This month marks thirty years since my idiot stepfather Maurice Washington first attempted to make me a man, a Black man, a Hebrew-Israelite man, all at the same time, through karate and physical abuse. But there were any number of signs that his conversion to this strange mix of Afrocentricity and Judaism wasn’t genuine, and that his re-entry into our lives as husband and father in April ’81 was teetering on the edge of disaster only twelve months later. At least for me, my older brother Darren, Maurice’s two young boys, and for my mother. Certainly not for him.
As early as September ’81, my chronically unemployed stepfather had started acting strange, expecting us to run errands for him without question or comment. Armed with the conviction that comes with a recent religious conversion (who during the early-80s was “Judah ben Israel;” see my “The Tyranny of Salvation” post from April ’11), Maurice began to demand that we call him “Dad.” We were required to wear our kufis whenever we left 616, which identified us immediately as our stepfather’s kids to our idiot 616 and 630 East Lincoln neighbors.
Maurice also made it mandatory for us to pray aloud every night, giving us a four-page, single-spaced document full of “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe…” lines to recite as part of our daily Black Jewish ritual. The first time we went through it, in both Hebrew and English, it took well over an hour. If we started to nod off, Maurice would slap us upside the head, or actually give us one of his “whuppins.”
His language was also changing, becoming coarser and more threatening as ’81 turned into ’82. For just asking, “Why?” or “What?,” my stepfather would often say, “Take that base outta ya voice, boy, before I cave yo’ chest in!” Maurice would sometimes sing his threats, bellowing “I’m gonna beat yo’ ass, jus’ like a car burns gas,” adding, “And you know that!” at the end. That last part was something he pulled from a song by a disco group called The Jammers. His language was worse now than it had been before he had separated from Mom eighteen months earlier. I found myself scratching my head, and not just because it itched.
By April, Maurice had become a hanger-on at a newly opened Karate studio down the street from 616, next
door to the old dry cleaner business on East Lincoln Avenue. He made me come to the studio because he wanted to show me “how to be a man.” But when I saw him on my almost daily runs to the grocery store, he mostly hung out with young Turks and wannabe thugs from the Pearsall Drive projects across the street. Maurice smoked up a storm of Benson & Hedges Menthol while talking about women, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and about me as his kid, at least when I happened to walk by.
My stepfather made it known that he thought of me as soft, a boy who spent too much time in books and not enough time on New York’s mean streets. These despite the fact that we lived in Mount Vernon, a quietly violent city whose meanest streets were on the South Side, the part of town that bordered the Bronx. Not that 616 and the Pearsall Drive projects (consisting of six five-story buildings) down the street didn’t qualify as “mean.” They were tough by North Side standards, but at least people didn’t go into parks with baseball bats attempting to head hunt (see my “A Baseball Bat and a Father’s Absence” post from July ’11).
Maurice had tried to teach me and my older brother Darren Isshin-ryu Karate two years earlier. Despite myself, I did pick up a few moves. Now he decided that I would learn how to fight no matter the consequences. It was all about breaking bones and inflicting maximum pain. When I told Maurice that I didn’t want to learn, he said “You will learn because I’m your father” as he started to throw hard punches into my midsection.
After I yelled “You’re not my father!,” he drop-kicked me to the floor. Maurice, all six-foot-one and 270 pounds of him, then pulled me up by my arms, slammed me back-first into a mirrored wall, and punched me several times in the head, chest, and stomach until several of the men in the studio surrounded him. My stepfather, completely exasperated and winded, yelled “Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!” I ran for home with a knot on my forehead that didn’t go down for almost a week.
I was slowly learning a very valuable lesson (see my “Never As Good As The First Time” post from April ’11). I didn’t have control over anything in my life, even my emotions. I also learned to not trust Black men, especially fast talkers who thought with their fists and penises like dumb ass Maurice. It took several years for me to unlearn part of that second lesson, no thanks to him.