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Joseph Cox holds a degree in Intellectual History from Univ. of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Financial Analysis.

He is the author of a number of books on related to policy. The City on the ... more

The Tapestry of Michael Jr.

Date: Monday, June 1, 2020 3:34 AM EDT

My mom was involved in raising my daughter. And I could see, with pride, the bond they formed. My daughter had her mother and her grandmother. We weren’t anything special, but she had a bit of history to hold on to.

I had my second when I was 19. I wasn’t sure who the father was then, either. People were preaching, begging young black fathers to stay with their women, but it wasn’t sticking. I understood those men. They had real power and freedom. And the feeling of being responsible wasn’t reward enough for dealing with a screaming child and a nagging wife. Heck, all I had to do was commit to being responsible for a few minutes and I wouldn’t have had those screaming children in the first place. But I couldn’t manage that, so how could I demand a lifetime of responsibility from a man who could just walk away? I couldn’t and so I didn’t.

I named my son Michael. After the angel.

Michael was three, and living with his grandmother, when I was Called for the first time. Of course, I didn’t know it at first. I was just sitting there, on our beat-up old couch in that dimly lit apartment when I looked into little Michael’s eyes and I saw something was missing. He was missing something his sister had. He was missing something he should have had.

But I had no idea what it was. I thought about that, that look in his eyes, for days afterwards. And then, finally, I thought maybe I knew what it was. Clarice had a mother and grandmother. She had a history. But little Michael did not.

I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I told Michael he had a father. I told him the man’s name was Michael Butler and that Michael was really a Michael Jr. I saw his eyes brighten just a bit after that. And before long, he was asking questions about his father. And I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I told him more. I spun out a story about a proud black man, a cop, killed in the line of duty. I told him he’d been killed on North 37th street, just a few blocks away. Michael Jr. loved listening to those stories. And so did I. I began to fall for that man; the angel who had given me my son.

I went to the Library not long after and I began to study Black History. Seriously study Black History. More questions were coming, and Michael Jr. needed answers. I learned about our past. Not just the racism, but the culture and the music and, of course, the slavery. That slavery was always leaning on us, holding us down. And I went back further and learned about Africa and the places our people had been taken from. I saw photos of those people, the remnants of our tribes. This wasn’t the era of DNA testing or the Internet. I saw what the Igbo and the Yoruba and the Kongo looked like. And I began to see those faces in my neighborhood. I knew there was no such thing as tribal purity, but I could imagine a line of fathers stretching back to these ancient places and these proud tribes.

Michael Jr. kept asking questions, just like I hoped he would. And I began to unwrap more and more of his history. The strange thing was, I felt like it was all true, like I’d been inspired by a story told to me from on high. I told him about his ancestor who had been a musician in Harlem. He hadn’t been hugely successful, but by all reports he moved those who heard what he had to sing. I told him about the musician’s grandfather, a man who spent his life as a sharecropper in Mississippi. His son had seen the horrors of that servitude and had fled to work in the burgeoning industries of the North. The early days had been hard and his sharecropping father, who had barely enough to eat, scrounged together enough money to send the occasional Western Union to his son – just to guarantee he wouldn’t come back. I told him about the slaves. The generations of slaves. I told him they were proud. That I knew was a lie. Slaves have no pride. They have no pride because they live only in the present; the past can’t help them and they have no control of the future.

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