The secret to success, happiness, achieving your desires, all of the things that we as humans do and aspire to be, comes down to one concept: the ability to accurately assess your position. Everything you do in life is a move and there will be a response. This is a concept that has been bubbling in my mind and it comes alive for me on the chessboard.
--WILL SMITH, ACTOR
I remember the afternoon I first fell in love with chess. I was in the library at Brooklyn Technical High School working on a class project during study-time. Scanning the shelves for some reference material, I noticed a dusty black book with the word chess
in faded block letters. Curious, I pulled the book down, brushed it off, and opened it. The yellowed pages were filled with multiple diagrams of what I took to be chess setups. Bizarre symbols that seemed like some secret spy code appeared on every page. The accompanying explanations used words that sounded like the language of war, where terms like "maneuver" and "redeployment" seemed to be describing important battle plans. Puzzled and secretly excited by this mysterious discovery, I checked the book out at the front desk. That simple act would seal my fate as an addict of an ancient game that has captivated millions of minds--kings and queens, scientists and philosophers, athletes and actors, grandparents and little kids--for over fourteen hundred years. And it would bring meaning and direction to the disorder that had been my young life.
My first experience with the chess concept of sacrifice--giving up something of value in order to attain something more valuable in return--occurred when I was two years old. In 1968, my mother, a single parent desperate for her kids to escape a life of poverty, decided to take advantage of a new U.S. immigration policy that was opening doors to people from all over the Caribbean. Entrusting my brother Devon, sister Alicia, and me to the care of our grandmother (my dad was living in the United States), she traveled to New York City with the hope of finding decent employment. Initially she worked as a live-in nanny taking care of the kids of a well-to-do family on Long Island. Eventually, she moved on to other low-wage positions before finally landing an office job doing clerical work. When she had finally saved up enough money and had secured our visas, she sent for us. The entire process would take ten years.
I took the separation hard. While I made friends easily, not having my mom or dad around left a hole. Our grandmother, Irma Cormack, who we called Mama, filled the gap as best she could. A stern woman who had once been a schoolteacher, she made sure our basic needs were met. Her late-night stories of duppies (ghosts) and obeah men (voodoo priests) kept us both terrified and entertained, her voice crackling with the passion and intensity of someone who had seen such things up close.
From time to time, she would treat us to hot roasted peanuts from the peanut man when he came rolling by with his cart. Having already parented and raised seven children, she was big on discipline and did not hesitate to give us the occasional whipping when we got out of hand. I seemed to bear the brunt of most of the beatings for things like sneaking out of the yard to go see what Devon, older by eight years, was doing with his friends, or for drawing on every single page of a notebook that my mother had sent earlier in the summer for school. Being a sensitive child, I hated being hit for what seemed like normal boyish behavior; many of my tears came from feeling as if my mom might have treated me differently. Though I loved my grandmother, I often fantasized about getting away from Jamaica and living a whole new life.
That day came like a dream.
In 1978, our papers finally went through. On a beautiful sunny day in August, my siblings and I boarded a plane with a few packed belongings and headed for New York. I could not have been more excited. I had spent the past year in a state of near depression, feeling ever more alone and confused. There was very little to satisfy my inquisitive mind and I would read the same comic book nine or ten times to divert myself. Once again, a birthday had passed without toys or books, and I had given up hope that I would one day own a bike. When I had finished third in my class at the prestigious Wolmer's Boys High School,* Mama, noticing my despondency and having nothing to offer in celebration of my achievement, hugged me proudly and stressed the importance of doing one's best for its own sake. I believed her, internalizing that lesson to this day, but I couldn't help but wonder what else life had to offer.
Looking back from the runway, I could see she was beaming with joy and anticipation at the possibilities that life was about to offer the three of us. Her ten years of love, dedication, and hard work were coming to an end; the goal had been reached. On that day, as the plane banked over the mountainside near Kingston and soared north by northwest to the U.S. coastline, I shared her happiness and hopefulness. I did not realize that it was the last time I would see her alive.
The reunion at John F. Kennedy Airport was exciting and confusing. I had seen my mother four or five times when she had visited home on vacation, but those brief meetings had basically left us strangers. She looked like a younger version of Mama, with the same light skin and straight hair that made her almost close to passing for white. Her eyes mirrored the excitement in Mama's eyes; the decade-long journey for their progeny had been inextricably intertwined. Still, my mother's challenge had been different. Her sacrifice had been one of intimacy, ten years without the subtle joys of watching her children blossom, of missed kisses and hugs, of lost laughter and soft tears, and of not being able to provide the love and security only a mother can give. It would take me a long time, and only after I had my own children, to begin to appreciate the full depth of her loss. Those years had essentially vanished, never to be recaptured. She had given up knowing us, and us knowing her, to secure our futures in the great land of opportunity.
From all the stories I'd heard, living in America was going to be like one big party. The programs on television showed beautiful people with nice clothes, big houses, and fancy cars. Rumor had it that there was a street paved with gold. Before we had left, I had made a twenty-dollar bet with Devon that we would live in a skyscraper with a pool on the roof. He laughed, looked at me to see if I was serious, and then tried to talk me out of it. I insisted. Finally, he shook his head and took the bet.
As we left the airport and drove down Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn, my eyes darted back and forth like a hummingbird. Eager to see mansions and rolling gardens, I was confused by the sights: garbage on the streets, shops smeared with graffiti, gaping potholes in the roads. Abandoned buildings with smashed windows resembling a skull's empty eye sockets seemed to haunt every other corner. I was trying to wrap my mind around this twisted version of America when the car slowed to a stop in front of an old two-story tenement. Devon would later remark that it reminded him of a jailhouse.
As we exited the car, some kids stared at us as though we were naked Aborigines visiting the city for the first time. An ambulance, siren blaring, raced by. Confused by the surreal scene, I asked my mom, "A who we a visit?"
Her answer was sharp and abrupt, her still-thick Jamaican patois sizzling from my unintended insult. "Wha' yu mean? Dis is your home!"
We walked up to the second floor and entered a cramped space that would be the first apartment I had ever set foot in. It had all the basics: a living room, small kitchen, and bathroom. Toward the back were two bedrooms. One was for my mother. The other had two beds, one of which had a rollout underneath. Devon, his eyes crestfallen, noticed the disappointment on my face. "Who need a pool 'pon the roof, anyway?" he said. He never asked me for the twenty bucks.
Within a couple of weeks, I was trudging off to a new school--Arthur S. Somers Junior High, better known as J.H.S. 252. I was revolted by the graffiti on the outside walls; to mar a school in Jamaica in such a way was like spray-painting the Lincoln Memorial. Since I was an immigrant student, I was given a standard reading test to see which class I should be placed in. The test showed I was reading on a twelfth-grade level, and I was put in 7SP--the top class in the seventh grade.
After the first day, I went home and told my mother that something had to be wrong. The math we had begun to do was math I had been doing in Jamaica at the end of fifth
grade. Unable to take the day off from work and unsure of exactly how to challenge the system, she told me to take in my report card from the year before. When I returned to school the following day, the guidance counselor looked at it like it was Monopoly money. I'll never forget the look on her face as she insisted that I was in the best class available, that I would be with kids my own age. It's not clear to me now what other decision she should have made, but I felt certain that I did not belong in that class. Her irritated brush-off would have consequences I'm sure she never intended.
It would not take long for my motivation to evaporate as school, once the most challenging part of the day, became flat-out boring. I found I could just listen to the teachers during class, and then take the tests and still do well. Math, which had always been my favorite subject, turned into forty minutes of white noise. My math teacher, a short white man with a bushy mustache, tried to challenge us once a month by giving the class a particularly difficult problem. Usually about four or five of us would get it right, upon which we would pile into his car during lunchtime and drive to the neighborhood Burger King for free burgers and fries. I went every time, not because I was smarter than most of my classmates, but because I had seen the math before. I remember at times feeling embarrassed that I could simply glance at the problem and know the answer while the others, who were just learning the material, struggled to figure out the solution. These were the bright kids (we would skip the eighth grade altogether) whose parents valued education. We were being shortchanged from the start without knowing how acutely this would affect our futures.
That a poor country like Jamaica could be that far ahead of the United States in teaching its young was baffling to me then, disgraceful to me now. Over time I would learn that this was not the norm in America, that skin color, the neighborhood one lived in, and low expectations formed a three-headed monster that routinely ate up the potential of millions of kids. My wife, Michele, would later tell me how she had experienced this firsthand, how she had been valedictorian at her junior high in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and had gotten a scholarship to attend high school at the mostly white Friend's Seminary in Manhattan, only to discover that she had been grossly underprepared to compete on equal terms. Thankfully, she is the type of person who attacks challenges; despite the initial embarrassment and resentment, she doggedly made up the gap through dint of effort and hard work. Her bachelor's degree from Columbia and her master's from New York University are a testament to how a bright kid can rise to the occasion, and even excel, once given the opportunity.
For me, after sitting day by day in classes that droned on forever, school slowly went from being the promise of the future to the obligation of the present. Fortunately, there were a few interesting subjects: social studies and the history of the United States were brand new to me, and I also enjoyed listening to my science teacher, a tall burly man with big expressive hands, a round stomach, and a great sense of humor.
Other distractions also kept me preoccupied: I made new friends and I had a huge crush on the prettiest girl in school. I also had the challenge of trying to bridge the culture gap. This was before musical artists like Elephant Man and Sean Paul infused reggae rhythms into hip-hop and r&b, making Jamaican culture cool and sexy. In 1978, having an island accent meant you were one of the boat people
. Thankfully, I have an ear for languages: I was able to pick up the Brooklyn twang and slang quickly. I learned all about American sports through television, my favorite player at the time being Red Sox-killer Bucky Dent of the New York Yankees. I was far behind the other boys in actually playing the sports themselves, and was invariably one of the last kids picked when it came time to choose sides. Still, the few friends I had treated me well, inviting me over to their houses to hang out and play games. In those two years of junior high, I ended up learning far more outside of school than I did in the classroom.
Life around the neighborhood was like the Wild West. It seemed as if every other day a stray bullet was hitting some kid as drug dealers fought one another over turf. I remember watching from my living room window as two guys shot at each other in broad daylight like it was high noon at the OK Corral. The three kids that they sent scurrying away in terror were the least of their concerns. Getting mugged was hardly a novelty (I was mugged twice), but the consequences of fighting back were often brutal. It was borderline insanity to wear anything fashionable because sooner or later some guy was going to ask if it might not be in your best interest to loan it to him for safekeeping. You might as well have screamed "Pick me, please" if you decided to wear a sheepskin jacket or Adidas sneakers. Guys who tried to do the manly thing and resist got stomped, stabbed, or shot.
The neighborhood seemed to be under constant police surveillance. Groups of young men were randomly pulled over at any time of day and told to spread-eagle. Most searches through school bags and pockets yielded nothing, in which case the boys were told to move along. The running joke, which still applies in almost every Black neighborhood in America, was that you had better watch out because there was an APB (all points bulletin) out on a "young Black man in blue jeans and a jacket."
Copyright © 2005 by Maurice Ashley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.