into the woods like the little wing wangs they were." Afeni takes a drag and remembers. "That was a good day that mornin'. Miracle was nobody got killed."
"Was that your first smell of revolution?" I ask.
"That was my first taste of resistance. Resistance is what I felt. Resist. A sense of don't let that happen to you." Afeni looks at me to make sure I hear the difference. The difference between revolt and resist. "When Emmet Till was beaten and drowned the message was don't let that happen to you. Little girls raped in the cotton fields...Don't let that happen to you. White boy spit in my uncle's face...Don't let that happen to you. Woman's lip swollen, puffy and scarred...Don't let that happen to you. Resist. Not revolution. I didn't know shit about changing the world. I just knew there were some foul, hateful people in it that torture us for no reason, and I needed to resist that. Shit, that's all I knew. Because I was a little girl -- six or seven years old -- walking to school with my sister and a car full of grown-ass men would drive by, slow up and call us niggers and monkeys, and all I knew was I had to protect myself and resist."
"You learned quick. You learned early."
"Wasn't nothin' to learn. That's the way it was. That's what I saw."
"You learned white people could hate you so deeply they could kill. You learned what it was to be poor. Hated and poor."
"Let me say this..." Afeni sits up straight. "Everybody was poor. Nobody had shit. So, you don't feel poor when everybody's poor. You know, you aren't sticking out. That's not what they called me growing up -- 'po' this or 'po' that. It was more 'Nigger' this, 'Baldheaded' that, 'Skinny' this, and 'Tar baby' that. That's the kind of shit I got. But poor? We were all poor. In fact, that is what held us together as a community. Like our neighbor, Miss Hattie. This lady liked my mama, and she knew our situation. You didn't have to tell her anything or ask her anything, but this is how cool she was. She would wait for my daddy to leave because coming over there while he was home would have caused even more turmoil." Afeni looks ahead as if she can see Miss Hattie looking out her window. "And then she would just come over and take my mama grocery shopping. She'd take her to get groceries because she knew my dad didn't give her nothing for food. She would ask no questions, just take my mama shopping." Afeni seems amazed at the kindness of strangers. In spite of all the pain around her, life has sparkles of humanity. "My mother kept a calendar, and every Friday when my father got paid she would write down how much he gave her. So, she would know how much she had to work with for the week."
"Was it a set amount every week, like an allowance?"
"No, it fluctuated. One Friday, it was two dollars. Another Friday, it was six dollars. Another Friday, it was three -- that's what he gave her."
"According to how much he made?"
"Shit, according to how much he spent." Afeni does a harrumph or a snort. The noise is hard to describe, but what it says is 'Baby, let me tell you.' "My daddy was a street nigga, and he was loved by the people in the streets. He understood the rules of the street, and when I say street, I'm talking Norfolk, Virginia, not New York streets. So when I say street, it's not the same street you know today. Here, you're basically talking about the difference between the people who were saved and sanctified and who went to church, versus the people who drank and didn't go to church. So, amongst those people -- "
"Those drinkin', hangin' out on Saturday night people." I get it.
"Yeah, he was the bomb! The reason being he was an all right guy to these folks. He had principles, ethics, and he had a sense of himself. He was a small man, but unafraid. He was stubborn and arrogant. I get those qualities from my dad. The rebellion, the need to fight back and the need to be recognized as different."
"Uh-huh, and so did your son." It strikes me afresh that they are so alike. It's a trip. "So you were close to your dad?"
"Well, you would think that I would be, but basically I resented him. I hated him around us. I hated him because he hurt my mom when he was home. My dad was a truck driver. He made deliveries. In between truck runs he would be home. He'd wait for us to go to school, and he'd start fighting with my mom and beating on her. My mama married to stay married, you know? That's all she knew. She was a good girl, and he treated her as if she were a person from the street. He married my mother, snatched her from Lumberton, her home, her family, everything familiar to her, and left her lost in the city. She was not equipped to be left alone in Norfolk, Virginia. She had always had her family! She was not used to being uncared for. She was never savvy, or slick, or hustlin' or none of that, and my dad tried to change her. That broke my mother and ultimately tore her down." Afeni seems hardened by the memory of her father.
"What broke her? Getting beat or being away from home?"
"All of it. The loss of her foundation. It ultimately led to her loss of faith so it all broke her down."
"What did she do?"
"I thought she was weak, because what I saw was her taking his shit. She wasn't a fighter, at least not a physical fighter. But one time in front of me and Glo my dad tried to hit her, and because we were there, my mother did not let that happen. We never saw that blow connect 'cause she threw hot grease on him. Right from the skillet she was holding. She never would have done that if she were alone with him. But we were standing right there, me and Glo, and she was protecting us. She didn't want her girls to see that hit, even though we knew it always went down like that. So, finally, one day we came home from school and my uncle Bob was there at the house. My mama always called her brother when my dad would hit her, but this time he took us back to Lumberton." Afeni tires of talking about this. She looks away from me, and her slender fingers search frantically for a loose dreadlock to tighten.
f0 "Are you getting mad?" I ask her. "Is this a painful place go back to?"
She thinks, smokes and thinks. Way up, the tips of the pine trees bend in the breeze and she watches their ease. I notice her age today. Afeni looks fifty. Not because her skin has lost its smoothness; it has not. And not because drugs and cigarettes have tarnished her smile; they have not. She looks fifty today because she is comfortable today as she comes to terms with her past. This calm gives her grace and wisdom, and that's why she looks fifty. It's a beautiful thing to see.
"If I were gonna be angry about things, these are the things I would be angry about. These are the things I have been angry about. The things I lost because I did not have a father. I can't drive. I can't swim. I can't ride a bike, and I can't roller skate. Now, there's no reason I can't learn to do these things today. I could learn to do any of these things, but these are wounds that remain with me. I think I hold on to these can'ts on purpose. They are like my badge of injustice for a great injustice that has been done to me. Here I was...this bright little girl who wanted so much for her father to find her special and wonderful, and he never did. I mean he probably gave me the best he could give me, but that had nothing to do with what I needed. I needed a father who was there. I needed a father who was not a threat to my mom....
"In Virginia, we lived upstairs, and in the back there were stairs that came up to our porch. The kitchen was where the back door was. Then there was a middle room that should've been a living room, but it was actually where me and Glo slept. The front room was my mom and dad's bedroom and the front porch came off of that. One day my sister was going up the back stairs in her skates and fell and broke her arm. My father was a very mean person, like his dad. He took away our skates and bikes, and we never had them again.
"So, there's another reason why I feel like I can't ride bikes or skate or drive a car. 'Cause all these things are locked into my father and what he didn't do for us. The reason I can't do those things is I've made prisons for myself. I got to dig my way out of these prisons, therapeutically, spiritually. For many people, driving is nothing. For me, it's like climbing a mountain. These are my hard things that I have to find it within myself to get over. I don't know that I will want to even if I'm able to."
"My mother didn't drive for a long time," I tell Afeni. "She had an accident before I was born and she didn't drive for ten or eleven years. To this day she won't drive on a highway, but she gets everywhere she needs to go on the surface streets. Shoot, I couldn't wait to drive."
"And I bet your daddy taught you," Afeni says.
"Yeah, he sure did. He taught me how to ride a bike, too. Brush my teeth without spattering Crest all over the chrome faucets, too." I know what she's saying.
Afeni continues: "That's why I understand my son so much. As a girl, I just hurt. I spent so much time searching for the cause of what was wrong with me in my parents; I could see what was fucked up about them. My mama was weak and sweet. My dad mean and arrogant. We were Black and poor in a place where that meant you weren't shit and I wasn't goin' down like that. So, I understand Tupac. He looked for the reasons in me just like I looked for the answers in my parents. When Tupac came at me with a bunch of motherfuckin' whys, I knew I had it coming."
"Did you ever find your reasons? Do you have any answers to your motherfuckin' whys?"
"Now I kinda get it." Afeni walks up to the railing. The sun melts into orange clouds, and the smell of fried chicken catches my attention. "My understanding of their lives doesn't make what they did right. But I accept what happened to my mom. I accept what happened to my dad, and acceptance is very important to me for my survival. I get them both as human beings, as two young people, with their circumstances. And I realize they did the best they could. I'm not mad at them for that. And that's good, because I've been mad a long time. For most of my life I've been angry."
The aroma of that chicken surrounds me and I turn my attention away from Afeni. For a second, it's like I'm dreaming, and the angel of sweet southern cooking has descended from the clouds.
A tall brown woman with a full face and smile stands in the doorway of Afeni's bedroom holding two steaming plates of fried chicken and sweet potatoes.
"Y'all want ice tea?" she asks walking toward us on the porch.
"What is this?" I exclaim, thrilled that my dream has come true. "I thought I was doin' the double-latte, blue plate special tonight." I chuck my cold, old Starbucks remains into the trash and clear the small table of my books, papers, cell phone, and shoulder bag.
"This is Mabel. She comes and cooks for me sometime, especially when the kids are coming over. I told her you'd be here today," Afeni says proudly.
"Miss Guy, I'm happy to meet you." Mabel extends her hand.
I begin to shake her hand, but then I give her a big hug. "It's so sweet of you to do this, Mabel. Thank you."
"Yes," Mabel beams. "Now try the cornbread and the greens 'fore they get cold."
"Miss Mabel, you just don't know. You just don't know how happy I am you've done this." I smile at Afeni because I know she knows. We dig in.
With drink and sustenance and the fresh Georgia air, Afeni is renewed. She tells me the tale of her parents' parents. As she lays out their story in even strokes I remember how reluctantly she used to tell her parents' story. Now, she recounts their stories as the natural order of life. It's as if she has made sense of her life by finding the sense in her people's lives. I listen intently, like I'm watching a good movie, but I never stop throwin' down Mabel's sweets and wings. God bless Mabel.
"The more I learn about who my people came from, the more I can accept who they turned out to be. Okay, here's my dad -- Walter Williams Jr. My dad's father was Walter Williams Sr. His wife was Lena. Walter Sr. was about your height, five-two; Lena was about five-ten, maybe six feet. Now these are just the facts." I nod because I understand, but my mouth is too full to comment.
Afeni continues, "Now, Walter Sr. is a colored preacher with a small-man attitude. He and Lena had like fifteen children. They were all sharecroppers on a very large farm in North Carolina 'bout an hour out of Lumberton, closer to Virginia. Walter Sr. had a smokehouse, an orchard, watermelons, cantaloupes. He had cows, horses, and pigs. On Sunday the milk was milked from the cow in a big tub. I have memories of breakfast on his farm 'cause far as I knew, that was my granddaddy's farm. I didn't know sharecropping from ownership." Afeni sits back from her plate and gives her stomach room. She leans back but is not relaxed. I put my chicken bone down.
"Oh, Afeni," I say. "Breakfast and my grandpa. That is my most vivid memory of my grandfather. He would make a huge breakfast. And I'd eat anything. It was delicious. Grits. Bacon. Sausage. Eggs and brain."
"Eggs and brain," Afeni confirms. She knows what I'm talking about. "But a meaner man you've never seen than my grandfather." Afeni sees him plain as day. "Not in your whole life. He was cold, and that's how I see my daddy got fucked-up. When we visited my granddaddy, everybody could go and pick something out of his garden. I wanted a watermelon so bad. My grandfather said, 'You can't have a watermelon, but I will sell you one.' And I said, 'Fine," being the defiant little girl that I was. So, I went out into the farm and walked straight to the watermelon patch. I looked for a while at all the different watermelons and picked one just right. I was happy. I bring my watermelon to Walter Sr. I pay him his money and slice it open. Only to find out that the shit wasn't ripe. And he knew it, my grandfather, and he let me buy a fuckin' bad watermelon from his own goddamn farm." She blows the smoke out of her cigarette. "That's what I mean by mean, Jasmine. He wouldn't give me my money back, either, and that told me all that he was.
"He was cruel to his children, cruel to my dad, unfeeling, and this is the man my father came from. Now, unlike my mother's family, who tried to go to school but didn't quite know what to do with schooling once you got it, my dad's family knew what to do with an education. Even though these kids were working on the farm, they were all pushed by Preacher Daddy Walter Sr. to excel in school. My granddaddy said his family 'wasn't no field nigger family.' The way out of being a field hand was to be a preacher or a teacher or something respectable like that. So, when my dad rejected my grandfather's calling to be a preacher, when he flat-out denied his father's wishes, he was forever outcast from the family. His mama, Lena, though she loved him, and my dad and brothers and sisters adored him. But his father, Walter Sr., condemned him, ostracized him and eventually turned everyone against him. My dad finally ran away to rebel against this bastard, and that was my dad's first heartbreak. That was the first notch in his spirit." Afeni grabs a smoke and looks me in the eye. "I'm glad you're here. I don't think about this stuff enough."
"It's important stuff."
"Yes, it's important to understand where your stuff comes from. As much as I hated my father, I can see now that he got beat up, too. Walter Sr. disowned him."
"That was his first notch. I assume there were others."
"Well, this is the way I see it now. Lord knows it was never something I talked about with him. I had as little contact with my father as possible. But anyway, after he left home, he wanted to serve in the navy. This was during World War Two, and he would have been proud to serve, but the navy rejected him because he had flat feet. As I look at him, I think this was his second notch. A huge blow. When he married my mom, I think he was trying to do the right thing. He saw my mom as a good person, a great girl, and by marrying her he'd have some place to do the right thing. But, as time went on, every time he looked at my mom he felt like a failure. He saw in her what he could never be, even though in reality she was satisfied with who he was; he was not. His father and the navy sealed my dad's coffin forever. He never recovered from those rejections."
"Damaged goods," I say.
"Damaged goods, and I understand that. I'm still glad we left him. We wouldn't have had a chance in hell had we stayed."
Time goes by and the night air cools the clean chicken bones piled on my plate. The unexpected visions of Afeni's father and grandfather drift slowly back to the haunts of her quiet memory. I feel like I know the short desperate man, Walter Sr. Muscular, tough, and angry. Determined to get his kids off the farm though he hasn't a chance for himself.
It's time for me to go. I hug Afeni one last time, or so it seems when I hug her, because like I said, she hugs that way. I drive back down I-20 to my father's house feeling full in my tummy and in my heart. Happy to have the daddy I have.
Copyright © 2004 by Amaru Entertainment, Inc.
Evolution of a Revolutionary
Evolution of a Revolutionary
In 1969, Afeni was arrested along with other members of the Black Panther party on 189 felony charges that included 30 counts of conspiracy. Though she was eventually acquitted of the charges, Afeni spent eleven months in jail before being released. Once on bail, she became pregnant with a son: Tupac Amaru Shakur, a rap megastar until his tragic death in 1996.
In this searing work, renowned actress and Afeni's trusted friend Jasmine Guy reveals the evolution of a woman through a series of intimate conversations on themes such as love, death, race, drugs, politics, music, and of course her son. Filled with startling revelations and heartbreaking truths, Afeni's memoir is a powerful testament to the human spirit and the perseverance of the African American people.