Eri Washington (with my left arm) at 616 for Thanksgiving, Mount Vernon, New York, November 23, 2006. (Angelia N. Levy).
Yesterday, my brother Eri Washington turned twenty-five years old. He’s my youngest brother (technically, half-brother, but I don’t bother with such labels), and he’s as old now as I was when I was in the middle of my dissertation process. Wow! To think that it’s been a quarter-century since his birth makes me think about how much has happened and how much my youngest brother didn’t have or get to experience in the twenty-five years since his birth.
For starters, Eri’s birth ended a cycle of bad experiences and bad decision-making on the part of his father and my mother. I love my brother and know that the world would be a different place for me and others without him here. Yet his birth was in the middle of our fall into welfare poverty. Eri was the fourth of my younger siblings born in less than five years, between July ’79 and May ’84. He was also the third kid born during our dreaded Hebrew-Israelite years. Although his would be and remains a Hebrew name, it was also one of my family’s final acts as Hebrew-Israelites. My mother didn’t believe in abortion, nor in any form of birth control. My idiot stepfather didn’t believe in condoms. But he loved hanging out with other idiot guys bragging about how many kids he sired — I caught him once sharing cigars with these imbeciles soon after Eri’s birth.
Once again, I digress. The worst of things were over. My mother wasn’t physically abused in the final years of her so-called marriage, and I only had to face down any form of physically abuse once after Eri’s birth. Our financial status was so far below the poverty line that the only place to fall was in homelessness. Between AFDC, WIC, and FS (as my wife calls Food Stamps), we had about $16,000 coming in to feed, clothe and pay rent and other bills for a family of eight. Of course, my obese stepfather shouldn’t have been there, but oh well! There weren’t any more kids on the way, and it seemed as if my mother and I were both waking up from the illusion cast by the cult that we lived under for the previous three years. Having too many mouths to feed can do that, I guess.
There were also things that Eri would never see as he grew up, especially as he reached his tweener years. Me, my older brother Darren, and my younger brother Maurice all have memories of my mother working as a supervisor in Mount Vernon Hospital’s Dietary Department. We all knew that she worked very hard at her job and fought to keep it even though it was a losing battle. (You can’t cross your own picket line and expect to keep your job in the long run.) So Yiscoc, Sarai and especially Eri never saw my mother as a worker growing up. My mother didn’t start working again until the fall of ’97, and would work off and on as a temp for six years before getting a job with Westchester County Medical Center. Eri was nineteen years old by the time that happened.
He also never saw me slogging my way through Humanities and Mount Vernon High School to get into the University of Pittsburgh. Heck, Eri was a just a bit more than three years old when I went off to college. He took it harder than any of my siblings when I left for Pittsburgh in August ’87. When I did my family intervention in January ’02, Eri was still angry with me about it, accusing me of “abandoning the family.” In a way, I guess he was right. This despite the fact that I visited every summer through ’94 and every Christmas through ’97. My need to go away to school meant that there was little reason for Eri — or any of my other siblings for that matter — to follow my example. Of course, by ’93, none of them could have even if they had wanted to. The Humanities Program graduated its last cohort of brainiacs that year.
For better and for worse, Eri was born into an era of limited possibilities and little imagination. His first nine years of life were spent in welfare poverty during the Reagan and Bush 41 years. Not exactly a time of optimism about American innovation, social mobility, and racial harmony. Not in Mount Vernon, not in the New York City area, not for the poor and for people of color of this more conservative era. With no Humanities and living in a bedroom suburb not exactly “on the move,” Eri spent his formative years without the constant academic and familial encouragement necessary for early successes — small and big — that could provide fuel for optimism later on as a tweener or teenager.
Then the fire of April ’95 at 616 happened. It left my mother and younger siblings in a semi-homeless, semi-halfway-house state for nearly three years. They lived most of that time in Yonkers, just five blocks from the Bronx and within a half-mile or so of Van Cortlandt Park. It changed all of us. But I think it changed Eri most of all. He was always angry. Even when I visited, I could see how angry he was with me and with the rest of the world. By the Yonkers years of ’95 to ’98, he was in middle school. But instead of sending him to middle school in Yonkers, my mother made the decision to keep all of my younger siblings in Mount Vernon public schools. Only Maurice did well. Of course he did — he was a junior at MVHS when they all lived in Yonkers. Not so for Yiscoc, Sarai and especially Eri. My youngest brother spent three years and one summer in middle school, including two years at Davis in seventh grade and a summer making sure he didn’t have to repeat eighth grade.
Eri continued to behave as if his actions had little meaning after moving back into the new, insane-asylum-looking 616 in ’98. From the fall of ’99 until he dropped out in ’02, Eri was a ninth-grader at MVHS. He was a drop-in, cutting classes, hanging out with his buddies, bringing girls home apparently to hump. It wasn’t until he managed to knock up one girlfriend in the middle of ’01 that Eri realized that his life couldn’t get better without him making an effort to make it better.
By the time of my family intervention in ’02, Eri was enrolling in JobCorp in upstate New York. Still, I wanted to make sure that I gave him as strong a push as I could so that he would take the program and its possibilities seriously. Within eighteen months, Eri had completed his GED, gotten his driver’s license and earned an auto mechanic’s license. Even after not being able to find steady work, Eri made the decision to join the Army Reserve, earning him a tour of duty in Iraq in ’07-’08, not to mention a broken toe.
Not everything in Eri’s life, especially of late, has been bad. Yet when living with so much anger because the world seems like it’s against you aspiring to anything, it’s easy to just throw up your hands and say, “No mas!” The meaning that I can take from the past twenty-five years is to never give up, especially on yourself, and never let the world take your dreams from you. I hope that Eri can continue to do the same.