Monday, September 7, 2015

Sonny Boy’s Gift

I owe a great debt to my little brother, Sonny Boy. He's the fifth child of my parents, Evelyna and Sylvester Brown's brood of eleven kids.Times have been tough lately but as I sit here this holiday weekend mulling things over, Sonny Boy's gift came to mind. It's a stark reminder that anyone, of any age or station in life can bring positive direction to a wayward soul.

Maybe it’s this way with all big families but we had this hierarchical system were the Brown siblings paired off by age. I worshiped my older sister Sharon. Most times she had her own room in the house and when she wasn’t home, I’d hang out in her room, reading her books or listening to her vinyl records on her portable turntable. Sharon tolerated me but I was in no way her “buddy,” she had an assortment of girlfriends (many of whom I loved madly). Sharon was “the first” in our family-first to graduate high school, first to get her own car and first to move out on her own. I admired her greatly.

Daniel, my older brother by two years, was my running buddy and hero. As the oldest boys in the family, Mama assigned Danny and me certain duties. Whenever my father, a chronic alcoholic, was gone for days, weeks or months or locked up due to his drunken adventures, we had to be the “men of the house” watching out for our siblings, working odd jobs or doing whatever she told us to do.

Danny and I were scrappers. We fought for fun. Oftentimes you’d find us practicing the moves we saw on TV shows like Batman, the Green Hornet, Bonanza, the Wild, Wild West or Star Trek. One time, a thuggish teenager climbed a tree and broke into Sharon’s room late at night. I heard a scream, thunderous footsteps and our front door slam open. By the time I got to the door, Danny had the thug in a choke hold on our front lawn. No matter what poor neighborhood we moved into, our peers quickly learned not to mess with the “Brown Boys.” I give Danny credit for our street rep.

Anyway, back to my little brother. His birth name is "Reginald." It’s funny how life sorts things out. I got my father’s first name, "Sylvester" but Sonny Boy inherited his nickname, “Sonny.” He looks exactly like my father; has his rail-thin body, loud, raucous laughter and Sonny’s devil-may-care demeanor.

As a kid, Sonny Boy idolized me like I did Danny. He wanted my attention and accepted my weird idiosyncrasies. At an early age I started drawing and became a decent, little artist-nothing like my other little brother-Mike-but decent. My mother recognized this and nurtured my burgeoning talent. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses and she had pegged a career for me as an illustrator for the religious organization’s publications such as the “Watchtower” and “Awake” magazines.

It was probably an offshoot from the plethora of comic books I read or created but I also started writing. By the age of 16, I completed a full-fledged novel. We were poor-I mean a spoon-full-of-peanut butter-for-dinner poor. So my book was about this impoverished kid who lived in the projects with a drunken father. The teen was accused of a crime his father actually committed. He was vindicated but only after a multi-state, adventurous police chase. I guess the book was my attempt to purge myself of things I didn’t like about my life.

Mama wasn’t thrilled with the idea of me stepping outside the career she’d chosen for me. She scolded me for staying up so late at night typing on Sharon’s typewriter. Sonny Boy, on the other hand, kept me motivated. Most likely, he just wanted my attention, but because of his enthusiasm; because he let me read him unfolding chapters and kept asking for more and more of the story, I was inspired to finally finish my “novel.”

I proudly presented it to Mama. She read it and bluntly tossed it aside, saying it reminded her of the TV shows Good Times and The Fugitive combined. “Stick to drawing!” she said dismissively.

Needless to say, I didn’t, although I tried. Getting a job seemed more important to me at 17 than going to high school. So I dropped out and got myself a full time gig, my own apartment and a raggedy car. By the age of 20, I dropped out of the religion and was working for Laclede Gas Company. At 21, I was married with a baby on the way. Impacted by the poverty of my youth, I was never content with “one job,” so I ran a sign painting and mural-making business on the side.

This was the time I almost became a statistic. I had no real guidance from my father. I had to figure out sex and fatherly responsibilities on my own. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was naive and had no real knowledge of race or turbulent race relations. I didn’t react well to the blatant racism I confronted as one of the last groups of affirmative action hires at the gas company.

Like my father, I took refuge in wine (alcohol and drugs), women (yes, I was a slut) and song (all night disco). I had no desire to become a writer but I chronicled every step of the journey. Then, as now, writing was/is my release.

I was wild and headed for disaster. But other “Sonny Boy’s” entered my life and helped validate my worthiness. Friends from my religion ordered the first murals and business signs I made. A lawyer at a restaurant on The Hill where I worked as a dishwasher and busboy heard about my book and vowed he’d get it published. At that same restaurant, Suzy, a waitress and Washington University student tried to get me enrolled at the university.

Of course, these things didn’t happen. The lawyer didn’t publish my manuscript and there was no way in hell I could afford to go to Wash U. But their generous efforts helped ferment my dreams. The fact that so many people throughout my life believed in me and actually told me “you have something special,” helped pull me off the far too common track to prison or drug addiction.

Me and another co-worker, Mike Smith, at Laclede Gas
It is something I’ve never forgotten.

Life-changing direction can come from strange places. My best buddy at Laclede Gas-the guy who introduced me to pot-also convinced me to enroll at Forest Park Community College. My plan was to become a professional artist. All that changed after I stumbled into the college’s library one day. I checked out a book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and, oh my God…it literally changed my life. It’s shameful to recount, but there I was, in my mid-20's, reading the first book somewhat mirrored my life with a black protagonist. With wide-eyed zeal I read about this red-headed, poor kid whose father was assassinated, whose mother was sent to an insane asylum, who became a drug addict, thief, pimp and an eventual inmate. I found inspiration in Malcolm’s story of finding God (Allah) and how he impacted the civil rights movement.

That one book lit a fire in me…a fire for knowledge. I became entrenched in American history-but more important-black history. I fell in love with the story of our collective trials and tribulations, oppression, resilience and freedom. Swearing that no kid of my hue would be as ignorant about his/her history as me, I started my own publication in 1987, Take Five Magazine, while still attending Community College and working for Laclede Gas.

Through that publication, I met my second wife and a whole host of talented writers (some who’ve gone on to journalism fame). They taught me how to write and tell stories better. Take Five never really made money but we earned the respect and support of a community wanting their authentic voices, sentiments and pain in print.

It’s been a wild, twisty, crazy ride since then; I got fired from Laclede Gas in 1990 for running a business on their time; my ex-wife and I ran the newspaper for 15 years until 2002; we won a bunch of journalism awards; I got hired at the Post-Dispatch in 2003 and was fired in 2009; Soon after, I worked with Tavis Smiley and other writers on several award-winning books; In 2011, I started an ambitious but unrealistic nonprofit, “When We Dream Together.” Then, a year later, I co-founded the Sweet Potato Project, which is what I do today.

“OK, Sylvester,” you might ask, “what does all this have to do with your little brother’s gift?”

As I said earlier, writing is my release. It helps me sort through challenges and keep perspective. I was born and raised in poverty and revisited hard economic times after I lost jobs at the gas company, the Post-Dispatch and even now. The first time, I thought my world had come to an end. In retrospect, I realized that the universe was just kicking my butt through new doors of opportunity.

I am a humbled high school dropout, a statistic who happened to fall in love with writing. Because of this love, I’ve had interviews with notables such as Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby and Barack & Michelle Obama. I've worked with authors like Tavis Smiley, Tom Burrell and Cornel West. Because of this life and the benevolent strangers who intervened back in the day and today-strangers who validated my worth by simply saying “you have something special”-I have a basic but powerful template for walking youth to opportunity.

I’ve come to appreciate the rewards of working with teens who not only share my hue but, some, who are experiencing the poverty and hopelessness of my childhood. I am that poor, rich man who has been blessed to be a part of the Sweet Potato Project-the most rewarding endeavor of my life.

Still, this has also been one of the most challenging years for the program and for me personally. To be honest; within the harsh realm of difficulties, I sometimes wonder if I’m the right guy to lead this empowering venture.

Late Friday night, I received a call from local blues musician, Jeremiah Johnson. He wanted to move forward on a benefit concert for our program. Back in June, another young, local blues-man, Marquise Knox, hosted a concert for us at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups. In the midst of indecision and challenge, I remind myself that people of all races and backgrounds are always reaching out to help out-maybe not so much monetarily-but to volunteer, host fundraisers or tackle the other myriad of things necessary to operate a successful nonprofit.

Reginald "Sonny Boy" Brown
No matter the barriers or obstacles we face, I write to remind myself that I have never dictated the journey. My unique, difficult and wonderful life experiences have always been determined by unknown forces. I write to remember that the universe has always had my back and that hard times are really sometimes the precursor to promise.

Unfortunately, life has not been as kind to my little brother. Sonny Boy moved to Long Beach, California in the mid-1980s, just as the crack cocaine epidemic was exploding across the country. He served time in prison-not for dealing drugs but for being addicted to them. He’s been out of jail for long time now, but finding steady work due to his record, disabilities or illnesses has been difficult. 

So this piece is homage to Sonny Boy-who probably has no idea of the gift he gave his big brother. His trials remind me that I’ve been blessed and have no reason to complain.

To this day, no matter what he’s going through, Sonny Boy remains fascinated with my life and the things I’m doing with young people.

He called me Saturday morning.  Sonny Boy’s been homeless since his breakup with his wife a month or so ago. Still, his laughter was raucous, his outlook-eternally optimistic. He just got news that his disability checks are on the way and he’s looking forward to getting a new apartment soon.

“Hey man, how’s that project of yours coming along,” Sonny Boy asked.

“Just fine, ‘Lil Bro,” I answered, “just fine.”