I met Rashawn and Kimonte on a Friday evening, when the voices of children playing were punctuated by streetlights that used to mark the end of playtime for youngsters. They had pitched a rubber football into the dense foliage surrounding my front yard and were searching in vain. They asked for a flashlight, which I retrieved, and within minutes the ball was found.
Since then I have become “Mr. Ron” to the boys, who come every other weekend to my Southeast neighborhood to visit their grandmother, who recently moved in. We chat, eat fruit. Mostly they come by because I let them and some of the other kids play the keyboard and sing into the microphone that I keep in my living room. Some D.C.-centric novels that I have published caught their interest. They seem impressed that a man from their neighborhood is a professional writer. They come by not just to play, but apparently to pick my brain, to see what makes me click.
One of their friends who lives just down the way stops by anytime he sees me sitting on the front porch. I asked the boy, who always seems hungry, if his mother and father were short on funds, as I give him some bottled water and an apple or a banana. One time, I sent him and an older sister to get, as he put it, “some carry-out.” I had seen a man with some of the five children and wondered if this man was their father.
“I don’t have no father,” the boy responded, and I was rushed back to a time when I, raised on the same street, was the sole male in a house with a grandmother and two sisters. My mother left us with my grandmother, who raised four of her seven children.
I knew that my mother had given birth to her first three children in the early 1950s but that my father was never present; I still don’t know him. Back then, on the same street where I am now a homeowner, my family was a rarity: All of my friends lived in homes headed by a father with a strong mother. I became aware that I was a boy without a father when elementary school had its first Father-Son Day.
A second-grader, I slinked into the house, even as I could hear my friends and their fathers preparing for the event. I went down to the basement, the better to blunt the celebratory sounds being generated up and down the street. A practical child and new to religion from my regular church attendance, I prayed.
“God, how come I don’t have a father?”
His answer, in my juvenile interpretation, came immediately in the form of the ringing doorbell. In seconds, my grandmother called me upstairs, where my friends’ fathers stood with their boys. “Come on here, Ronnie,” one father said. “Don’t you know it’s Father-Son Day?”
That was 1959, when in many communities, fathers looked out for all of the children in the neighborhood. There have been times in my life when I would not have put myself forth as an example for any child, let alone someone else’s offspring.
But with the recent arrival of Rashawn, Kimonte, Elijah and others in a Southeast often littered with lost and misguided youths, I’ve realized that the youngest minds are the ones easiest molded. For the young boys growing up without male figures, the need for “community fathers,” like the ones who were around when I was growing up, is even more critical.
The writer is an author.