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Talking to My Mother's Father

Updated: Dec 19, 2018


A few years ago I decided to get serious about tracing my family’s roots. I had several conversations with all four of my grandparents and my (now deceased) great grandmother. I mostly talked to my mother’s father. He was eager to tell me about his childhood, Philly back in the day, his time in Vietnam and his affinity for the finer things.

Dennis is the name his adoptive mother gave him when he was a few months old. He prefers to be called by his Muslim name, Sabir. His biological mother’s name is Rusha. She went to prison for killing his stepfather after enduring years of his abuse. All nine of her children were split up and placed into foster care. He grew up in North Philly, in and around Francisville. That’s where he met my grandmother.

He fathered a son when he was 16. The girl was sent down South by her parents and he never heard from her again. He was 18 and 20 when my mother and aunt were born. His fatherhood was short lived; in that time he was drafted into the Vietnam War.

He found out via high school records at Ben Franklin that his birth name was Richard. He confronted his adoptive mother about it and she gave him his sister’s info. They met and he spent the day with them. He was shipped off to Vietnam shortly after that. When he returned, they had moved. He never saw them again.

He reflects on his younger years, before the war as his glory days. Franklin was where he learned about the revolution. Mumia influenced all of them. He was also heavily influenced by the wave of guys who started to wear bow ties and sell newspapers. He became a member of the nation and he’s been Muslim ever since.

He discussed in detail the various problems that he thinks is wrong with the Black community. "These young men don’t have any heroes. The Black Panthers and other Black revolutionaries stopped gang wars in Philly. You know we used to wear African clothes and garb and they started talking bad about it, talking down and saying ‘oh Armani, Chanel' all of that was the shit and when you start dressing like a European, you start acting like one.”

He listed several books I should read, he gave me a few, gave me a DVD and some writings and posters. He also made me promise him that I’d stay away from drugs. He fell victim while in Vietnam. He couldn’t get those images out of his head and gladly accepted the cocaine that flourished on their base. A habit that later included other substances. A habit that rendered him an inadequate father. He was never there for his children like he should have been.

He’s been a decent grandfather to me and my siblings. In recent years, he stepped back into my aunt and mother’s life and helped out when he could. He said it was funny to see me become a young Black revolutionary. I laughed. He mentioned my name with the likes of Angela Davis and others.

He stated several times that he and my grandmother were revolutionaries at one point and they lived a very Afrocentric life. He said that he’s always loved Black women and had an affinity for dark-skinned women. He gave a litany of other Black solutions that I won’t disclose.

He's proud of me because he "we need more people like we once had, that were about our people and our business like they once were when we were young." He’s emotional at times, belligerent and rude but that's my grandfather. I feel like if he’s made it past 60 as a Black American man, he’s earned the right. He agrees.

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