I’m going through a rough-patch with my dad. We’re not getting along and we really haven’t gotten along for the past year. Even before that, he’d been pushing me around. This isn’t new for us. It’s more or less the orbit we exist in and have always existed in since my earliest memories.
My dad will be 78 years old in January. I can’t shake the feeling I’m lucky to say that because even though we’re not compatible as people I love him and I only get 1 dad. Growing up, whenever I had a falling out with a friend, or lost a job, or did something thoughtless and reduced a relationship to rubble, my dad would say this to me, “Why would you want to be somewhere you’re not really wanted?”
The advice wasn’t fatherly. It was brutal, so when I pitched WCPT a radio show called “Family Values with an Oy Vey,” I created a segment for my dad called Brutally Frank. Initially I had my dad in the studio for the entire show but he had a habit of over-taking and shutting me down so the station manager suggested my dad do his segment by calling in as opposed to being in the studio.
My dad called in to deliver his rant and then stuck around for a few minutes to cut loose and talk about anything else on his mind. Brutally Frank was the conscience of the show, I looked forward to the way he broke things down. You could hear the joy he took in putting himself out there. He was brave. He was raw. He was doing it for me.
I’m lucky I get to say that about my dad.
This week I drove out to Maywood so I could walk through The Fred Hampton House. I parked my car in front of 805 South 17th Avenue, an unassuming house in Maywood. I opened the front door and walked into a small stairwell. There were a half dozen men in a dark vests staring down at me, “Can I help you?”
“This might sound ridiculous,” I said, “Chance The Rapper endorsed Amara Enyia for mayor of Chicago. I tweeted about it and my tweet got retweeted more times than I can count, which isn’t exactly new for me. I was invited here because I name dropped Fred Hampton. Apparently, this is a very powerful name.”
“You got that right,” someone said to me from the top of the stairwell. “Come in.”
I was guided upstairs. I walked into the living room. I was greeted by a large man in the same vest as all of the other men.
He invited me to sit down. I pulled out my iPhone to record the conversation. As we talked over the next hour and 4 minutes, a crowd gathered in the room, listening to our conversation. Many of them pulled out iPhones of their own, so they could record the conversation. I realized right then and there, this is something we all have in common and it’s strangely welcoming even though at times it felt like they were filming a hostage video but this is how it feels when you’re outside of your comfort zone, literally, in a strange neighborhood, in a strange house, surrounded by strangers who are all wearing the same vest. I was the only person who looked like me, which must be the dominant feeling of being black in America.
Fred Hampton Junior never knew his dad. Unlike me, his dad was murdered before he was born. I tell you this before I begin the interview to underscore how lucky I am to be going through a rough-patch with my dad. Even though we’re not compatible as people, I love him with my whole heart and cannot let go of the feeling if it had, in fact, been a hostage video they were filming my dad would have done everything he could to see me again. As it turns out, it was the opposite of a hostage video. Those were just feelings, which all too often, like most feelings, are temporary and all you have to do is give yourself a little time, give the people around you the benefit of the doubt, and breathe.
“Chairman Fred Hampton Junior,” he said.
“Fred Hampton is your dad?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
I told him about the launch party for Amara Enyia. I told him about Amara Enyia name dropping his dad. I also confessed the only reason I knew about Fred Hampton was Jay-Z had name dropped his dad in a song. As much as I was there to listen, I was also there to confront what I didn’t know by seeing it for myself instead of letting someone else tell me what I was supposed to think, which is the disease of our time: repeating without knowing but repeating with the authority of knowing. In other words, acting like a parrot.
We’re a nation of birdbrains, parroting soundbites in split screen on CNN, MSNBC, FOX.
“Chairman Fred was representative of Organization Black Panther Party,” he began. “The goal was to fight for self-determination. In fact, some years back, when Jay-Z had made reference, if you google it, if you YouTube, a lot of people refer to it as a rap beef. We had took issue. Chairman Fred was assassinated and a lot of people say we should be happy to be made mentioned. And we say no. The deal is we’re fighting for legacy. Legacy is more important than our life. And a lot of people can mention it in a lot of different ways but the deal is we’re tied to self-determination.”
This will come up a lot in our conversation, self-determination. It’s particularly interesting because I was invited to an event to help save The Fred Hampton House but the main idea is self-determination, so I had to wonder wonder why I was being asked to help save The Fred Hampton House.
To answer my own question, I’d say it’s because there’s no such thing as self-determination, we’re all connected.
But I have a car and so I’m capable of driving from the north side to the south side. Although I should admit I was actually driving from the north side to the west side and had to be corrected by Andre Harvey, the mayor of Bellwood, which shows you how little I know about Maywood or Bellwood, since they’re off the grid and I would say they’re off the grid by design.
Chicago is the most segregated city in America. As a child I could feel it even though I couldn’t articulate what the feeling was about. So I did what a stupid child does, I ran away from the feeling. I ended up in New York City, where I lived for 15 years and when I came home to Chicago, I could see the feeling I had run away from because I could see it with outsider eyes.
The first thing I noticed was how the subway system only serves the north side. I asked myself this: how come so many neighborhoods are off the grid?
Why can’t you get from Humboldt Park to Hyde Park, Andersonville to Bronzeville, Wicker Park to Oak Park, Pilsen to Pulaski, The Miracle Mile to Maywood? I’d say it’s by design, keeping us separated from each other, not knowing each other, fostering suspicion, breeding animosity, inflaming a feeling that self-determination was the only solution when something as simple as a subway system worthy of its people would liberate the city of Chicago from the shadow of segregation. I had to drive my car to get to 805 South 17th Avenue.
Why? Why can’t I swipe my Ventra Card and go anywhere I want, freely.
“In a nutshell, Chairman Fred was a revolutionary. He was assassinated. That’s a part of the legacy, as we see right now, as we speak today, this home, in which he grew up in,” he said. “The same state which assassinated him continues to obliterate or malign him.”
The words are big and the ideas pour out of him. It’s hard to stop him once he gets going and so along the way, I resign myself to being lectured. As we sit across from each other at the table, it becomes less of a conversation and more of a class, as if all of this has been bottled up inside of him, going unheard, and given the chance, Chairman Fred Hampton Junior is going to get every bit of what he has to say on the record.
From time to time the people around us will shout out, “Real Talk.” I never knew there was any other kind but that’s naive. We’re living in a moment in time when there are people on the national stage who have no problem casually tossing around the word “Nationalist” but lose their fucking minds if you want to talk about the word “Socialist.” We’re living in a moment in time when people want to equate being rude in a restaurant with sending pipe bombs in the mail. We’re living in a moment in time where Real Talk has been reduced to retweets.
“By no means am I putting Amara in the same category as Jay-Z. When we say Save The Hampton House, what’s been exposed is the predatory lending,” he said. “You feel what I’m saying? Other dynamics, I said let’s seize the time with this discussion so now we’re using this to help other communities. So I’m saying, why is it this is your first time hearing about Chairman Fred?”
Good question. The answer is that I’m ignorant. But I own it.
I decided instead of googling I’d get off my ass and make the pilgrimage to the source so I could see for myself, listen with my own ears and feel the intimidation. I’m not fearless since I believe people who are fearless have a screw loose. I was very much afraid but in dealing with my fear, I was able to push through to a place where I could look Fred Hampton Junior in the eye and see the absence of his dad.
“I don’t know jackshit. I’ve been told a lot of lies,” I said. “I have to turn off what I have been told so I can hear you better. If you’re going to link predatory lending to The Fred Hampton House, that’s big because people are vulnerable. Not a single banker went to jail for bringing the world market to the brink of collapse in 2008 and yet Fred Hampton is dead. Why is that?”
“It’s the numbers,” he said. “It’s the gangsters and banksters. You know what I’m saying? They prey on people. Let’s talk about happenstance and places like Englewood on the south side of Chicago. The Freddie Macs, The Fannie Maes, and these different mortgage companies, you know what I’m saying? The trickle down and the impact is the abandoned buildings and vacant lots in our communities. Our grandparents worked their entire lives. They ended up without nothing. So our position is to use this as a template for opportunities. You know what I’m saying? It’s bigger than that! You very rarely have ever heard me say the police have killed my father. But you have heard me say the government assassinated Chairman Fred. You know what I’m saying? It puts it in an objective political context cuz the deal is though my father was taken in a graphic way many people in my community, their fathers and their mothers, their brothers and their sisters, their people are taken directly and indirectly by the same system.”
It’s big. And it’s a lot. And it hurts. There needs to be Real Talk surrounding why these communities are stretched to the outer reaches of our consciousness, left to feel as though the momentum of opportunity has been denied to them. It’s not imagined. It’s real but it goes unsaid for too long until everything collides and turns into a gigantic conspiracy.
“We have to call into question with self-analysis and say why do I know about certain people? Why do I think The Rainbow Coalition was started by Reverend Jesse Jackson and not know it was started by Chairman Fred Hampton? Why do people think The Chicago Public School System started the free lunch program and not know The Black Panther Party started the free lunch program? And in fact they fed a minimum of 3500 children in the city of Chicago Illinois alone. These are the type of questions that we have to seize the time. Say let’s do it,” he said. “Let’s acknowledge it.”
Turn off MSNBC.
Turn off FOX.
Stop listening to the paid know-it-alls whine about bullshit in split screen. Step out of your house. Step out of your neighborhood. Step out of your comfort zone. Go see for yourself. I beg you. Look someone in the eye and listen to their pain, listen with your whole heart. Even if it starts with a Jay-Z lyric.
“My concern with Jay-Z being your first dynamic is like similar to your first drink of water in Flint Michigan. It’s toxic water. You know what I’m saying? That’s my concern,” he said. “You might say I’m grateful to get that water. However that’s toxic water. I’m concerned about a person linking his lifestyle to my legacy. Jay-Z! A person who has not donated any resources.”
Always be closing, even a revolutionary needs to close the deal. We’re all selling something and Fred Hampton Junior is selling access to his father’s legacy.
“Chairman Fred referred to it as intellectual masturbation,” he said.
“Am I here masturbating?” I asked.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “Whatever your agenda is, we have an agenda. You know what I’m saying?”
“I do,” I said.
“The people have an agenda,” he said. “And the people’s agenda outweighs. These are the priorities. We’re dealing with 17 year old girls at Cook County Jails forced to reuse their sanitary napkins. You follow what I’m saying? We’re dealing with Mumia Abu-Jamal, they’re trying to kill him inside those concentration camps. You follow what I’m saying? So these are the realities. So they’re a priority as opposed to an award that Colin Kaepernick and Dave Chappelle received at Harvard. You follow what I’m saying? We’re talking about a community that needs an example, a tangible concrete example! You follow what I’m saying? That’s what I’m talking about. Lupe Fiasco’s record sales may increase for his use of saying Chairman Fred. However, how does it trickle down and benefit the masses of the people. You follow what I’m saying?”
I do. I follow what he’s saying. Some might say it sounds like intellectual masturbation but to my ear it sounds like emotion seeking release.
“A lot of people want to be black when it’s beneficial. Play Panther when it’s profitable. And claim Cubs when it’s comfortable.”
I liked the soundbite. I slowed him down. I had him repeat the soundbite, to be sure of the intention. Then I asked about Cubs.
“Cubs is the organization that’s carrying the legacy of The Black Panther Party. And not just the romantic side of it,” he said. “I’m talking about the side of it where it’s freezing cold in Chicago, 10 degrees below zero. I’m talking about the favelas of Brazil. I’m talking about Minnesota. I’m talking about Gary Indiana. I’m talking about every Saturday, even though you didn’t hear about it, that’s been going on, providing food, providing concrete resources to the community, to the people. See what I’m saying?”
“You know the old saying? You say if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears the tree does it make a sound? Of course it makes a sound! But a petty bourgeois arrogance is where you say I just heard about this so now the world is great,” he said. “We’re talking about the trees have been falling down and cut down on a constant daily basis.”
I swallowed my petty bourgeois arrogance. It tasted like chicken.
“I’m not coming at you,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Yes you are.”
“I’m coming at you with humbleness,” he said.
“I don’t see the humbleness,” I said. “I see a man with a lot of passion who knows what he’s talking about.”
“A lot of people do not believe this is really happening,” he said. “Follow what I’m saying.”
“I do,” I said.
“A lot of people cannot interrelate,” he said. “However, there have to be incentives. Aspiration. Inspiration. Or desperation. Chairman Fred, we’re coming up on the 50th year of his assassination. So a lot of people are talking about this right now. It’s a phenomenal discussion. We called for a mayoral debate right here.”
“You guys are ahead,” I said. “You guys are ahead and I’m a facilitator. I think I can help make that happen. We have the south side off the grid. We have these mayors who come along and you know what they do? They go to Millennium Park and polish the bean. We need a renaissance on the south side. We have these beautiful neighborhoods. We have Maywood. We have Englewood. We have Bellwood. You can’t get to these neighborhoods. They’re off the grid. Why is that? Right now we’re all so disconnected. I think this debate you want to happen is real. I know Amara Enyia wants to have this debate. I’m not so sure The Daley Boys want Real Talk. But people with power never want to talk about anything besides strategies for improving their short game on the back nine and how much to tip for a shoe shine.”
“We’re open,” he said. “People get involved or become conscious in 1 of 3 ways: inspiration, aspiration or desperation. We’re open. But we ain’t new to this, we grew to this.”
If you listen hard enough, a window cracks open when you stick around to push past the soundbites. We all have the beats we carry around in our head, the things we’ve rehearsed because we notice they get a reaction. On the other side of these soundbites is the mess where the truth and the truth as we’d like to see it gets muddy.
“What do you want people to know about your dad?” I asked.
He took a deep breath. “He sacrificed,” he said. “He fought for self-determination.”
“Let me ask you something else cuz he’s your dad,” I said. “What do you miss about him?”
“Hmmm,” he paused. “Well let me say this. I learned lessons from his legend.”
“But did you know him?” I asked.
“I was born 25 days later,” he said. “After he was assassinated.”
“So you only knew him as an idea,” I said. “Never a dad.”
“Every day I come in contact with how much he impacted,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t trying to ask a mean question. I didn’t know you didn’t know your dad.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “I know him. You know what I’m saying? I know him. See, I don’t have a reactionary way of learning. In other words, I don’t have to be directly affected. I wasn’t around during the time of chattel slavery but I know what it means. You know what I’m saying? When you colonize, when you oppress, you gotta work with what you gotta work with. I’m comfortable working in a community where we gotta use milk to spread eggs. I study history. You know what I’m saying? Gimme context clues! You follow what I’m saying? You can name me certain people and even if I know em or not, I know where you’re going. I’ve met people who are recipients of the first free breakfast program! I’ve met prisoners who were paid to kill Chairman Fred Hampton at the penitentiary and they told me when they came to do it that he politicized them and they told the warden we’re now on Chairman Fred’s security! I’ve met people! You know what I’m saying? There are no Cliff Notes in this class. There is a system that has a psychological profile that grabs people from their youth. It’s not based on the most talented it’s based on the most politically palatable. You know what I’m saying? That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying I want a community where we can fight for self-determination.”
“I’m ashamed of how little I know,” I said.
I wanted to talk about his dad but I couldn’t get there. It’s interesting how we wrap ourselves up in ideas, we cloak ourselves in authority, we’ll teach a class but God forbid we open our hearts. Maybe it’s how we survive. I’m having a rough-patch with my dad. This past year was brutal. There were moments when I didn’t know if I was going to survive and yet what seemed more important than understanding what I was going through was pushing me aside for the win. I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re at a moment in time where sending pipe bombs in the mail seems to make more sense than admitting you need a hug.
I wish Fred Hampton could have known his son. I wish Fred Hampton had been given the time to come home after a long day of fighting the good fight, hang up his vest and sit down for dinner. I wish Fred Hampton had been there when the history books got it wrong, when dividing fractions got confusing, when it was time to throw around a ball and brush up on trash talking. I wish Fred Hampton had gone through a rough-patch with his son when he was 2 years shy of 80. I wish Fred Hampton had lived long enough to be an imperfect man.
“You said you felt shame,” he said. “I’m gonna bare my soul with you. Um. It’s shameful, it’s embarrassing being oppressed.”