A month before I turned five, my little cousin was born. Before that day, I was the youngest in a tight-knit family of cousins, and I felt relieved that there was now someone to come behind me, to revere my words, to defer to my television and fast-food selections. We spent most days together, playing Mario Brothers, singing along to the Tiny Toon theme song, walking to the Winn Dixie around the corner from our houses for pints of Blue Bell ice cream. When I was twelve and he was seven, my mother moved me from New Orleans to Connecticut. It was a terrible culture shock, but mostly I missed my cousin. I was excited for my first visit back primarily so I could see him. We sat on the floral couch in my grandmother's living room, and I told him about the hill we lived on back east, so steep I could ride my bike only halfway up before I was winded. I told him that I could look into the sky and actually see the stars; I told him I missed him. He didn't talk, just sat on the sofa and stared in the opposite direction. His father took me aside that evening, told me my cousin talked about me all the time, but he couldn't say a word while I was there because he still hadn't gotten over my leaving in the first place.
Later when I'd come to visit, my cousin had less and less time for me. He was always more popular than I was. He wasn't far into elementary school before his house became a revolving door of friends: the twins down the block, the older boy across the street. It had been a fairly integrated neighborhood when I left it, but in just a few short years the white families had moved out. My cousin struggled academically, and Schaumberg Elementary was no longer equipped to address his needs. One night at my grandparents' house, my grandfather called him into the den, held up his recent report card, said he needed to do better, that there were no dummies in our family. My cousin's eyes reddened and watered.
I knew what my grandfather meant, that my cousin couldn't be a dummy by virtue of the fact that he was in our family, but my cousin had taken it a different way. I didn't correct him. Like my old neighborhood, I had changed some too. I was one of six black children in a school of 800, and I had started dressing in hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans like the white girls; I'd lost my New Orleans accent. If it had been years before, I might have taken my cousin aside, explained away the confusion, but I didn't feel connected enough to him to make the awkward effort.
My cousin moved in with my mother halfway through his eighth-grade year. His grades had reached an all-time low; he was staying away from home all hours of the night, and his mother feared for his safety. So my mother took him in, set up a study schedule for him, paid for a tutor. He became the king of Jackie Robinson Middle School. I was away in college, but I called my mother to check on him. She would talk about how her ordinarily quiet house had begun to bustle with my cousin's new friends, eighth graders who wanted to dress like him, talk like him, become him.
One night, she told me my cousin had taken on the cause of a girl who was being bullied. The girl had been attacked so badly that half her hair had been ripped out of her scalp and she'd had to start wearing wigs to cover the empty space. Since then, my cousin walked her to school each morning and waited for her outside her classroom each afternoon. He was 6'1", but it was more than that; the other kids adored him, and his just standing next to the girl deterred anyone from bothering her further.
Still, when summer came he was on the first flight back to New Orleans. He was supposed to return to my mother's at the end of August, but he refused. My relatives asked me to intervene, to lecture him about his choices, but that had never been the nature of our playful relationship, and I didn't want to disrupt our dynamic. Later, when I came home for winter break, I found some notebooks he'd left in my room. One was filled with the same sentence written over and over. I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home. I read the identical sentences like one of them might contain new information. I told myself that not challenging him to stay had been the right thing.
Moving in the opposite direction of my cousin, dropping my accent, old mannerisms, and habits, to fit into a world that will never want me, didn't make me feel as safe as I'd hoped.
He was a senior in high school when Katrina hit. By then I was out of college, out of the country, trying to save a pocket of the world thousands of miles away. I heard updates from my mother. My cousin and his parents had evacuated to Alabama in time, but their house was ruined; they'd rent something temporary until they could go back; my cousin had had to leave everyone he knew behind. One friend in particular they still couldn't locate.
And then there was his girlfriend. They'd hung out every day for two years, but she'd been bused to the Astrodome in Houston, and he didn't know when he'd see her next. One night, in a fit of rage, he threw all the FEMA-funded furniture around their apartment. My extended family's narrative was the same as it had always been: he had an incorrigible streak, and his parents didn't tame it, and I'm afraid I didn't delve past the surface of that story. I'm afraid that the holistic loss of a city distracted me from his personal grief.
After the storm, it was hard for him to graduate. I went on to law school. The same year I was sworn into the California bar, my cousin was arrested for the first time. At my wedding, he held the video camera and dominated the dance floor. I'd been nervous that he and other members of my family might clash with my husband's polished guests, but he blended into the crowd, making jokes with my in-laws' fancy friends. "Who was the tall guy?" they'd ask for months after. "He really made the party." He took me aside at some point that night and showed me his arm. There were so many tattoos on it I didn't know what I should be looking for, but then I saw it, my name scrolled in cursive across the bicep. I was honored, but I was also ashamed. I'd assumed he'd forgotten me, everything we'd had, and I'd gone on and forgotten him, too, but he'd remembered.
I was the only black associate in my law firm's San Francisco office. By then, I'd grown semi-comfortable answering questions about whether I tanned or how often I washed my dreadlocks. But there began to be professional complications: mentors I hoped to snag chose the white associates; mistakes I made were magnified when others' mistakes were treated as part of the learning process. I wasn't given much work. And I'll never be certain that had anything to do with race. Maybe I wasn't a great lawyer, but the burden of feeling like I was being treated as if I didn't belong because I was black became harder to tolerate than the treatment itself. I had the luxury of being able to quit, so I did.
The idea to write a novel about a young man entangled in the criminal-justice system stemmed from what I knew of my cousin. We worked together for months, and every conversation I had with him sharpened my novel's character. Otherwise, there wasn't much to say. He'd talk about his child, who was a year younger than my twins, insist that the three would have to get together to play, but to this day that hasn't happened.
The book, A Kind of Freedom, is out now, and early readers typically identified T.C., the character my cousin helped me to refine, as their favorite. T.C. is my favorite character too. He's charming, he's generous, he's handsome, he's charismatic, he's wise, he's deep — he's cool. But none of those qualities could compete with discriminatory housing practices, white flight, and under-resourced public schools. In those ways, the system failed T.C. And in those ways, the system failed my cousin too.
Not that it was only the system that failed him. And not that he was the only one who was hit. Because moving in the opposite direction of my cousin, dropping my accent, old mannerisms, and habits, to fit into a world that will never want me, didn't make me feel as safe as I'd hoped.
No, the further I've traveled from my childhood self, the more precarious I feel my standing is, the way arguing a fact can emphasize its tenuous nature. The safest I've ever felt, in fact, was with my cousin, walking down the street to the Winn Dixie, the moments uncluttered by idle talk, the route perfect in my mind.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is the author of A Kind of Freedom.