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Is Daddy Coming with Us?
Nikki and I would play this game: I would sit on the living room chair while Nikki deeply inhaled and then blew directly in my face, eliciting hysterical laughs on both sides. This was our ritual. It always ended with me jabbing playfully at her face. She’d run away and bait me to give chase. Most times before today I never came close to catching her. But today, I caught her and realized, like a dog chasing a car, I had no idea what to do. So, in the spirit of three-year-old boys everywhere who’ve run out of better ideas, I decided to punch her. Of course my mother walked into the room right as I swung and connected.
The yell startled me, but her eyes are what I remember.
“Get up to your damn room” came my mother’s command from the doorway. “I told you, don’t you ever put your hands on a woman!”
I looked up, confused, as she quickly closed the distance between us.
My mother had what we called “Thomas hands,” a tag derived from her maiden name: hands that hit so hard you had to be hit only once to know you never wanted to be hit again. The nickname began generations ago, but each generation took on the mantle of justifying it. Those hands were now reaching for me. Her eyes told me it was time to get moving.
I darted up the stairs, still unsure about what I’d done so terribly wrong. I headed to the bedroom I shared with my baby sister, Shani. Our room was tiny, barely big enough for my small bed and her crib. There was no place to hide. I was running in circles, frantic to find a way to conceal myself. And still trying to comprehend why I was in so much trouble. I couldn’t even figure out the meaning of half the words my mother was using.
In a panic, I kicked the door shut behind me just as her voice reached the second floor. “And don’t let me hear you slam that—” Boom! I stared for a moment at the closed door, knowing it would soon be flying open again. I sat in the middle of the room, next to my sister’s empty crib, awaiting my fate.
“Joy, you can’t get on him like that.” My father’s baritone voice drifted up through the thin floor. “He’s only three. He doesn’t even understand what he did wrong. Do you really think he knows what a woman beater is?”
My father was in the living room, ten feet from where the incident began. He was a very slender six foot two with a bushy mustache and a neatly shaped afro. It wasn’t his style to yell. When he heard my mother’s outburst, he rose from his chair, his eyes widening in confusion. My mother slowly reeled herself in. But she wasn’t completely mollified.
“Wes, he needs to learn what is acceptable and what is not!” My father agreed, but with a gentle laugh, reminded her that cursing at a young boy wasn’t the most effective way of making a point. I was saved, for the moment.
My first name, Westley, is my father’s. I have two middle names, a compromise between my parents. My father loved the sound and meaning of Watende, a Shona word that means “revenge will not be sought,” a concept that aligned with his gentle spirit. My mother objected. Watende sounded too big, too complicated for such a tiny baby. It wasn’t until later in life that she understood why it was so important to my father that Watende be a part of me. Instead, she lobbied for Omari, which means “the highest.” I’m not sure what was easier or less lofty about that name, but I was well into elementary school before I became comfortable spelling either.
My parents’ debate continued downstairs, but their words faded. I went to the room’s only window and looked out on the world. My older sister, Nikki, and I loved to look through the window as families arrived at the swap market across the street. Our home was on a busy street that sat right on the border of Maryland and Washington, D.C., stuck confusingly between two different municipal jurisdictions, a fact that would become very significant in the near future. I pulled back the thin diaphanous curtain that covered the windows and spotted my friend Ayana outside with her mother. She was half Iranian and half Italian, with long, dark hair and warm eyes that always fascinated me. They were light green, unlike the eyes of anyone else I knew, and they twinkled as if they held stars. I wanted to tap on the window to say hello as she walked past our house to the tenement building next door. But I was afraid of making more trouble for myself, so I just smiled.
On the dresser by the window sat a framed picture of me with Nikki. I sat on her lap with my arm wrapped around her neck, a goofy smile on my face. Nikki is seven years older, so in the picture she was nine and I was barely two. Colorful beads capped the braided tips of her hair, a style she shared with my mother, and large, black-framed eyeglasses covered half of her face.
Nikki’s real name was Joy, like my mom’s, but everyone called her Nikki. My mother was obsessed with the poet Nikki Giovanni, in love with her unabashed feminine strength and her reconciliation of love and revolution. I spent nearly every waking moment around Nikki, and I loved her dearly. But sibling relationships are often fraught with petty tortures. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her. But I had.
At the time, I couldn’t understand my mother’s anger. I mean this wasn’t really a woman I was punching. This was Nikki. She could take it. Years would pass before I understood how that blow connected to my mom’s past.
My mother came to the United States at the age of three. She was born in Lowe River in the tiny parish of Trelawny, Jamaica, hours away from the tourist traps that line the coast. Its swaths of deep brush and arable land made it great for farming but less appealing for honeymoons and hedonism. Lowe River was quiet, and remote, and it was home for my mother, her brothers, and my grandparents. My maternal great-grandfather Mas Fred, as he was known, would plant a coconut tree at his home in Mount Horeb, a neighboring area, for each of his kids and grandkids when they were born. My mom always bragged that hers was the tallest and strongest of the bunch. The land that Mas Fred and his wife, Miss Ros, tended had been cared for by our ancestors for generations. And it was home for my mom until her parents earned enough money to bring the family to the States to fulfill my grandfather’s dream of a theology degree from an American university.
When my mom first landed in the Bronx, she was just a small child, but she was a survivor and learned quickly. She studied the other kids at school like an anthropologist, trying desperately to fit in. She started with the way she spoke. She diligently listened to the radio from the time she was old enough to turn it on and mimicked what she heard. She’d always pull back enough in her interactions with her classmates to give herself room to quietly observe them, so that when she got home she could practice imitating their accents, their idiosyncrasies, their style. Words like irie became cool. Constable became policeman. Easy-nuh became chill out. The melodic, swooping movement of her Jamaican patois was quickly replaced by the more stable cadences of American English. She jumped into the melting pot with both feet.
Joy Thomas entered American University in Washington, D.C., in 1968, a year when she and her adopted homeland were both experiencing volatile change—Vietnam, a series of assassinations, campus unrest, rioting that tore through the nation’s cities, and an American president who no longer wanted the job. Joy herself was caught between loving the country that offered her and her family new opportunities and being frustrated with that country because it still made her feel like a second-class citizen.
At college, Joy quickly fell in with the OAASAU, the very long acronym for a very young group, the Organization of African and African-American Students at the American University. The OAASAU was rallying AU’s black students into engagement with the national, international, and campus issues roiling around them.The battling organization elevated her consciousness beyond her assimilationist dreams and sparked a passion for justice and the good fight.
A charismatic AU senior named Bill was the treasurer of OAASAU, and two months after they met early in the exciting whirlwind of her freshman year, Joy was engaged to marry him. Despite the quick engagement, they waited two years to get married, by which time Joy was a junior and Bill a recent graduate looking for work. Marriage brought the sobering realities of life into focus. The truth was, they were both still trying to find their feet as adults and feeling a little in over their heads as a married couple.
As the love haze wore off, Joy began to see that the same qualities that had made Bill so attractive as a college romance—his free and rebellious spirit, his nearly paralyzing contempt for “the Man”—made him a completely unreliable husband. And she discovered that what she had foolishly thought of as his typical low-level recreational drug use was really something much worse. In a time of drug experimentation and excess, Bill was starting to look like a casualty.
As the years passed, Joy kept hoping that Bill’s alcohol and drug use would fade. She was caught in a familiar trap for young women and girls—the fantasy that she alone could change her man. So she doubled down on the relationship. They had a child together. She hoped that would motivate Bill to make some changes. But his addiction just got worse, and the physical, mental, and emotional abuse he unleashed became more intense.
One night things came to a head. Bill came home and started to badger Joy about washing the dishes. His yelling threatened to wake up one-year-old Nikki, and Joy tried to shush him. He kept yelling. He moved in on her. The two of them stood face-to-face, him yelling, her pleading with him in hushed tones to lower his voice.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her down. She sprawled on the floor in her white T-shirt and blue AU sweatpants, stunned but not completely surprised by his explosive reaction. He wasn’t done. He grabbed her by her T-shirt and hair, and started to drag her toward the kitchen. He hit her in the chest and stomach, trying to get her to move her arms, which were now defensively covering her head. Finally, she snapped. She screamed at him without fear of waking Nikki as he dragged her across the parquet floor. She kicked and scratched at his hands.
Bill was too strong, too determined, too high. Her head slammed against the doorframe as he finally dragged her body onto the kitchen’s linoleum floor. He released her hair and her now-ripped T-shirt and once again ordered her to wash the dishes. He stood over her with a contemptuous scowl on his face. It could’ve been that look. Or it could’ve been the escalating abuse and the accumulated frustration at the chaotic life he was creating for her and her daughter. But something gave Joy the strength to pull herself up from the floor. On top of the counter was a wooden block that held all of the large, sharp knives in the kitchen. She pulled the biggest knife from its sheath and pointed the blade at his throat. Her voice was collected as she made her promise: “If you try that shit again, I will kill you.”
Bill seemed to suddenly regain his sobriety. He backed out of the kitchen slowly, not taking his eyes from his wife’s tear-drenched face. Her unrelenting stare. They didn’t speak for the rest of the night. One month later, Joy and Nikki were packed up. Together, they left Bill for good.
My mom vowed to never let another man put his hands on her. She wouldn’t tolerate it in others either.
My parents finished their conversation, and it was obvious that one of them was heading up to speak to me. I turned from the window and stood in the middle of the room, mentally running through my nonexistent options for escape.
Soon I could tell by the sound of the steps it was my father. His walk was slower, heavier, more deliberate. My mother tended to move up the stairs in a sprint. He lightly knocked on the door and slowly turned the knob. The door opened slightly, and he peeked in. His easy half smile, almost a look of innocent curiosity, assured me that, at least for now, the beating would wait.
“Hey, Main Man, do you mind if I come in?” I’m told that he had many terms of endearment for me, but Main Man is the one I remember. I didn’t even look up but nodded slowly. He had to duck to clear the low doorway. He picked me up and, as he sat on the bed, placed me on his lap. As I sat there, all of my anxiety released. I could not have felt safer, more secure. He began to explain what I did wrong and why my mother was so angry. “Main Man, you just can’t hit people, and particularly women. You must defend them, not fight them. Do you understand?”
I nodded, then asked, “Is Mommy mad at me?”
“No, Mommy loves you, like I love you, she just wants you to do the right thing.”
My father and I sat talking for another five minutes before he led me downstairs to apologize to my sister, and my mother. With each tiny step I took with him, my whole hand wrapped tighter around his middle finger. I tried to copy his walk, his expressions. I was his main man. He was my protector.
That is one of only two memories I have of my father.
The other was when I watched him die.
My dad was his parents’ only son. Tall but not physically imposing, he dreamed of being on television—having a voice that made an impact. Armed with an insatiable desire to succeed—and aided by his natural gifts, which included a deeply resonant voice—he made his dream come true soon after finishing up at Bard College in 1971.
As a young reporter, he went to many corners of the country, following a story or, in many cases, following a job. After stints in North Carolina, New York, Florida, Virginia, California, and a handful of other states, he returned home to southern Maryland and started work at a job that would change his life. He finally had the chance to host his own public affairs show. And he’d hired a new writing assistant. Her name was Joy.