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Where I Come From


A few months ago, I turned 30. Despite the existential angst often attached to that number, it’s shaping up to be a very good year.

First, there was the I’m-not-dead-yet-and-to-prove-it-I’ll-drive-cross-country road trip that took me from Baltimore to Los Angeles in four days. Then came the opportunity to write this column. But what really validated what I tried to do with the first few decades of my life was my friend Greg asking me to be godfather to his 2-year-old daughter Chloe.

There were so many things to appreciate about this request. For one, Chloe is an absolute gem of a child. At 2-and-some-change, she can already express pretty complicated thoughts, for example, her preference of ice cream flavors and exactly when she’ll break like a bandit out of her clothes and into the freedom of the open air, all in a voice that Fisher Price has tried to master for decades. The kid is fearless. During a camping trip in Pennsylvania, she ran to her dad, hands held high, with a snake—a poisonous copperhead. Fortunately, it was dead. Still, it looks like I’ve been asked to baby-sit Evel Knievel. But when she’s not scaring her parents, Chloe likes to make people laugh. She has this sly, knowing smile, and lies in wait for the perfect moment to show you her belly, then quickly cover it up.

I’ll never forget how Greg welcomed me into his family. It went something like this: “Lionel,” he said, “Chloe’s going to need a guide through life, and I think you’d be a great one. All I ask is that, when she’s 16 or 17 and your phone rings in the middle of the night, you pick up.”

Gladly. There’s so much to look forward to, but as I thought about all the things I’d like to teach my goddaughter, one issue in particular kept demanding attention: race. Chloe’s white. I’m black. And for the foreseeable future, at least, that difference will matter, and grant our relationship an added layer of complexity that I’m still sorting out.

Whatever relationship Chloe and I develop will have had its start in my friendship with her father. Greg and I shared an office for a year-and-a-half after he took an editorial position at the magazine where I worked. At first glance, there were no obvious signs that we would get along so well. Greg’s from Utah and loves the outdoors, which explains why he wore a T-shirt to one of his job interviews. But it was a natural fit. Greg taught me how to meet what seemed like impossibly limiting word counts by making every syllable earn its keep, and he depended on me as his personal guide to Baltimore, asking whether or not he should be out alone, on foot on certain corners after dark. I’m so glad he’s still with us. We talked about the black church, black politics, the music that white people listen to, and Native American writer Sherman Alexie’s biting commentary on life on the reservation.

If I’m not careful, it all sounds like a cliché. In TV and films—which is mostly where Americans talk about race, not in person—black people are too often wholly good or wholly evil. You’re either Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, the kindly helpmate, or Morgan Freeman in Wanted, a cold-hearted assassin. Good or bad, you’re one-dimensional, utterly predictable, and, therefore, not fully human. So as a young black man, I’m very mindful of the roles I’m asked to play.

Somehow, I’ve become an advisor to two generations of white people. When I write it like that, it sounds so antebellum, but it’s not. I give as much as I get in this relationship, and Greg knows some of my virtues and my failings. Now he’s trusted me with his daughter.

So what will I teach her?

Primarily, I’ll do my part to confirm how awesome women are. I think there’s something special about a member of one sex respecting and validating the other, so, if she overlooks it somehow, I’ll make sure she understands the great role models she has in her mom and, now, in mine. (Sidenote: My mother is convinced that Chloe will soften me up to become someone’s biological father soon. Thanks a lot, kid.)

I’ll also shamelessly introduce her to works by some of my favorite artists because, let’s face it: The more people who appreciate the beauty and power of a Clifford Brown trumpet solo, the better this world will be.

But mostly, I’d just like Chloe to know me well enough that I become three-dimensional—a little good, a little bad, a little ugly too—and to take it for granted that someone who looks very different can love her genuinely and truly, enough to buy all the mint ice cream she could ever want.

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