BLAZING A PATH TO HAPPINESS
by RAHMAAN H. MWONGOZI
Years 6-8: Odis
I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if I’d killed Odis O’Neal. Would it matter that I was just a child? Would the abuse I’d endured at his hands be enough to settle my debt to society? Or would I only be viewed as an angry boy who’d killed his stepfather? Perhaps the world would assume what I believed at that time — that my sins were the natural culmination of a young life that wasn’t worth anything to begin with.
At the time, I blamed my parents for the abuse. If they had only done their job and stayed together, my mother wouldn’t have married Odis. The memory of my father leaving stuck out in my mind, especially in the early days. I remember chasing him out of the apartment, his silhouette getting smaller and smaller as he put more distance between himself and us. It wasn’t the last time I saw him, of course. He didn’t walk out of my life completely—I suspect he came home that night—but I don’t remember it. I just remember having two parents in the house and then having only one.
Until my mother married Odis.
Born in 1930s Arkansas, Odis was a product of his time. A stern and proud man, he lacked any sense of compassion, empathy, or humility. Any skill acquired by his hands came at the expense of his mind and vision. He wasn’t a dumb man, but he was never free to find and express his full potential. He seemed to be aware of his limitations, but desperately wanted to be respected.
Whatever trust I had in my mother was muted by her introduction of Odis into my life. I loved my mother more than anything in the world, but at times I questioned her love for me. She always seemed so stressed and I suspected my presence was the primary factor for this. There were incredibly tender moments, like resting my head on her lap as she drove home from her second job of playing music at church. I remember closing my eyes and counting the turns and stops as we made our way home at night. However fond I was of those memories, they were never enough to alleviate the depression that consumed me after one of Odis’s beatings.
With any gain made, he lorded over those he thought subordinate to him. Any challenge to his authority was met with meanness and cruelty; he didn’t believe in sparing the rod. An elbow on the table would be met with a rap across the knuckles. Any accomplishment was greeted with jeer; as if any success achieved by my mother or me was more luck than dedication and hard work.
“What? So you think you’re smart now?”
“That’s what you get for hanging around me. Stick around long enough and you might be somebody someday.”
“You weren’t anything until I came along.”
These were the sentiments of the man that was my stepfather.
Life before Odis was much more bearable. I fondly remember trips to Portland to visit my mother’s family. The savory crispness of fried chicken paired with an assortment of sweets sustained us while the passing countryside slowly revealed its hidden treasures. The 600-mile drive was an exodus away from the violence and desolation of my native Oakland; a brighter, cleaner world enticed me to forget all that I’d left behind.
The highlight of every trip was the building anticipation to see what I considered the jewel of northern California: Mt Shasta. I can’t say exactly why, but I loved that mountain. Maybe because it seemed I could walk directly from the road to the top, or possibly due to the “magic” of having a snow-covered top in the middle of a hot plain. Whatever it was, the mountain and those trips were proof that there existed a bigger, more beautiful world beyond Oakland.
Perhaps it wasn’t Oakland that I wanted to leave behind, but the pain and fear that it instilled in me. Maybe it was my desire to find a place where I was loved and wanted that made those rode trips so enticing. Like so many things lost in the haze of time, the answer has always eluded me, while other memories seemed to trouble every waking moment.
And yet/despite this, I had a very high opinion of myself. I don't think this was taught to me so much as it was reinforced. The name given to me at birth, Rahmaan Hussein Al-Soufi Abdullah Mwongozi, was more a title than a name. According to a hadith, which Muslims regard as records of the Prophet Muhammad, there are 99 names of God. Rahmaan: The Most Compassionate was even the first name on the list of names of Allah (God). When one of these names is chosen for a child, it is customary to add the preceding modifier “Abdul” — which means servant. I was not. Obviously, this was no mistake; I would be a servant to no one.
I used knowledge for my own, sometimes sinister, benefit and amusement. Once, I convinced a kid to take other children’s shoes and toss them into a canal, knowing he would be beaten with a switch. I even pre-selected a supple, green vine especially for the occasion which I was more than happy to fetch so the appropriate punishment could be administered. Being compassionate wasn't something I aspired to, and at times my name was a source of embarrassment.
My primary pursuit in those days was trying to gather as much information as possible and use it to benefit me. I was unconcerned with what I was learning; it was the speed and volume of data that interested me. I developed a fascination with insect fights, all in pursuit of the question: why do things operate the way they do? All manner of creatures found their way into my jars, ants being my favorite. It was amazing to see such small creatures dominate larger foes by simply being unnoticed until they were ripping into their prey’s flesh. Anonymity was a potent weapon.
This emerging psychopathy was neither bad nor good; it just was. Over the years, I realized there’s just part of my psyche that always remains emotionally detached, concerned only with logic, causality, and effect. I need to know how and why things work so I can best understand how to make them work in my favor. But as much as I learned from watching insect fights, people were the greatest mystery.
In Muslim school, there was a kid that everyone called Blacky. He was much darker than the rest of us and had a shiny face, likely due to the application of Vaseline by his parents. Aside from all of this, I remember that he was generally a nice kid—who didn’t like being called Blacky.
The irony and hypocrisy of our immersion in overtly pro-black teachings while simultaneously bullying a kid because he was darker than us started to bother me. I simply couldn’t make rational sense of it.
I vowed never to call him Blacky again. Despite the revelation that was revealed to me, I never spoke up when other kids were cruel. My only concern was with taking care of myself; everyone else had to find their own way. I understood my responsibility to be better, even if others were not. I still don’t remember the kid’s name.
All of these things were helping me to understand my place in the world. I'm not sure where my thoughts started, but I remember the questions it settled on: Why did God make me black? Why did he make us poor? Would my life be like this forever? This was the nature of my thoughts, even at such a young age.
This wasn't necessarily a question borne of racial insecurity, but simply to determine why I was in this world. I wanted to know why all the black people I knew didn't have much money and didn't live in the best neighborhoods.
It was this curious mind that Odis wanted to control. His chosen method for dealing with me was to beat me into submission whenever he felt I was getting too full of myself.
I remember one time coming home from school and the lure of the corner store was too much to resist. The thought of a confectionary treat was the highlight of a long day of elementary school. Quickly settling on a Blow Pop, I had it unwrapped and in my mouth before I’d even had the chance to pay for it.
Money was always a touchy subject with Odis. According to him, all money in his house belonged to him and was subject to his control. He never forbade me from having my own money, but it was difficult for him to keep track of because I was secretive about how much I had at any given time. It never occurred to him that I could save gifted money for months. When asked how I was able to obtain certain things like candy, I would lie and say a friend gave me some at school. Having my own money was a source of power that I guarded fiercely.
Leaving the store with my change in hand and in sugar-aided bliss, I saw a flurry of movement just outside my peripheral view. Odis was driving by in his van, his eyes locking with mine. I knew that look. He continued down the road to collect my sister from daycare as I walked home in fear of what was to come.
When he came home, he beat me without saying a word. Each strike of the leather strap cut into me with rage and contempt. No matter where I tried to run, the strap was there. He beat me until I no longer had the will to run.
However bad the beatings, they were temporary. The worst part was the emotional abuse. He felt the need to constantly remind me that I would grow up to be nothing. Every action not to his liking was a sign I was doomed to prison.
As much of his wrath that I received, my mother would receive the same if not more. Not at the beginning though, that's not how abusers work, but over time. While never being physical with her — he wouldn't have made it through the night alive—he was quick to remind her that he was the best thing to happen to her, and she was nothing before she met him.
She never had a thought or idea that he respected. The criticism of her was constant. So were the accusations of infidelity.
“Who are you putting makeup on for?!” he would often accuse. “I’m going to work, and I need to look professional.”
In his mind, it had little to do with her desire to be more successful and everything to do with some man she was supposedly sleeping with. He never complained about the checks she brought home, though.
Of course, not every day was bad. We had nice Christmases. Thanksgiving was always a treat because we would go to his brother-in-law’s ranch, where I learned to shoot. It was nice because the amenities were nice; almost like a consolation for the misery that the rest of the year brought.
And he was very nice to my sister, Naima. Although she wasn’t his biological child, he adored her. She was only three, so she couldn’t get into that much trouble to begin with.
There was also the matter of my schooling. Odis grew up a staunch Christian—he didn’t support the Islamic school I was attending. The fact that it took money out of the house was also a key factor in his advocating for a change.
After consulting with his sister and brother-in-law, he made arrangements for us to use their address in the affluent part of town to enroll me in one of the better public elementary schools. Years later my mother would try to convince me he really wanted me to have a good education. It was something he would always pat himself on the back for.
This is how life was: some good, some bad, some awful. I hated him, and I hated my life. I began to view my mother in a different way. I couldn’t understand why she would let this man treat me this way. I lost confidence in my mother during those years; it would take a long time for our relationship to be made right. I needed something to change. And that change would come one Friday evening.
My father arrived at our house to pick us up for our weekend together. Being kids, we had forgotten to pack our things and rushed to gather and pack for our time away. As my father walked into the house towards our room, Odis grabbed my father by the shoulder.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to help my kids pack. Man, you better get your hands off me!” “You just don’t walk in MY house!”
At that moment, every boy’s dream about his father came true. My father picked him up, slammed him onto the couch, and began to punch him—he was slaying my dragon!
I cheered as my mother yelled. As she reached for the phone to call the police, I pulled it out of the wall so she couldn’t. I wasn’t going to be robbed of this moment.
The man that had tormented me was no longer someone to be feared. He was only a small man that could do nothing more than lord over women and children. As soon as a man challenged him, my very own father no less, he crumbled under the pressure.
With haste, my father left and my sister and I were sent to our room. It was unknown to me if I would have my weekend with my father, but what I had just witnessed would have been enough to make it ok. I didn’t hear much coming from the living room, but I wasn’t listening either. I was deep in my thoughts, knowing that something fundamental had changed.
My father soon returned with the police to collect his children and we had our normal weekend. For some reason it occurred to me that I never told my father the things that had come before. I don’t know if I was scared or something else, but I felt dumb for not telling my father sooner. Of course, he would have saved me.
From that moment on, I was no longer afraid of Odis O’Neal. I was too tired of his act by this point. I was tired of the way he treated me and my family with his constant belittling and condescension. I’d always hated him and his beatings of me, but now there was something new: bitterness, anger and a lack of fear. It was a powerful concoction.
He was no longer the monster I assumed he was. He had been beaten by my father, the man whose blood flowed in my veins. I saw Odis as a weak man and a bully, something not worthy of respect or the life that he used to torment me and my family.
That was when I decided to kill him.
For weeks I thought about how to do it. This wouldn’t be some reckless charge; I was going to take my time to ensure success. The idea of what would happen afterwards was of little concern; protecting myself in the present was my only concern. We didn’t own a gun, so I needed another idea. Finally, I settled on a long kitchen knife. All I needed was the right trigger and opportunity. “Let him hit me again...” I thought. That was all I needed to set me off.
But that moment never came. With little fanfare, my mother soon announced that we were moving and
she was getting a divorce. The shock of the news and the abruptness of it all left me confused and
slightly uneasy. I could sense the anxiety in my mother and wanted nothing more than to comfort herand help in any way that I could. And although it was a sad and stressful situation, I gladly accepted the fate that lay ahead versus the one that would make me a murderer.
I think often about what might have been. I may not have actually gone through with killing Odis, but I hated him to the point that I wanted him dead. It was a blessing that we didn’t have a firearm in the
home, but even so, the effects of those years—good and bad—would stay with me for the rest of my life.