By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But while Lige was shocked at his initial confrontations with racism, his family has noticed him slowly starting to adopt the South L.A. gang mentality that allows such attitudes to thrive — and they fear the company he’s keeping.
“He thinks he’s a gangster,” says Kishana of her brother. “I told him to knock it off or he’s going to wind up dead, and I’ll have to mourn. I hope he listens — I have enough to mourn about.”
Last year, Lige began having trouble in school — acting out in class and failing to turn in assignments. He was eventually expelled, and now must attend Fremont High School, away from his brothers and sisters.
“Growing up in this neighborhood, I’ve seen it a thousand times before,” says Larry. “These kids reach a certain point — a threshold that if they cross you just might lose them to the bad elements forever.”
The situation deteriorated to the point that this past spring, Larry sent Lige and Mtume up to San Quentin to visit their father, hoping Watani could talk some sense into his son.
“I had no idea what I was going to say to him,” says Watani. “I knew from Larry that the situation was bad — but I hadn’t been free in America for 30 years. I had no idea what he was up against.”
Watani began by trying to lecture Lige. His arguments fell on deaf ears. “How can you expect to lecture someone who barely knows you?” Watani admits.
At a loss for how to reach Lige, Watani called his friend Shahid over. Shahid ran a program inside San Quentin that targeted troubled youth, and Watani felt that if anyone would be able to reach his son, Shahid would. Watani’s instinct proved prescient.
“Lige told Shahid that if he were in my situation, he wouldn’t have abandoned his family in Suriname. He would have stuck it out. I hadn’t really considered how much anger and resentment he had over my leaving. I had just assumed my children would be undyingly grateful for my sacrifice, and grateful to Larry and Diane for taking them in. But while that seems rational intellectually, up until that time I hadn’t really understood all that they had went through.”
But while his meeting with Lige may have been a revelation for Watani, Lige’s struggles are perhaps too complex to be solved in one meeting.
“All of the kids have internalized their adversities differently,” says Larry. “Latanya is compensating by being so determined with school. Kishana deals with what she’s going through by getting a job and working hard. Lige comes at it differently — and that’s really been the struggle for us, figuring out that one child’s needs are not going to be the same as the others’.”
With Lige, Larry is just now beginning to think he has a handle.
“I think, growing up in foster care, feeling abandoned, Lige had to fight for everything that was his. If there were some shoes, or a book that he liked, he better be prepared to fight to keep them — because if not, someone was going to take it from him. There was no one he could trust to look out for him, so he had to rely on himself.”
Recently, Larry sat Lige down to explain that this wasn’t foster care — he was in a family now.
“I felt I really needed to let him know, man to man, that I wasn’t going anywhere. That my love for him and his brother and sisters was real and that my advice was from the heart. I didn’t have to bring him into my home — why would I do that only to lead him astray?”
Since that talk, Lige’s grades have improved and the calls home from school have ceased. Larry has also noticed a change in Lige’s attitude.
“Just recently, we were driving in the car and he told me, ‘I’m done with all the things that cause drama in my life. I’m just going to walk away from now on.’ I just about pulled over and parked,” Larry says, laughing. “It was the wisest thing I’ve heard him say since he got here, and I was just overjoyed. It’s little moments like that that make all the sacrifices worth it.”
But what of Watani’s sacrifice? Is life in America worth losing your family for? No one seems to really have an answer. Even Watani isn’t sure.
“It’s a question I wrestle with every day,” says Watani. “I go back and forth. Obviously, there are more opportunities here for the kids than in Suriname, but sometimes life in America can be like a prison — all its violence and cruelty and callousness. If there has been one unequivocal blessing in any of this situation, it’s been the opportunity for me to reconnect with Larry.”
“None of us really knows our father,” says Larry, weighing in. “We all know pieces of him. And so all of us combined have been doing our best to put those pieces together. I think that’s been good for us.”