In 1994, my older brother, a mixed-race hip-hop artist and screenwriter, was the victim of a racially-charged assault in Santa Monica. A group of white men attacked him in a club and he lost his right eye. I used to call it a hate crime but the truth is more complicated. About ten years ago, I began investigating what happened that night. I learned that many of my assumptions were wrong—not just about the attack but also about what that crime meant to my brother and to his life. I decided to write a book, Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race, that interweaves the story of my brother, born to a white American woman and a Nigerian man in Los Angeles in 1972, with my quest to understand the attack that took his eye, helped drive him to become a rapper, and contributed to his death in 2003.
Here are two short excerpts from the book…
When my brother was born, the doctors thought he was sick, but it turned out he was just Black. Our mom beams telling the story, but I doubt she smiled when the doctor announced that her baby’s bluish skin meant he wasn’t getting enough air. Did she panic or did she see the error immediately? The baby had bluish skin because his father was from Africa. As a child, I liked to imagine my brother’s father striding into the room and comforting the poor doctor: “Don’t worry, my friend, you could not have known I was Black.” The key phrase being “my friend,” the word “Black” rendered harmless by the kind-hearted lilt of Chukwudi Osakwe. Over six feet tall and some two hundred pounds of soccer-toned muscle, Chukwudi might have been intimidating if not for his smile. Confronted with such a beaming grin, the doctor could not help but smile too. So do we whenever the story is told, safe in the knowledge that the doctor’s error was a small thing, an easy mistake, to assume that if the mother is White the father must be also.
I doubt our mother was smiling. In August 1972, when my brother entered the world, she had not yet grown accustomed to being the woman with the African husband. She had not grown accustomed to the stares and forced smiles, the way landlords changed their story when Chukwudi appeared. She did not want to become accustomed to such a world. Karen Slate had been one of the few female physics majors at UCLA, and one of the only White students to join the Black Student Union. She didn’t mind standing out, but she didn’t want her identity to be defined by her husband’s skin color.
She wanted to live in a world beyond race. She knew that world did not exist. She knew her newborn child had entered a country in which his body would be a problem. The doctor assumed the father was White because he lived in a society where White was standard. Karen grew up in that world. Her freckled face and pale skin meant that her racial identity was never questioned. She had learned to see race, but only as many White liberals come to see race—as a problem to be solved from a distance. Chukwudi made that problem personal. Married to an African, Karen learned the difference between identity and identification, between how she saw herself and how the world saw her. She felt she was marrying the most amazing man she had ever met. The world saw her marrying a Black man.
When I was ten and my brother was seventeen, we went camping at a lake ringed by hills. One of the hills pressed up against the lakeshore, its summit reaching out over the water. The older kids jumped off the edge, their wet skin gleaming in the light as they plummeted toward the dark water. The drop couldn’t have been more than twenty feet, but when my brother asked if I wanted to try the leap, I was terrified. We were sprawled on inflatable donuts, our gazes turned up toward the cliff. He had no way of seeing my face, yet he sensed my fear immediately. “You don’t need to jump, bro. I get it. It looks like a long way from down here.” He paused, and I could tell he wasn’t going to leave it there. I could hear the soft lapping of the waves, interrupted by a loud splash every time someone made the leap. “We can just chill here.” He paused again. “I bet the scariest part is right now, just thinking about it. Once you’re in the air, it’s gonna be fast and it’s gonna be fun.” I stayed quiet staring up at the edge of that cliff. “If you want to stay here, I’ll stay with you. If you want to jump, I’ll jump with you.” I stayed quiet, listening to the waves, imagining what it would feel like to leap off the side of that hill with my brother. The other kids wouldn’t have seen us as brothers, his dark brown body against my sunburned pink. I didn’t care. What mattered is that wherever I was, my brother would be there with me.
Material from Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race by Nico Slate, pages 9-10, 25-27. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2023 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved.