When I was eight years old, living in San Francisco, I lived in a tenement building with my family. We had an extended family that included my maternal grandmother, my oldest sister, her husband, my physically disabled maternal aunt, my mother, father, and other sister. At that time, my male role models were my father and my brother in law, my sister's husband (she was 11 years older than I). She married at 18 and I think I understood some of the challenges they had. The constant struggle for them to find employment (obviously, they were living with my parents), especially my brother in law. I knew this because previously, they had lived in a unit downstairs, but finances forced them to move in with us. I remember the stress of all of us living in those quarters together. I wasn't aware of the distinct tension that existed between my sister and her husband. All I knew was I used to love sitting and listening to my father and brother in law talk. It was my first male role modeling. They would talk about family life. Besides profanity, these conversations were usually G rated and a lot of what I learned about my father, who seldom talked to me, I learned from these observations. I knew he considered my brother in law his friend and they often socialized and had drinks together sitting at our kitchen table.
One day my father I picked me up from school as he usually did since he worked graveyards. And, as was the typical process, he dropped me and my sister off at our residence so that he could drive down and pick up my mother from work. On this day as we drove up in front of our building, there was my brother in law standing there. I recall thinking it odd that he would just be standing on the street, instead of being inside, but I remember my dad honking at him and then I recall him walking on down the street, away from our residential building. This meant the only people inside were my grandmother, wheelchair bound aunt, and my middle sister and I. No sooner did I get inside and start eating the campbells soup my dad had left for me than the doorbell rang, repeatedly. I remember my grandmother buzzed it and in spilled my sister with my brother in law tackling her. My grandmother screamed at him, our little cocker spaniel dog was barking and I was losing my mind. At first, I tried to tell myself they were play wrestling. They were still teenagers and they often rough housed, but as I watched him strike blows against her I realized this was for real. Meanwhile, my grandmother was grabbing a steak knife and making her way down the stairs to defend my sister. At this point, my brother in a law pointedly told me to go into the bathroom and lock the door. Well, we were trained to listen to our elders without hesitation, so I did what he told me the do, terrified or not. Once in the bathroom, I heard the repeated pounding. I heard my grandmother pleading, screaming at him to stop. I heard our little dog barking. For my eight year old mind, my entire stability as a human being was being ripped apart. My brother in law, one of my male role models, was supposed to love and support my sister in my mind. He was supposed to respect her? I had no storage place to file this assault. What I've never said to anyone before is in my panic and confusion, I picked up a can of house spray sitting there and with the matches sitting there I lit a match and as a distraction, I thought it would be a good idea to see what would happen if I sprayed the spray into the small flame. Anything to distract me from what was happening outside that door. I sprayed the match and the flame increased 10-fold.
Eventually, my grandmother succeeded in getting my brother in law off my sister and out of our place. I'm not joking with you when I tell you that where I come from, we don't call the police. That was never a consideration, but I distinctly recall that once my parents returned there was a long debrief. Once they determined that my sister didn't need to see a doctor she was cared for and they lamented on and on about how my brother in law, knowing the daily routines in our family, waited intentionally for my father to leave and for my sister to arrive. I recall my mother and father getting some people together and going out to scour the streets for my brother in law. They never captured him and I never saw him again until about 30 years later at my nephew's wedding (the child of my sister and brother in law, my sister had my nephew at the time of the assault, although I don't remember where he was at the time). As I became an adult, I had always told myself I would harm my ex brother in law if I saw him, but as I saw him at that wedding, he was a much older man with his own health issues and he and I never even bothered to interact.
What I don't remember or know the answers to is what impact the attack had on my sister, who I remember having great potential at that time. She was able to type about 140 words a minute which in those days was a major skill. After that incident she continuously struggled with addiction and holding a job for the rest of her life. In 2013 she unfortunately met an untimely end. I'm not blaming that specifically on that attack. I'm saying I don't know what impact it had on her. I also don't understand how I didn't burn my entire face off that day because by all rights, I should have, but I escaped unscathed. Some people would attribute that to some spiritual intervention, but I refuse to believe something like that because I'm not that self-centered. There are people all day everyday who are much more deserving than I could ever be and horrible things happen to those people all the time. I prefer to believe that the variables and factors that happened to line up for me that day, as they have on many other occasions (and on many occasions they haven't). Instead of thinking I'm some sort of specially blessed individual, I believe whatever reasons I escaped serious injury, or death, that day, I have to use that as an impetus to continue to do good work. I don't know what impact the attack had on my parents or other sister because we never discussed things like that in our family. I do know that besides my mother and I, my entire family suffered from addiction. And, today, besides my middle sister and I, everyone else is deceased, and my surviving sister has a multitude of heath issues. As for me, I recall a feeling that my sister's life had little value. I remember feeling like I was helpless to do anything to help her. And I know I felt like my life had absolutely no meaning.
All my childhood beliefs vanished that day. I know I felt that day, and I've felt ever since, that the entire experience was unfair and harmful to my sister, my middle sister, my grandmother, me, our dog, my parents, and everyone else. We had a trust that evaporated that day and just like several thousands of years ago, a man figured out that by exerting his ability to physically dominate someone, he could express power for himself. I know that as a little boy in a racist society, I wanted to learn how to have a power of my own, but that day, I realized as I have for the rest of my life, that I definitely saw achieving power in that traumatizing and dishonest way as cowardly and harmful. Maybe that day also signaled for me that we cannot achieve the power we are looking for as individual African men. We have to do it as a part of a collective effort to empower the masses of people that respects and supports non-men out in front. Maybe that day did that. Maybe not, but I know that I've never felt fear and uncertainty more than I felt it that day. I wasn't the target. I'm a man, but even at eight years old, I realized this is a destructive way for men to interact with non-men. I also learned that day that when these assaults happen, they traumatize the woman being attacked, any other people who are there, and any people who are not there. We are all traumatized until we figure out how to evolve through these difficulties.