We all get used to playing certain roles in life, no matter how uncomfortably those roles fit. Privileged, rich, powerful and entitled Americans are accustomed to shitting on the little guy and using all of their resources to maintain their separation from the rest of us. Attractive women — especially White blondes and Black women with music video bodies — tend to act as if the world’s purpose is to serve them. Religious people who somehow believe that it’s their role to tell every person they meet how to deal with all of the issues they face in life, without a real understanding of those people or their lives.
I’ve gotten used to the role of the eldest sibling over the past thirty years. This despite all of the growing pains I went through in the ’80s to take on this role, in spite of the fact that I have an older brother, one two years and eighteen days older than me.
My older brother Darren, as I put it more than twenty-five years ago, “abdicated the throne” of eldest brother by the time I was in the middle of puberty. That happened twenty-nine Decembers ago. Once our family went off the cliffs of the Himalayas and plunged into the hell of Hebrew-Israelites, abuse, abject poverty, responsibility became my motto. Add to that four more mouths to feed between ’79 and ’84, but with only enough food in the house to feed us twenty out of every thirty days, and it became obvious that someone had to do something.
Darren withdrew into the fantasy world that he’d constructed through his psychological imprisonment at The Clear View School in Briarcliff Manor, a school for the mentally retarded (see “About My Brother” post from December ’07). Except that Darren wasn’t mentally retarded. But he played up that role as life at 616 became tougher after the ’81 no-Chanukah, no-Christmas, no-Kwanzaa season. Darren would rock back and forth in his too-small twin bed, as if in a catatonic state. Or he’d spontaneously jump up and down by himself in our bedroom or while in the bathroom, making a high-pitched “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee” sound while nearly hitting the top of his six-foot frame on the ceiling.
Mostly, my older brother would make himself sound as stupid as he possibly could to get out of anything to do with all of the craziness at 616. His favorite answer to any question from our mom or from our idiot ex-stepfather Maurice was, “I Dunno.” And he’s say it over and over again. For nearly a year, stupid ass Maurice attempted to conduct a version of Torah study with us on Saturdays. Every time Maurice asked Darren what he learned, my brother would say, “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth…,” regardless of what book we were charged with reading. By August ’82, Darren was permanently excused from Torah study.
Darren did what he did to get out of going to the store, or washing dishes, or helping out with “those kids,” or anything that meant him acting like his IQ was higher than eighty-five. Some neighborhood guys who knew my brother then would ask me, “What’s wrong with yo’ brotha’, man?,” and I’d say, “Nothing.”
How did I know? Because for three years, every time he boarded his 7:40 am school bus to go to Clear View, off came his kufi or yarmulke. Because outside of 616, Darren ate whatever he wanted, whether it was a lard-based Hostess’ Apple Pie or a ham and cheese sandwich. Because Darren was smart enough to realize that perception for most people — most of us undiscerning and self-absorbed Americans, anyway — is reality, and that acting like he was severely mentally retarded would save him from the worst effects of living with a family that had fallen apart.
So everything fell on me. At first, it was going to the store and watching over my younger siblings Maurice and Yiscoc. By the time I began puberty, it was taking punches from Maurice and tracking down my father Jimme for money. By the time of Michael Jackson’s last single release from Thriller in early ’84, it was cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, protecting my four younger siblings, and maintaining some sense of sanity for myself and them. I did it because I had no choice, but I helped grow a jealousy and competition in Darren that he’s yet to give up on.
It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be who I am today without growing up the way I did. But who in their right mind would want to go through what I went through? At the time, it was so much better to be Darren. Only in the last ten years have I realized how much Darren gave up. His sanity, his piece of mine, his development as a human being, as a Black male. All shredded in his well-practiced Clear View persona.
At forty-two years old today, I’m forever learning and relearning, but my ironic, goofy, sarcastic, contrarian, honest and caring, disdainful and cocky persona is well-marbled. Darren’s, sadly, remains trapped in jealousy and misery, and there’s nothing I can do about it.