My dad agreed with Newt Gingrich about the salutary benefits of gainful employment on pre-adolescent Black males. In November of 1964 when I was eleven years old, I expressed my desire for a bicycle to commemorate my upcoming twelfth birthday; my father had me working as a janitor not forty-eight hours later.
I cleaned banks.
I worked from eleven-thirty at night until two o'clock in the morning for two dollars and thirty-five cents an hour three nights a week. After school, I would come home, do my chores, have dinner, and get to bed by seven-thirty so I could be awake by eleven. The van picked me up at eleven-fifteen, we were on-the-job by eleven-thirty, and we'd get two entire banks spotless by two. I'd be back in bed by two-thirty so I could be up at six for school.
The man who hired me was good, fastidious, and very moral. He'd say to me as I scrubbed the graffiti off the toilet stalls, "a loser leaves his name on bathroom walls; a hero leaves his mark in history's halls." I don't know if it's his or not, but it's a great thing to say to a kid you want to set right. He didn't think much of Black people as they were portrayed by the mainstream.
He was Black, too... sort of...
I wasn't privy to the process by which I was hired. That local entrepreneur was in need of a compact person to get to the low spots and, although I was a big kid, I was still agile enough to see to the floor work required to get a bank truly spotless. Especially the bathrooms. I was good at cleaning (and work, in general) because I grew up with parents Newt Gingrich couldn't imagine in his wildest dreams.
My mother--she was from Georgia like Newtie--worked as a maid before and after she married my dad. I will express in her own words her prerequisite for doing that work: I'll be damned if I go clean other people's houses just to come home and clean up mine.
She was strict about that. My brother and I learned everything we needed to know about maintaining a house and the grounds around it to her standards and to those of her customers by the time we were ten years old. There was no such thing as "woman's work." There was just the work required from a responsible member of a family. We learned to do a thorough job for the sake of a peaceful, trouble-free existence rather than for things as useless or as ephemeral as money or praise or bandages.
My father was the smartest, funniest, sweetest, hardest-working man I've ever known. He would have been eighty-nine this Thursday. He died when he was fifty-three. His philosophy consisted of one word: Hustle. He prized enterprise over all else. Dad didn't advocate cheating, but he and mom were adamant with my brother and me about paying attention, being prepared, and acting on opportunities. It's what made him a great coach. It's what made him a good father.
He was also a Black man.
Having a Black Father who is serious about the title prepares you for almost anything. Like I said, Newt couldn't imagine it in his wildest dreams… or nightmares. I've apologized to my son numerous times, and he still doesn't believe me. I don't blame him.
I didn't ask my old man for a bicycle, though; I ordered it with all the aplomb of a trust-fund kid replacing a tired-out polo pony. I know now what my dad must have felt when he looked down on his nerdy little prodigy (I could read newspapers by the time I was two because my mother read to me so incessantly).
He was afraid for me.
He didn't want me disappointed the way he'd been disappointed. He didn't want me hurt the way he'd been hurt. There were few "advanced placement" situations for smart Black kids then. Black males with "hustle" could hit the jackpot, or they could end up mutilated like Emmett Till. They could raise a family or be executed by the state like my uncle was. Black males with talent and hustle could help move the nation forward like Martin Luther King, Jr. did, or they could end up shot just like Dr. King. Black males with talent and hustle could end up working in Silicon Valley like I did, or they could wither on the outside looking in like my dad did.
I would not grow up with a sense of entitlement. I would not grow up thinking that I would, should, or could ever be smarter than my parents. There is a line in William Goldman's The Princess Bride that sums up my dad's--and any pre-Sixties black father's--approach to raising children: Get Used To Disappointment.
Dad made me value work at an early age. That bicycle I wanted? It was the first thing I bought with my own money.
So, screw you, Newt! You have no clue!
And Happy Birthday, Dad...