I was born in Detroit’s Providence Hospital in 1948 and raised in an upstairs flat on Sixth Street, near Michigan Avenue and Tiger Stadium. My mother would later tell me how I loved watching the cars drive by our house and hearing the roar of the fans at the stadium each time a Tiger made a home run. But those were my mother’s memories, not mine. I was just 3 years old when we moved from the flat to our home in southwest Detroit. My mom picked the house because she felt her kids could safely walk down the alley to Patton Park and play without crossing any streets. And my dad was happy because he would finally have his own garage to tinker in, and because we were near the south end of Dearborn, where he was raised—the largest Arabic area in the United States.
My first memory outside my home was when I was four. I was sitting at the corner of an empty lot next door, with a small metal shovel and a bucket full of dirt, when two older kids walked up, grabbed my bucket, and dumped it over my head. Then they dropped the bucket on my head and stood laughing as I sat, too scared to move, not having a clue why they were being so mean.
That was my very first experience of violence, though I had seen violence that summer. We had morning glories along our backyard fence, and I used to run outside each morning to smell them. The flowers attracted many beautiful orange and black monarch butterflies, which I could never catch. Then one sunny morning, I finally grabbed one gently by its wings and carefully lifted it off the flower.
“Look, Mom! Look what I caught!” I shouted, running up our back porch steps to my mother in the kitchen.
She opened the back door, smiling in her dress and apron, and said, “That’s beautiful, Bobby! But don’t you think you should let it go?”
“No, Mom. I wanna keep it. Can I? Please!”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll get you something to put it in.”
She handed me a cup, and I put the butterfly inside. Later that day, when I was done playing, I turned the cup upside down on the ground by our porch, to keep the butterfly inside.
The next morning, I ran out the back door, excited to see my colorful treasure. I carefully lifted the cup, and once I did, instead of seeing the beautiful butterfly inside, I found it covered with thousands of tiny brown ants. They had eaten it right down to the wings. I dropped the cup and ran back to my mother, crying.
She just hugged me and said, “I’m so sorry, Bobby.”
In my last outside memory that summer, walking down the sidewalk on a street next to my house, I saw a lady watering her front lawn with a hose. Her husband was sitting near her on their front porch.
As I passed in front of their house, I looked up and said, “Hi.”
She looked back, scowled at me, and blasted me with her hose, shouting, “Get out of here, you little nigger!”
I ran back down the alley, crying, to my house and my mother. My mother wiped off my tears and comforted me and then walked me back down the alley to the couple, who were still watering the lawn, sitting on their porch.
My mother knew them and shouted to the woman, “This is my son! How dare you call a four-year-old a name and squirt him with a hose!”
The wife quit watering the lawn and sat silently next to her husband on the porch.
“You ignorant, childless son of a bitch!” my mother yelled at the lady as I stood grasping my mother’s hand. The husband, meanwhile, hightailed it into the house as my mother kept berating his wife.
I was really proud of my mom. She then walked me home and said, “Bobby, there’s nothing wrong in being who we are. But you need to understand, some people are just mean.
I never forgot that butterfly, those kids, that couple, or my mother’s love. But I did learn that the love and protection I could always depend on from my mother and father inside our home were never a sure thing outside.