I grew up in a house located at 8008 Courtney in Kinloch, Missouri, a not-quite suburb of Saint Louis. I’m not really “from” Saint Louis, though I did spend my formative years there. Unlike most people who grew up in one house and in likely the same family situation, probably a very stable one, I bounced around a lot, traveling frequently between Saint Louis and Texas, Texas and Hawaii, Hawaii and Texas, Texas back to Saint Louis, and from Saint Louis to New York. My mother had me when she was just 18, right on the cusp of graduating from Berkeley High School. She was so embarrassed about being pregnant that my small-framed mom kept me a secret for six months until my grandmother suddenly noticed me and asked if she was pregnant.
Shortly after I was born, on that July 11th, my grandmother took over and raised me off while my mom fled to Germany, leaving me behind in Saint Louis. I guess you could call me a Grandma’s and a Momma’s boy because I never knew my father. I think I met him once or twice when I was who knows how young, and all I remember about him is that he’s from Jamaica and that my grandmother hated him because she thought that Jamaican people were dangerous because they practiced Voodoo.
I always thought the house I grew up in was one of the most beautiful houses on the block — a heavenly oasis in a cesspool of dilapidation. You knew my house because Grandma Moore had a jockey statue on the outside of it, one she still has outside of her new house in Florissant. There was a nice yard that sloped on the right side. During the winter, we’d sled down it. A beautiful red door and white shutters accented the windows. Inside, the living room had salmon colored carpet and fabulous salmon colored drapes that I always thought were great. All the couches were covered in plastic so the kids couldn’t ruin them.
The only friends I had were friends in the neighborhood. The white kids I was friends with at school wouldn’t dare step foot to my side of the tracks, though it never felt as dangerous as the media always made it out to be. Kinloch had such a bad reputation that I often lied and told my friends at school that I lived in neighboring Berkeley, so they would have a better impression of me. I was already black — I didn’t want them to distance themselves from me because I was black and poor.
Back at home my friends regularly had run-ins with the local police. They stole cars or stole from local candy stores and were fast, smooth talkers. I have distanced myself from that life for decades now, but from time to time my grandmother calls to give me the low down: so-in-so got killed for drug money; such-in-such is now in prison. For a while, I was headed down this route. I knew that if I didn’t do something I would be stuck in Saint Louis, stuck in Kinloch, probably rotting in a cell somewhere.
Then, around the third grade at Parker Road Elementary School, a school in a rich white neighborhood I was bussed into because the schools in Kinloch and Berkeley were too poor, a woman named Ms. Davis changed my life. At the third grade you were to either pick an instrument or join the choir. I thought singing was lame, and I didn’t want anything to do with the trumpet or band. So I learned to play the violin, and Ms. Davis was my violin teacher. She taught us how to read music using the Suzuki method. I had three strings on my violin which mimic where your fingers are supposed to go. And from that day forward I fell in love with music.
If I wasn’t practicing my violin then I was auditioning for an orchestra or something or taking lessons. The kids in my neighborhood started to make fun of me, harassing me, calling me “sissy” or “punk” because I stopped hanging out with them as much and sort of became a classical music queen. The last thing you want to do when you’re growing up in the hood is blast Bach when everyone else is listening to 2 Pac. They were mad because I bucked the neighborhood trend. I didn’t want to end up like them, and music saved me.
It hit me: I wanted to get out. I didn’t want to end up like my peers. I wanted to be “somebody,” and I knew that I had to work twice as hard to get half as much as white folks.
Violin was my way out. I decided I wanted to be the first black internationally known concert violinist, because till this day there is no black violinist who is as celebrated as, say, Anne-Sophie Mutter or Gil Shaham. Over the years I got better and better, so good that Ms. Davis told me that she didn’t have anything else to teach me and I got into the studio of a member of the Saint Louis Symphony. I had an inexplicable gift, I was told time and again, one that would eventually get me into a top boarding high school for the performing arts, and from there into a top music conservatory, from which I would transfer when I decided I didn’t really want to be a concert violinist anymore.
Recently I visited my grandmother, who is now 73, and one of the things she told me before I left Saint Louis was that I was blessed to have had the experiences I’ve had, especially given how I grew up and knowing that our family is not a money family. My grandmother and I really struggled when I was younger, but she always made sure I had what I needed and provided for the both of us.
I used to be ashamed about growing up in “the hood,” especially given the way that I was always plunged in whiteness — attending desegregated schools with white people, being the only black person in nearly every orchestra I was in, definitely being one of the few people of color at my boarding high school, and so on. But now I realize how much it’s made me the person I am.
Rich people often have things handed to them, because when you come from money you can do practically anything. But it’s the people who have the least and make the most, the folks who do when everyone else says you can’t, or who are told they are too dumb, or too slow, or too black, or unworthy, or just not good enough — these are the people who really treasure the experiences and opportunities they get. It’s not easy getting out of “the hood,” but when you do make it out, it’s a great feeling to remember where you came from and how hard you worked to get to where you are.