Authors: Isaiah Washington
How Finding My Roots
Changed My Life
with Lavaille Lavette
NEW YORK BOSTON NASHVILLE
For my family, Jenisa M. Washington,
Isaiah Akin-Olu Washington,
Tyme Baraka Washington, Iman Sele Washington,
and the people of Sierra Leone,
with love and gratitude
This book simply would not have been written without attorney Ricky Anderson’s vision and Lavaille Lavette’s support and assistance.
Thank you Eloise Buckner for knowing I was a writer before I did. I would like to thank Professor Vera Katz, Harry Poe, Dianne
Houston, Mr. and Mrs. Garland Poe, Moza Cooper, Gina Paige, Rick Kittles PhD, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Dr. James McPherson,
Dr. John Robertson, Carmen Smith, Jay Carson, Eric Nonacs, President William J. Clinton, Raymond Scott-Manga and the Manga
family for adopting me, the people of Sierra Leone, Abdul Malik Abbott, Susan Whitson, First Lady Laura Bush, Sonya Gay Bourn,
Bruce Gordon, Crispian Kirk, Hilal Basma, Ali Basma, Jackie Coker, Dr. Andre Panossian, Antonio K. Hubbard, Breton F. Washington,
Adisa Septuri Jones, Dr. Sheku Kamara, Malcolm Bradford, Michael Caulfield, Mohamed Kamara, Ibrahim Sei Kamara, Henry Moriba
Koroma, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Jasmyne Cannick, Chandra Wilson, Johnathon Freeman, Max Abrams, Gonzalo Accame, Martin
Proctor, Mark T. Laurent, Joe Opala, Minister Zainab Hawa Bangura, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Congressman Donald M. Payne,
Maria Elena Lamas and Tony Lamas, Noelle LuSane, Ian G. Campbell, Esther H. Vassar, Barbara Gothard PhD, Abdulai Bayraytay,
Brian Gilpin, President Ernest Bai Koroma, Adel Nur, Lorne S. Wellington, Bertha L. Wellington, Alexis Idone, Lizette McBride,
Gerrell Wilson, Kristle Jenkins, Eric Broyles, Paula Madison, Diahann Carroll, Barry and Dolly Segal, The Segal Family Foundation,
MacDella Cooper, Sidney Poitier, Suzy Frank, Swami Turiyasangitananda (Alice Coltrane), Panduranga Henderson, Mirabai Henderson.
A special thank-you to Kellie Tabron for your attention to details, the entire Hachette Book Group team for your guidance,
my grandmother Savannah M. Holmes, my grandfather Willie H. Holmes, my grandaunt Gustavia. I would like to thank God for creating
my father, Isiah Washington III, and having him meet my mother. And a very special thanks to my unbelievably patient and darling
wife, Jenisa Marie Washington, my beautiful children, Isaiah Akin-Olu Washington, Tyme Baraka Washington, and Iman Sele Washington.
Lastly, I would like to eternally thank my dear mother, Faye Marie McKee, and DNA.
or most of my life I have walked the streets of cities such as New York, DC, Chicago, Houston, LA, and others. I have traveled
around the world, spending time in countries such as Germany, the Philippines, Japan, England, Australia, Namibia, South Africa,
France, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Sweden. Yet, while each of these places is very different, no matter where I
traveled there was one thing that was always the same: everywhere I went, native Africans asked me, “What part of Africa are
you from?” On buses, on planes, on the sets of my acting gigs, inevitably someone would stop and tell me I looked just like
a close relative from West Africa.
I would reply as I always did, “I was born in Houston, Texas.” And each time they would look at me as if I were lying. After
each encounter, I was always left with a feeling that these Africans knew something that I didn’t. I prayed that one day I
would understand what it was they saw in me, what it was that made them believe I was from Africa.
“Gimme yo’ money, you punk-ass faggot! Whatchu got?” One of the Frazier sisters shoved me to the ground. I was six years old
and had just started walking myself to school. My mother would give me an extra quarter to buy a snack to go with my lunch,
and every day, without fail, one of the Frazier sisters would beat me up and take it away from me.
The Frazier sisters were two light-skinned black girls from my neighborhood. Because my complexion was darker, many, including
the Frazier sisters and their family, perceived me and my family as poor. They acted as if they were superior to me and took
it upon themselves to subjugate me by calling me names like “little black monkey,” “black sambo,” “frog eyes,” and “black
boy” as they harassed me daily for my school money. They acted as if in order to walk the streets I had to “pay them a toll.”
They felt they owned the neighborhood because they were light skinned and perceived as better off than my darker-skinned self.
I was a laid-back, scrawny little kid with toothpick legs and kinky hair. I always avoided confrontations, even when they
came right at me. I fought with my older sister, but when it came to anyone else, I was docile. I always ducked. Even though
they were just a few years older, to me the Frazier sisters seemed like giants.
One day my grandmother, who we called Muh’ Dear, happened to see what they were doing to me. As usual, the sisters had taken
my money and taunted me all the way to the front gate of Muh’ Dear’s house. I walked up the front steps to the screen door,
but when I tried to open it, it was locked. My grandmother stood right behind it and looked down at me, her eyes steeled with
a hardness I had seen her reserve only for what she called the “triflin’-ass Negroes” in the neighborhood.
“You been runnin’ home almost every day,” she said. “It stops now.”
“Muh’ Dear, please…” I pleaded.
“No!” she said sternly.
I turned around and saw that the Frazier sisters were still standing at the gate. They were smirking at the fact that my grandmother
was quietly scolding me. But they wouldn’t have been smiling if they could have heard what she was saying. “If you don’t fight
those girls standing at my gate talkin’ shit, you will never come in this house again.”
I was afraid of the sisters for sure, but I was even more afraid of my grandmother. I tried to open the screen door again,
but it wouldn’t budge. Her foot was propped up against it. She was serious.
“Mickey,” she said, using my family’s nickname for me, “you betta get them nasty heifers out from in front of my gate.”
That fifteen-step walk from the porch back to the gate felt like a mile. My eyes were already tearing up. I believed, one
way or the other, my life was going to end. I slowly pushed open the gate.
“Whatchu want, punk-ass faggot?”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and swung my
metal lunch box as hard and as fast as I could. Fear turned to fire, or else I just got lucky, because my swings connected.
I hit them both. I felt the vibration from the blows through my lunch box as they screamed and cried out. I opened my eyes
to see them running off down the road.
I looked down at myself. My shirt was a little ripped, but otherwise there was no damage except to the thermos whose shiny
glass insulation had cracked into a million pieces when it flew out of my lunch box and hit the ground. I didn’t feel proud
or boastful. I only did what I had to do… garner some respect.
I walked up to the gate, up the steps, and found Muh’ Dear standing there with the screen door wide open. She didn’t say a
word. She just gave me a simple nod as I walked past her into the kitchen.
My grandmother Savannah Mae Holmes was the true matriarch of the family and a culinary genius. She could “throw down” in the
kitchen, as the kids say. She loved and doted on me, but she was also as tough as nails.
My grandmother despised the Frazier girls and their “light-skinned” family. They were a constant reminder of how she herself
was treated badly by her two lighter-skinned sisters. Although her sister and my Aunt Gussie never treated me poorly when
I spent summers with them in Conroe, Texas, I do remember being interrogated by Muh’ Dear about being spoiled by my “highfalutin”
grandaunt. Muh’ Dear said her cooking was better than my Aunt Gussie’s “rich whitefolk cooking.”
None of this made sense to me. Light skin versus dark skin, “good hair” (soft, wavy, long) versus “bad hair” (short and kinky).
The battles around these issues that played out in my family, church, school, and neighborhood confused me. To me people were
people, what did it matter if they were light or dark, had straight hair or an afro?
Muh’ Dear wore a wig all the time and insisted that my “nappy hair” be shaved from my head, fearing that it would bring me
even more pain and problems than my dark skin would with people like the Frazier sisters. In fact, in all of my childhood
photos, I am bald! The sentiment seemed to be that being dark skinned with kinky hair wasn’t okay, but I wasn’t quite sure
why. I felt fine about who I was, it was other people that seemed to have a problem with me.
In 1972, when I was nine years old and living in my native Houston, Texas, I started having a recurring dream. I’d wake with
the distinct feeling that I had been running from something, but I never knew what. The dream always had me running through
a jungle or a forest. The terrain was always green, really green, and the ground was always a deep reddish brown color, like
the dirt on my Aunt Gussie’s farm in Conroe, Texas. The scent of sweat and dirt would permeate my nostrils.
There were always women and children in the dream, staring at me, pointing and looking as if they knew me but weren’t sure
that I belonged. I always ran the same path, never straying, always ending up in the same African village.
At first, I would have this dream only during Houston’s extremely hot summers. But as I grew older I’d have it at other times;
it followed me for years. I never told a soul about it for fear of being ridiculed or simply ignored. The dream started to
occur so often that it became a kind of companion, a friend that I could rely on. I fondly named it “the Rerun.”