Philadelphia filmmaker Eboni Zamani shares a conversation she recently had with her maternal grandfather. Citing the importance of knowing oneself to realize your highest potential, she says she decided to “make it my business to research my family’s history”.
Talking to My Mother’s Father
Last year I decided to get serious about tracing my family’s roots. I have been speaking to my grandparents and my great grandmother about their lives. I’ve mostly talked to my mother’s father. He is 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 adopted 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. The woman he came to know as mother is one of Rusha’s friends.
He grew up in North Philly, in and around Francisville, 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. During this time he was drafted into the Vietnam War.
He was looking through records at Ben Franklin High one day and discovered that his birth name was John. He confronted his mother about it and she gave him his birth sister’s info. He met two of his sisters the day before he left for Vietnam. They talked for hours. One of them had his birth certificate. By the time he returned from the war, they had moved. He never saw them again.
He reminisces about his glory days, before the war. He learned about the revolution in high school. He tells me that Mumia influenced all of them. Mumia’s words as well as the entrepreneurial spirit and discipline of other young brothers in bow ties peaked his interest in Islam. He became a member of the Nation of Islam and he’s been Muslim ever since.
“these young men don’t have any heroes.”
He speaks eloquently about the various problems that face the Black community. He said, “these young men don’t have any heroes.” The Black Panthers and other Black revolutionaries stopped gang wars in Philly. He said, “You know, we used to wear African clothes and garb and they started talking bad about it, talking down and saying ‘oh Armani, oh Chanel’. All of that was the shit. When you start dressing like a European, you start acting like one.”
He gave me several books to read, a DVD, some writings and posters. He also made me promise him that I’d stay away from drugs. He fell victim to substance abuse while in Vietnam. He returned home a broken man. He, like many veterans, couldn’t keep those horrific memories away. It sometimes made him absent in the lives of his children. He’s been a great grandfather to me over the years. He’s supported me at all stages of my development.
He says he’s proud to see me become a young, Black revolutionary. “Ha! Me?”, I think. He reminds me that he and my grandmother were revolutionaries at one point and that they lived a very Afrocentric life. He’s proud of me because he’s “always been a proud Black man.” He offers his own solutions to “Black people’s problems”, that I won’t disclose.
He’s sick now. He goes to dialysis regularly and endures a lot of physical pain due to various ailments. He’s very emotional and at times he’s impatient. It doesn’t upset me, though. I feel like after living 60 plus years as a Black man in America, he’s earned (that right). So when he talks, I just nod and listen, laugh, when appropriate, and absorb his lessons.
Eboni Zamani is a Pace University graduate and proud native of North Philadelphia.
Follow her on twitter @EboniZ