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My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist's Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole


Kalfani and I met on the school basketball court in fifth grade. It was the late eighties, early nineties, the “golden age of basketball,” a time when Black players dominated the sport and pop culture. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, executed with unprecedented coordination and precision, would help him become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake made him almost impossible to defend against. Shaq, the all-star center and the face of Toys for Tots, starred in his own video game. And then there was the iconic image called “Jumpman” of Michael Jordan soaring through the air from the free throw line, one arm outstretched toward the hoop, the other palm spread at his side as if to squelch gravity. More than a logo, “Jumpman” remains a symbol of potential, excellence, and the dream of being not only the best but also the greatest.

A segregated institution until the 1950s, the NBA cultivated the status of Black men as global role models and icons for all Americans. But for Black boys, Black athletes have always felt like they belonged to us. Once, our heroes practiced jump shots in dusty schoolyards just like we did. This fact meant the possibility existed for us to play in front of millions of fans, just like them, if we gave it everything we had.

The confidence that the famous ballers exuded I craved from the time I was in fifth grade. Above all, I sought a sense of belonging. For a biracial Black boy raised by a white mother who had split from my Nigerian father, basketball became my entry point to an authentic Black identity. In my neighborhood of Long Branch, a mostly Black, brown, and immigrant working-class community in Silver Spring, Maryland, right outside DC, basketball defined Black boyhood. You proved yourself on the asphalt court, and at my school, the gatekeeper of that court was Kalfani.

As a nine-year-old, I remember first peering at Kalfani playing through a chain-link fence. Brown-skinned, keen-featured, and long-limbed, Kalfani was a natural-born leader. For weeks I watched from afar as each boy made his way to the three-point line and had his shot at becoming “captain.” Kalfani was usually the first to make a basket, with a perfectly formed jump shot that flew high in the air and more often than not hit the net only. Kalfani judiciously picked the teams, matching each player with a worthy competitor. He also called all the fouls and outs, and the other boys, across grade levels, looked to him for guidance.

Watching my classmates gathered on the court to serve up braggadocios, dreams, and layups, I thought their goals of besting Reggie Miller’s three-point percentage or getting drafted to the NBA seemed totally reachable. In my eyes, they were capable of magic, while I, incapable of handling rejection, never dared ask if I could play. Then, one day, Kalfani shouted, “We short a man!” With only nine players, the five-on-five game would become four-on-four and one boy would have to sit out. The boys were already arguing who would take the bench.

“Hey, you!” Kalfani waved in my direction. “You wanna play?”

I glanced around. He was talking to me, the quintessential onlooker. After taking a deep breath, I jogged to the court, little bursts of nausea rising with each footfall. I even stumbled, but the boys were too busy getting hyped up for the game to notice. This was a little like being invited to dance when you have no idea where to place your feet. But things began to roll. The opposing offense loosened his shoulders, called “Check!” and threw to his defender. The defender passed back; the game began. Almost immediately I was winded and struggled to keep up. But after a few minutes something in my body clicked on while something in my mind clicked off. I stopped thinking about how I played and started to play.

Kalfani launched a chest pass to me, and I staggered backward a bit, but somehow I managed to hang on to the ball. While the other boys chuckled, Kalfani flashed over to the hoop with his right arm raised high in the air, screaming, “I’m open! I’m open!” Breathless but wired, I passed him the ball, he drove in for a layup, and just like that, I had my first ever assist.

After that day, Kalfani took me under his wing. It never occurred to me back then to ask him, “Why me?” and unfortunately, I would never get that chance. We would meet up before the other boys got to the court and take turns shooting or rebounding for each other. He made shooting the ball from the three-point line look effortless. I would put everything into trying to get the ball in the net, throwing it up with both hands, only for the ball to ricochet off the basket, rattling the entire post.

“Just keep shooting,” he’d say before passing me the ball again. And again. And again. “You just gotta practice.”

Kalfani and I didn’t only play ball together. We met at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring to walk to school together in the mornings. Kalfani would often walk with me the few blocks to my parents’ office when school let out, and we hung out at each other’s homes on the weekends.

Kalfani’s building reminded me of where I lived with my mother after my parents divorced. The lock on the lobby door was busted. The scent of urine hung in the vestibule where supermarket circulars were scattered on the floor. A fluorescent light bulb flickered and buzzed in the permanently out-of-service elevator. Sometimes there were older boys on the stairs smoking weed and talking smack. Kalfani nodded at them, gave and received pounds. No one extended their hand to me, and I didn’t test the waters by offering my own. These boys had known one another all their lives. I had known Kalfani for only a few months back then.

One of the boys who grew up in the building was a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old kid named Shay, who wore two-carat studs in each ear. Whenever he saw Kalfani, he’d say, “Look hard, y’all! That boy there”—he’d point—“he’s gonna make it to the NBA! Y’all can say you knew him when he was getting his game on, and you punk-asses were standing around here high as shit!”

Some of the boys’ faces would harden with jealousy, while others, maybe because they were high, appeared giddy, others blank. I tried not to meet anyone’s eyes because a glance can easily be mistaken for a stare, which pinpoints where 99 percent of beefing starts in the hood. But I agreed with Shay. Kalfani would make it to the top. And he would take his mother with him. No question there.

A Caribbean immigrant, Kalfani’s mother, Mrs. Hogg, had at least two jobs: one cleaning houses across town in Bethesda and another subbing for in-home nursing aides. I rarely saw her, even when I spent the night, but her love of her kids was palpable and filled their home. There were always foil-covered plates of home-cooked food left for dinner, notes about doing homework, and brief phone calls to check in on Kalfani when we arrived home.

In time, I began to absorb Kalfani into my own being. I mimicked his confident stride. I hyped myself to “Ruff It Off,” a go-go song by the Junkyard Band, which he’d introduced me to, before every game. With his encouragement, I approached a really cute girl at our school, and she didn’t tell me to get lost. Eventually, most of the kids at school forgot about my white mother, whose appearance when she dropped me off would awkwardly put my biraciality on display. I was a young kid, struggling with the loss of my Nigerian heritage and my name, with my parents’ divorce and my father’s departure, and in its place, I found the belonging and acceptance that Kalfani’s friendship and basketball granted me. Even the Rec Specs I wore after repeatedly breaking my glasses drew only occasional disses.

Late one afternoon, Kalfani walked me out of his apartment, and in the hallway, lingering on one of the landings, we encountered some of the older boys, including Shay. “Yo, there’s my man,” Shay said.

“Hey!” Kalfani gave and received the standard round of pounds and fist bumps as we headed down the stairs.

“Yo,” Shay called after me, his voice deeper than I had ever heard it before. I kept walking.

“Yo,” he said a second time. He wasn’t addressing me; he was commanding me. I stopped on the stairs and pivoted toward him. Punk status awaited me if I didn’t.

Shay’s diamond studs gleamed as he squinted like a marksman, raising his thumb above his fist and stretching out his index finger in the shape of a gun. He aimed at the dead center of my pounding chest. My hands were down at my sides, but I felt them shake. I wanted to bolt but didn’t dare move. I had to be able to look Kalfani in the eye again, so I had to hold steady. Shay broke into a wild laugh as he dropped his hand to his side. The other boys thought it was funny too.

“I’m just fucking with you,” Shay said.

“William,” Kalfani half pleaded, his feelings cut like a deck of cards. I was Kalfani’s brother but so were these boys, and at that moment, they outnumbered me.

“Later,” I said, facing down the stairs, mindful of the shadows at my rear and those that surrounded Kalfani, Shay, and the rest of the boys: gun violence, incarceration, premature death. What I would come to see years later is how that stairwell moment’s awful eeriness foreshadowed Kalfani’s tragic fate.

Things changed between Kalfani and me freshman year when my mother enrolled me in DC’s prestigious St. John’s College High School on scholarship, and we moved from urban Long Branch to the middle-class suburb of Beltsville, located in Prince George’s County. For many Black boys, the transition from middle school to high school invites the lure of the hustle and street rituals that can beget violence. While I started playing high school basketball in a sheltered, racially integrated setting, Kalfani got to know the fundamentals of street life. Our daily basketball games became monthly hangouts, and eventually we saw each other just once or twice a year. Until we didn’t see each other, period.

Still, I got the call.

“Kalfani is dead,” Derrick, our mutual classmate and teammate on the basketball team at St. Michael’s, said. “He got shot.”

Kalfani wasn’t the first or last person I knew who was lost to gun violence, but he was certainly the closest. I can recall his funeral only in nightmare-like fragments. Though I’ve long witnessed the impact of ubiquitous gun violence on the lives of young Black men, I came to recognize the depth of my own trauma and posttraumatic stress only when digging into my memory for this book. I was forced to confront how little I’ve been able to bear thinking about the murders of my childhood friends. The pain of their senseless deaths gives rise to a primal rage that, even now, I find difficult to manage. Why are Black boys worth so little when our potential is so enormous? Why do our society and culture tolerate the sight of our bodies left to bleed out on the street? Why do we, as Black boys and men, tacitly accept that for some of us killing each other simply seems like a brutal requisite for a doomed life?

I remember Kalfani was wearing a black suit and his hands were crossed at his waist. Mrs. Hogg sat in the pew, slumped over, looking off into the distance, devastated. I remember kneeling on the bench at the casket and praying for his soul and his mother. Struggling with difficult childhood memories has awakened me to how compassion for others can be traced back to the puncture wounds grief leaves in every one of us. Perhaps it was those spaces that made room in my heart for the mentorship of my seven Black fathers.

* * *

Today I am living a life that neither Kalfani nor I could have imagined as children. I am a husband and a father, a civil rights attorney, an activist who has worked alongside Barack Obama, and an elected official in the great state of Maryland. As a Montgomery County councilmember, I represent more than a million people, a third of whom are foreign-born, in one of the most diverse counties in the nation.

Nearly fifteen years after Kalfani died, I discovered we were both part of a study we knew nothing about. Conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, the Census Bureau, and the Internal Revenue Service, “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective” tracked the income of the twenty million children born in America between 1978 and 1983 to examine why certain groups fare better economically than others. What the study found was just how much worse off Black boys and men are than everyone else.

For Black boys in the United States, wealth and family structure do not level the playing field. Our moms can be single parents or married. Our parents can be rich or poor. High levels of educational attainment matter less for us than they do for Black women, white women, and white men. Race and gender are such enormous and damning factors in the lives of Black men that the specific circumstances of our childhoods, our family backgrounds, our intelligence, actually do a lot less work and matter a lot less for us over the long haul of our lives than they do for every other group in this country. The statistic on Black male success is staggering. In 99 percent of census tracts in our nation, Black boys’ outcomes were either stagnant or on a downward trajectory. That means in just 1 percent of the richest country in the world Black boys are on par with their white counterparts. Again, that’s 1 percent.

Located in slivers of Queens and the Bronx in New York City and the Maryland Beltway suburbs where I’m from, these Black boy safe zones are different from the other 99 percent of census tracts in a distinct, measurable way. The 1 percent areas are populated with large numbers of working-class Black fathers. The Black boys who grow up in these places essentially come of age in a fairer America, where race and class don’t inevitably torpedo their prospects.

The 2018 New York Times analysis of the “Race and Economic Opportunity” study said of 1 percent areas, “Poor black boys did well in such places, whether their own fathers were present or not.” The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson stated it another way: “They’re not talking about the direct effects of a boy’s own parents’ marital status. They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.”

A father in the home matters to his Black son. And in these communities, a father in one home is potentially a mentor to a boy in another. I know that when I’m considered successful, I’m seen as a Black boy who transcended his circumstances. That’s not the real story. I am who I am today exactly because of my circumstances. The single greatest difference between Kalfani and me during those critical adolescent years was the Black men that I gained access to because of my mother’s job and where I went to school. These Black men—my mother’s colleagues, certain teachers, my stepfather—taught me how to navigate the world and find my place in it. The Black men in my life made me, an emotionally fatherless boy, whole. And it was being made whole that enabled me to take full advantage of all the other opportunities that came my way, including a new story with my biological father, an emotionally present relationship with my children, and the ability to be a partner worthy of my wife. The power of these Black male mentors is that they make America a more just place for Black boys and a better place for all Americans.

My Seven Black Fathers tells the stories of the men who have shaped my sense of what it means to be a Black man in twenty-first-century America: Joseph Jacob, Mr. Williams, Jay Fletcher, Wayne Holmes, Deen Sanwoola, Barack Obama, and, ultimately, my own father, Olayinka Ishola Jawando. For Black men, having access to father figures can be the difference between a fulfilling life, or poverty, incarceration, and early death. In each chapter, I explore the distinct and indelible ways these men, my Black fathers, set me on the path of self-love, service, and wholeness.

My Seven Black Fathers retells the story of who Black fathers are. My seven Black fathers demonstrate there’s no one right way to mentor and there’s no standard fit.

My stepfather, Joseph Jacob, showed me, a broken child of divorce, how to serve and love. My fourth-grade math teacher, Mr. Williams, saved me from two blights kids regularly face at school: bullying and racism. Jay Fletcher demonstrated to me that a man’s strength has little to do with conventional notions of masculinity as I struggled with weight and body image. Wayne Holmes guided me through athletic disappointment by teaching me that failure is preparation for what’s up next. Deen Sanwoola offered me a way back to my roots that ultimately helped me gain a relationship I’d run from all my life, one with my biological father. Barack Obama’s vision of the possibilities of this nation, fatherhood, and brotherhood in America cleared a way for me to do the kind of mentoring of boys like Kalfani and myself that has been the bedrock of my adult life.

What my story proves is that the raw material of Black male success and wholeness is contained in the very bones of Black men. By having access to Black men who cared about me, who strove to help me succeed, who loved me even when I didn’t understand what that meant, I became a statistic on the positive side of America’s skewed racial balance sheet. I am convinced that, more than any other intervention, access to Black men who were willing to give of their time, wisdom, and compassion would have made a difference in Kalfani’s life. On a micro level, mentorship has the potential to close the gap between a Black boy’s aspirations and his potential. On a macro level, these Black men and their mentorship can help engineer social justice in the never-ending pursuit of a better America.

My journey of father loss, fathers found, and father healing is at the core of my moral vision for a healthy and vibrant community. I know that if I can be whole, my community can be healed. My Seven Black Fathers is my love letter to Black men. A missive to remind Black men that your life experience can have a profound and positive impact on the lives of Black boys, notwithstanding the challenges we will endure. Don’t underestimate your role, your vulnerabilities, your past, and the power you hold in your own community. Own it. Wield it. Mentor.

To white people I say, this story is yours too. Black men have a complicated and challenging history in our country that has contributed to our strengths and some of our current poor outcomes. Give the lives of Black men and boys context and historical grounding. Do your part to relearn and retell the story of Black men in this country and in turn help to shape a new story about who America is. You can help enable mentoring relationships between Black men and boys through practices, policies, and programs. If you know a Black child that needs some guidance and have access to a Black man, introduce them. If you work in a school district, advocate for more Black male teachers when you have a decision maker’s ear. If you are a school principal or superintendent, initiate a recruitment effort focused on hiring, supporting, and retaining Black men to work in elementary education. For those who are involved with youth organizations, like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, or are a coach or another kind of youth leader, try to build critical consciousness in the group by discussing inequities. What do we want for our collective future? I’ve thought about the answer to this question a lot in my work with My Brother’s Keeper during the Obama administration, in my research on education, and in my current job as a Montgomery County councilmember. And what I keep coming back to is that I’m working for a future that’s less like the past, a future where race and gender are less predictive of all our outcomes, especially those of Black boys.

By opening up about my relationships, I hope to break down the racist trope of the absent Black father while also telling a universal story of hurt, healing, and redemption. This book begins with my parents’ divorce, and it ends with me taking care of my father at the end of his life. The redemption my father and I achieved is at the heart of who I am as a parent. The quest for wholeness that began with my father and led me to my mentors has taught me to unearth and cultivate facets of the relationships I have with my wife, my daughters, and my son, but also with dear friends and colleagues. This book is about Black men reaching out to heal one another, but it also provides a model for how to reach out to any young person. Or if you are the young person, how to accept help.

Finally, My Seven Black Fathers is a call to action. Can you imagine having a cure for someone suffering from a multisystem disease and not offering it to them? This disease is multisystem because of how it impacts the major organs of your life: your relationships, your finances, your physical and mental health. In the zip code where my mother worked and my parents eventually bought a home, the outcomes of Black boys are not as devastated by this disease as in most other places in America because the treatment for this catastrophic chronic illness is available. The multisystem disease is called racism. How you cure it in Black boys is with the presence of present, diverse Black men who are willing to step up and be mentors. To be “fathers.” The rewards flow to us all.

Copyright © 2022 by William Opeyemi Jawando

My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist's Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole
by by Will Jawando

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374604878
  • ISBN-13: 9780374604875