Wrestle Not Against Flesh

Five San Diego black brothers reflect on race

Mitchell brothers: Andre, Shawn, Marcus, Hawkins, and York. Andre was "real" when he told me I did not know him: and he was generous when he said it did not matter, between us.
  • Mitchell brothers: Andre, Shawn, Marcus, Hawkins, and York. Andre was "real" when he told me I did not know him: and he was generous when he said it did not matter, between us.
  • Image by Russ Ando

Those who know marvel at how close we are; and we are. Yet months can pass without our speaking, often a year without seeing each other. Despite the sure love and the near distances, we remain, oddly, day-to-day strangers. There are five of us, black men. We are brothers, and we are brothers. I pull out my snapshot.

Shawn: "People of color will be the majority. My son will soon represent the majority of America."

Shawn: "People of color will be the majority. My son will soon represent the majority of America."

Christmas 1977. I bought as gifts five identical bracelets made of heavy brass, thick and roughly hammered. I was 33 then and flew in from New York, where I lived at the time. The Harlem merchant who sold the bracelets warned that the yellow metal would turn green, then black, unless polished with brass cleaner. As it happened, even with the instructions for their upkeep, the bracelets were a hit. I am the second born. York (older than me by five years) called for a picture. Marcus (three years my junior) angled his camera on the tripod, set the timer, then joined us on the floor. We lay in a circle, our right arms extended inward. The automatic timer whirred, tripping the photographic eye that opened and closed once, capturing in a blink the image of five arms extended, five hands clenched in fists.

Andre answers that growing up in the predominantly white community of La Mesa had left him discontented and self-conscious.

Andre answers that growing up in the predominantly white community of La Mesa had left him discontented and self-conscious.

Hokey. I remember thinking the photograph was sure to look hokey. And when I got my copy in the mail, I saw that I was right. But when I later lost my bracelet, I was glad we took the picture, for today it is all I have. At the time, both York and Marcus wore pinkie rings. In the picture, because of those rings, I know their hands. But to this day I pause, uncertain, when I come to distinguish my hand from that of my youngest brothers, Shawn, 24, and Andre, 23, at the time.

York served as an assistant pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship of East County.  "I have good friends in the church, but to say we visit each other in our homes? It seems to me that's a quality of neighborliness which doesn't exist anymore."

York served as an assistant pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship of East County. "I have good friends in the church, but to say we visit each other in our homes? It seems to me that's a quality of neighborliness which doesn't exist anymore."

I happened to be born colored, like York. By 1950, with Marcus, we had become Negro. Today we are African Americans. However, when the snapshot was taken with Shawn and Andre, we were all known as black -- black men with brown arms, wrists, and hands. When I look at the photo I pause, engaged in distinguishing whose hand belongs to whom. And there is something else. Sometimes those solid bands of metal look like what they are, jewelry made of heavy beaten gold. But sometimes I think of them as handcuffs or shackles. It depends.

Marcus: "Life is difficult enough as it is without having to agonize over the issues of race that you seem to be troubled by."

Marcus: "Life is difficult enough as it is without having to agonize over the issues of race that you seem to be troubled by."

I am not sure it happened that Christmas, but sometimes we find it necessary to shut ourselves off in a bedroom -- tall, full-grown men sprawling across the bed and on the floor talking about what needs talking about. Maybe I cry; others do too. An hour later the crisis has been addressed; if a private hurt, soothed. We then stand and go into a kind of huddle, with shoulders touching and hands held. We offer a prayer of thanksgiving, for what we have found together lies beyond reason; where we have come to has no name.

This worries me, for I am a writer who holds to the New Testament line, "In the beginning was the Word." That is, without a word, a name for where my brothers and I come to, there is no certainty for me that this place exists, no matter how much I tell myself to trust that it does.

Which is why I decided to interview my brothers.

I could not much explain my reasons, but my brothers agreed to be interviewed anyway.

I take off from Oakland at 7:00 in the morning. My knee is killing me. The week before I'd injured it, and so for the trip I have wrapped it tightly with an Ace bandage. Still, as I stand and pull my stuff out of the overhead and make my way off the plane onto the ramp and into the terminal, I am in agony. With each step, the ball and socket of my knee rub together, raw bone against raw bone. I find a phone booth and make a call. Five minutes later I am resting outside the terminal when a white van rolls to a stop. A man wearing a badge that reads "Hector" leans over and opens the sliding door. He asks if I called for the shuttle to the rent-a-car. I say yes. "Well, fall in," he says, and I do. We take off. Hector has meaty good looks and ink-black hair. The windows are down. The air rushing in smells of ocean, a smell that always tells me that I am back.

"Welcome to San Diego!" Hector brakes in front of the office and slides open the door. I make my way inside. To explain what happens next, I must first share the fact that my great-great grandfather Weaver was a Plains Indian from the Blackfoot tribe. For him, a dragonfly flitting past his face in sudden iridescence or a blue-black raven rising out of tall summer grass offered a foretelling. Sadly, the Blackfoot blood must run thin in my veins, for if animals bring me what my forebears called "medicine," I don't catch it. I may have lost the eye, so to speak, but I've been recompensed with a writer's ear. Words teach me. They are my medicine, holding for me a magical power, which I hope helps to explain why when Sue, the rental-car lady, assigns me a sporty red number and I explain that red cars make me feel hot, sorta like I'm driving an oven, and her response is that the Ford Aspire is the only small car they had on the lot -- like great-great grandfather Weaver, I stop dead in my tracks.

"What was the name?" I ask.

"What do you mean?" She says. "The Aspire...?" saying the word synonymous with breath, with longing -- the stuff of life and spirit.

Ten minutes later I turn the key in the ignition of my red Aspire. A deep bass thrums through the speakers. The radio is set to a jazz station. Fusion, cool jazz,

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