This is the second in a series of extracts from my book Listen To Your Footsteps, a collection of reflections and essays on fatherhood, identity, loss, creativity, etc
WATCHING A documentary about Muhammad Ali, I was struck by how big an impact he had on me when I was a child. I was eight years old when he lost to Larry Holmes, and I have memories of watching the fight with my father. I has heartbroken because, even at that young age, I could see that Ali was at the end of his career. I read a copy of an early biography of his as a young teenager and, by then, had watched a lot of his earlier fights.
His poster was prominent on my bedroom wall, alongside Bob Marley, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and Bruce Lee. With hindsight, what I connected with was their ability to live for a cause and be their true selves, regardless of the circumstances or consequences. These were men who had principles that superseded anything and everything else. Malcolm X went from a life of crime to a life of legacy. Bruce Lee carved a path for himself based on a strong belief in his self-worth and the value he brought to the table. Muhammad Ali was willing to go to give up what he had worked his whole life for and go to jail rather than be drafted into the US army to fight in Vietnam in what he considered an unjust war against people he had no quarrel with. Kwame Nkrumah was a key figure in the independence of my fatherland, Ghana, and the evolution of pan-African ideals.
As I grew older, I found other heroes who all made it onto my wall. Many musicians found a place on that wall, although many of them had a fleeting presence. It was a time when glimpses into their true nature and character was sparse and controlled. Not like today where they lay their lives bare on social media. One thing I did learn was to never watch interviews with my favourite artists. The majority tend to disappoint. It is one thing to hear your life laid bare in lyrics; it is another to watch them struggle to string coherent sentences together or to discover what they truly think about something that you hold dear.
I was fortunate. The home I grew up in was filled with books from the trivial to the serious, and I devoured these as well as many in the school library. I read the African Writers Series. I reach Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Ayi Kwei Armah, Agatha Christie and Louis L’Amour, and I read the Hardy Boys books, Nancy Drew books and comic books like Hotshot Hamish, Archie and Veronica, Roy of the Rovers, Dennis the Menace, Superman and Beano. I read short stories in Reader’s Digest and fairy tales in the Disney Book Club series of books.
Funny thing is, for all the reading I did, my father’s biggest concern was that I read too much fiction. There I was thinking that the fact that read voraciously would be enough. I have made up for it in more recent years, at least.
Perhaps what we need more of in the world is examples. Role models have always felt hollow or, possibly, it is because of who we hold up as role models. They are not perfect in the same way that none of us are. Sometimes it is hard to get beyond those imperfections.
I have always been grateful in that my form of ‘hero worship’ has never been wholehearted. That partly comes from a speech Malcolm X once gave where he said, to paraphrase, ‘Don’t take my words as law or absolute. Rather take them in, digest them, discard what doesn’t make sense for you and take what works for you.’ It was my first lesson in being discerning. It was also how I was raised to see everyone as flawed or great but equal. It doesn’t matter who you are, at some stage you have to sit on the toilet, at some stage, hopefully once a day, you have bowel movements.
This outlook is also what helped me make sense of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which is about an interracial relationship. There is a scene in the movie where Wesley Snipes’s character is ranting about children born of interracial unions that was in direct conflict with my being, considering I am the product of such a relationship. I still watch and love Wesley Snipes films. Plus, he made the Malcolm X movie.
I look at my son’s and daughter’s walls and wonder who will serve as heroes for them to put up. Will they even put up posters or will it just be home screen, profile or avatar pictures on a phone or tablet? They are growing up in a different time and I have reached the age where it feels like there is a dearth of people who inspire, so, regardless of who they post and place on the wall, I will probably disapprove. I find myself repeating my father’s words when it comes to the music they listen to. He used to call mine ‘boom-boom’ music and I can’t look past the crassness and shallowness of some of what they call music.
I look at who society exalts and feel they fall short of my heroes, plus they often seem extremely fallible to me. Or perhaps it is because I am becoming the ‘old guy’ who does not see beyond my ageist prejudices. My heroes have guided me in multiple ways, often subtly, sometimes overtly.
In his book Quantum Warrior, John Kehoe talks of finding and talking to mentors, dead or alive, on an energy level. This means connecting with a part of their lives that speaks to you, and that you seek to learn from, and then connecting with that energy. I reckon, in a way, that is what I have done with my heroes. It isn’t about everything they do but the parts that resonate with me.
I really hope my children will find theirs.
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