By the time that I was two years old, Daddio had established his business firmly enough to buy a house about a mile away from Gigi in a middle-class neighborhood of West Philly called Wynnefield.
I grew up at 5943 Woodcrest Avenue on a tree-lined street of thirty grayish-red brick row homes, all connected. The physical proximity of the houses cultivated a strong sense of community. (It also meant that if your neighbor had roaches, you had roaches, too.) Everybody knew everybody. For a young Black family in the 1970s, this was as American dream as you could get.
Across the street was Beeber Middle School and its majestic concrete playground. Basketball, baseball, girls jumpin' double Dutch. The ol' heads slap-boxing. And the second the summer hit, pop goes the water plug. Our neighborhood was thick with kids, and we were always outside playing. Living within one hundred yards of my house, there were almost forty kids my age. Stacey, David, Reecie, Cheri, Michael, Teddy, Shawn, Omarr, and on and on—and that's not even counting their siblings, or the kids on the next blocks. (Stacey Brooks is my oldest friend in the world. We met the day my family moved to Woodcrest. I was two, she was three. Our mothers pushed our strollers up to each other and introduced us. I was in love with her by the time I was seven. But she was in love with David Brandon. He was nine.)
Times were good, and people were clearly having sex... a lot.
My middle-class upbringing contributed to the constant criticism I took early in my rap career. I was not a gangster, and I wasn't selling drugs. I grew up on a nice street in a two-parent household. I went to a Catholic school with mostly white kids until I was fourteen. My mom was college educated. And for all of his faults, my father always put food on the table and would die before he abandoned his kids.
My story was very different from the ones being told by the young Black men who were launching the global phenomenon that would later become hip-hop. In their minds, I was somehow an illegitimate artist; they would call me "soft," "whack," "corny," a "bubblegum rapper," criticisms that violently infuriated me. Looking back, I realize I may have been projecting a little, but the reason I hated it so much was that they were unknowingly poking at the thing I most hated about myself, my sense that I was a coward.
• • •
Daddio saw the world in terms of commanders and missions, a military mind-set that informed every aspect of his life. He would come to run our family as though we were a platoon on a battlefield and the Woodcrest house was our barracks. He didn't ask us to clean our rooms or to make our beds—he commanded, "Police your area."
In his world, there was no such thing as a "small thing." Doing your homework was a mission. Cleaning the bathroom was a mission. Getting groceries from the supermarket was a mission. And scrubbing a floor? It was never just about scrubbing a floor—it was about your ability to follow orders, to exhibit self-discipline, and to complete a task with the utmost perfection. "Ninety-nine percent is the same as zero" was one of his favorite sayings.
If a soldier failed his or her mission, it had to be repeated until perfected. And to disobey a command meant you faced a court-martial, and the punishment usually came in the form of a belt to your bare ass. (He'd say, "Take 'em off, I ain't gon' beat my clothes.")
In Daddio's mind, everything was life or death. He was preparing his children to thrive in a harsh world—a world that he saw as chaotic and brutal. The instilling of fear was—and still is to a large degree—a cultural parenting tactic in the Black community. Fear is embraced as a survival necessity. It is a widely held belief that in order to protect Black children, they must fear parental authority. The instilling of fear is viewed as an offering of love.
On May 13, 1985, Daddio came into our rooms calling for us to get on the floor. A couple of miles south of Woodcrest, the Philadelphia Police Department had just dropped a pair of one-pound bombs on a residential neighborhood. We could hear the faint ka-ka-ka-kaaaaa-ka-ka-kaaaaaa of automatic gunfire. Five children and six adults would die that day in what is now known as the MOVE bombing. Two entire city blocks—sixty-five homes—were burned to the ground.
The news always seemed to reinforce Daddio's point of view. Daddio's ideology was centered on training us mentally and physically to handle life's inevitable adversities, but what he unwittingly created was an environment of constant tension and anxiety.
I remember one Sunday afternoon, Daddio was taking a rare day off and sitting in the living room watching TV. He called me over: " 'Ey, Will?"
Popping straight to attention, I said, "Yes, Daddy?"
"Run up to Mr. Bryant's and grab my Tareyton 100s."
He handed me five dollars, and I was off to the corner store. I was maybe ten years old at the time, but this was the 1970s, back when parents could send their kid to buy cigarettes.
I ran down the street directly to Mr. Bryant's without stopping. Totally out of breath, a perfect soldier.
"Hi, Mr. Bryant, my dad sent me to pick up his cigarettes."
"How you doin', Will?" Mr. Bryant said. "They didn't come in today— tell Daddio they should be here tomorrow. I'll hold a carton for him."
"OK, thank you, Mr. Bryant. I'll tell him."
Still a good soldier, I headed home. On my way back, I ran into David and Danny Brandon, who had just gotten this weird new thing called a Nerf football. It was a football, but it was soft.
Any soldier would have stopped.
This thing was amazing—I got lost in the ingenuity of this extraordinary object. You could throw it in the winter, but it wouldn't hurt your fingers if you caught it! You could miss it, it could hit you in the face, and you'd be fine! One minute turned into five, and then five became ten, ten became twenty... Suddenly, David and Danny freeze. Their eyes lock over my shoulder.
I turn, and my stomach drops. Daddio, bare-chested, striding up the middle of the street right at me.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOIN'?"
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardback edition.
Monday we begin the book SECRETS OF THE SPRAKKAR: One Small Island Nation, the Women Who Live There, and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid.