I study myself more than any other subject. That is my physics, that is my metaphysics.
—Michel de Montaigne, “Of Experience”
Let us call him what he sometimes calls himself. The Boy’s birth took place in the same year, and in the same city, as the March on Washington, that occasion of the rising pitch and soaring power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice, that event that helped bring about passage of the Civil Rights Act, which had an impact on The Boy’s life, since he—and the entirety of the neighborhood where he grew up—was Black. The Boy’s parents already had three children, the youngest of whom, one of The Boy’s sisters, was ten years old when he came along. They lived, this family, in a small red-brick semi-detached house on a street with other relatives, their three green backyards blurring into one, the mountain range of a housing project looming across the narrow, white, rough-surfaced alley. By the time The Boy was old enough to form permanent memories, the other people in his household—which included his maternal grandmother—either were, or seemed to him to be, adults. The Boy’s household, then, effectively consisted of six parents and himself. These adults loved him but did not often play with him, and he got used to that, even came to prefer his own company. He felt both cared for and on his own.
There were exceptions. The older of his sisters taught him to play chess and bought him his first records. The younger of his sisters resented his existence until, as she once told him, “I decided you were mine.” This sister was studious and polite and loath to hurt anyone’s feelings; those values, particularly the second and third, were imprinted on The Boy’s soul, during those long talks in her room when he was seven, she seventeen, on the bed strewn with her schoolbooks and notebooks.
His tall, Afro’d brother lived for a time in the family’s basement, with its pebbly stucco yellow walls. The brother kept many things down there, of which The Boy developed a love of two, kept for some reason in a black cardboard suitcase: superhero comic books and collections of Peanuts comic strips. At around eight he began writing and drawing his own comics, laboring at the dining room table as the TV droned on in the background.
The Boy’s household, then, effectively consisted of six parents and himself. These adults loved him but did not often play with him, and he got used to that, even came to prefer his own company. He felt both cared for and on his own.
When the Boy was eleven, his brother showed up unexpectedly one day in his sixth-grade classroom, saying only that The Boy had to get his things together. On their march home came the news that The Boy’s father was dead. Heart attack.
Shortly before that, The Boy’s siblings had all left home, for graduate school or simply their own apartments. His household now consisted of himself, his mother—who worked nights sorting mail at the post office—and his nearly deaf grandmother. The following year he entered junior high school, with its square arrangement of long, long, endlessly long hallways, where, because he was skinny, peaceful by nature, studious, and not very tall, he was bullied, on one occasion knocked unconscious, sliding down the wall where his head had been banged, encircled by watching boys and girls. These were the bleakest years of The Boy’s Life. When The Boy’s mother came to understand how miserable he was in public school, the morning he uncharacteristically pitched a fit at the prospect of another day there, she paid for him to attend a private, Catholic school. Things got better after that.
But something from that bleak period may have stayed with The Boy, buried deep in his brain: the idea that the world was a dangerous and unpredictable place, and that he did not have the size or strength to take unnecessary chances. He could take risks, but they had to be worth it.
The Boy’s consciousness was developing just as the country was entering a new era—one of, if not racial equality, then an ostensible desire for it. Black characters were turning up on every TV show, and The Boy watched a lot of TV shows; one of those was All in the Family, whose main character was the bigoted Archie Bunker, but since Archie was the butt of most of the show’s jokes, The Boy defined a White racist as a person who would be called stupid wherever he happened to find himself. The absence of any White people in The Boy’s neighborhood and schools supported that definition. The members of his family, meanwhile, impressed on him that people were not to be judged by their color. Society had functioned that way once, but no longer.
The Boy never doubted for a moment that he was bound for college; all of his siblings had gone, and the older of his sisters even got a doctorate.
… something from that bleak period may have stayed with The Boy, buried deep in his brain: the idea that the world was a dangerous and unpredictable place, and that he did not have the size or strength to take unnecessary chances. He could take risks, but they had to be worth it.
The Boy was an introvert, given to solitary pursuits, writing and drawing and, when he realized his drawing was unlikely to get him anywhere, writing—that comics-inspired act begun at age eight.
The Boy went away to college in a flat, cold small town in the Midwest, where, for the first time, the majority of people around him were White. A couple of things surprised him. One was that, except for him, the Black people tended to keep to themselves, eating together at what they called The Wall. The other was that they seemed to resent him for not doing so, grinning as they talked about him, when he could see them but was too far away to hear.
In college he wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
Over the coming years and decades, two ideas, like musicians in an endless, frequently dissonant duet, would co-exist in The Boy’s Mind: his own unchanged refusal to judge anyone according to color, and the growing awareness of all the Archie Bunkers out there, in repeating mirror images, in networks, smug and confident and—as when he heard a certain word in a bar, not spoken to him yet meant for his ears—obscene. When he wanted, in his own mind, to dramatize his plight, he thought of himself as the only person of his kind.
The only person of his kind: that would mean standing out, seemingly the last thing an introvert would want, and yet that is what The Boy wanted, in other areas of his life. Is it correct to attribute this to Peanuts (the creation of another introvert)? If The Boy’s brother had kept the black, greasy parts of half-assembled car engines strewn on the basement floor rather than collections of comic strips, would The Boy have sought to become a mechanic, one who never gave a thought to fame? Was it, instead, the fact of knowing Charles M. Schulz’s name that gave The Boy the desire for his own name, or at least his work, to be known?
The hero of Peanuts is the confused, often depressed boy Charlie Brown. As a teen The Boy encountered older Charlie Brown-like figures in other works: Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye, the book whose yellowing, musty pages he read raptly late into the night, Ben Braddock of the movie The Graduate, seen on TV, another late-night discovery. These figures seemed to him romantic; their being so misunderstood seemed its own kind of heroism. The Boy tried to project those qualities onto characters he created.
When he wanted, in his own mind, to dramatize his plight, he thought of himself as the only person of his kind.
Let us leave The Boy in his mid-twenties, post-college, living alone in a mouse-ridden New York City apartment because, in his mind, New York is where writing happens, the city where he worked part-time and devoted the rest of his energies to creating his fictional alter-egos, characters who share his convictions and confusion.
Let us track down The Boy thirty-five years later. How did that all turn out?
Following decades of quiet work as a full-time editor, The Boy took the risk of quitting his job. After a couple of lean years, he began teaching creative nonfiction writing in several colleges and graduate programs. Over the years he discovered the odd thing about work: that if you are reasonably good at one thing, soon you will find yourself doing something else. An introvert pursues the quiet work of writing and editing; before he knows it, that shy guy is running a twenty-person department in a publishing company and then, later, teaching classrooms full of undergrads. We might call this the influence of the nature of work.
The Boy has published books, mostly nonfiction, and writes essays and reviews on a freelance basis. Much of what he writes is concerned in one way or another with race. His switch to writing nonfiction does not mean that he has stopped creating the confused male Charlie-Holden-Ben characters; they are simply older now, and they are himself.
Meanwhile, The Boy’s visual art impulse resurfaced, as it had from time to time over the years, and he discovered that he painted better than he used to draw, though the comics of his youth still had their influence: the simple forms of Peanuts and the bold colors of the superhero pages found their way, disguised, onto his canvases.
The Boy’s favorite pursuits are solitary. On a day off, for example, particularly in summer, he is known to walk from his Brooklyn apartment to Manhattan, listening, as he crosses one of the bridges on foot under a bright sky, to his jazz heroes: Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Jaki Byard. In Manhattan he sits in diners, amid the chatter, and puts down his thoughts in leather journals; from there he visits museums and bookstores and usually sees a film, often a comparatively obscure one.
The Boy has noticed that his tastes tend away from the beaten path—his taste in film (he sees a lot of old foreign ones), books (his wife once referred to his “hit list of obscure authors”), and music (jazz, which—he once read—accounts for 3 percent of all American record sales). Is this, in part—the genuineness of his tastes notwithstanding—a desire to stand out, with the same root as his desire to produce well-known work?
An introvert pursues the quiet work of writing and editing; before he knows it, that shy guy is running a twenty-person department in a publishing company and then, later, teaching classrooms full of undergrads. We might call this the influence of the nature of work.
The Boy’s work is not well-known, and if there are moments of discontent in his otherwise happy life, they stem perhaps from the expectations he placed on that life. Looking at the world around him, here in the United States in the third decade of the twenty-first century, The Boy sees a lot of disappointed expectation. A president who “served” for four years, then lost his bid for reelection, remains adamant—perhaps even in his own mind—that he did not lose, and millions of people appear to believe him. Those are the ones, according to The Boy’s theory, whose expectations have been thwarted, in this case expectations that they would always have exalted status—by virtue of their Whiteness. Hell of an influence, these expectations of ours.
His otherwise happy life: his wife’s cheerful “Hi sweetie” when he gets home to their Brooklyn apartment, that sound of all being right with the world; the feeling of peace, hours later, as he drifts to sleep next to her …
Who is winning the old nature-versus-nature debate? Which of these influencers has the upper hand? Are we mostly preprogrammed, acting out what has been inside us since Day One, or do we go in the direction life blows us?
The Boy does not know. He knows only that sometimes, when he looks in the mirror, he is mildly frightened, because he is not sure who, or what, is looking back at him. There are African tribespeople peering from behind those eyes, and there are enslaved Black Americans, too, as well as White and probably indigenous Americans, and he has no way of knowing what most of them were like, or what characteristics, beyond brown skin and kinky hair, they gave him.
The Boy knows where some things came from. Those comics he read so long ago set him on the path of trying to become a writer and artist. On the other hand, his brother, the source of the comics, did not set out to become either.
Something else The Boy thinks he knows: the product of a reasonably happy family, he set out, as he had always intended, to create one himself. His family would be interracial. So it was that on The Boy’s thirtieth birthday, his phone rang at the office where he worked as an editor, and his wife gave him the news. The Boy and his wife told everyone immediately, happily oblivious to the fact that others in their position—four weeks of pregnancy—usually waited awhile, since you never knew what would happen. But luck was on their side.
Two weeks after the autumn birth of their light-brown-skinned child, The Boy went with his wife and new daughter to the pediatrician’s office. They traveled by car. Walking into the lobby, The Boy carried the baby in the car seat where she spent so much of the first weeks of her life. Stopping in front of the receptionist’s desk, he spoke two short declarative sentences, the first announcing his own full name, the second his child’s. He became aware, in that moment, of a change that had come over him, which we might call the result of influences, those of ancestors, parents, siblings, love, risk, lifelong beliefs, and his own desires. He would still sometimes call himself The Boy. But he felt he had moved on.