A Letter to my Younger Self

by Quinton Harrell

Before my wife and I were married, before we were even dating, I would often marvel over her recurring references to her parents in our conversations about life, love, and learning. I was quite fascinated with the hyperbole, which it seemed to be to me, of Mom’s running of a tight ship, her home management style, and dinner is served every evening at the same time; then the ensuing three- to four-hour discussions and debates at the dinner table. Particularly fascinating was learning of the security she felt like a little girl with her dad checking all the doors each night before bedtime. Or as a working adult, traveling from state to state early in her corporate career with Dad monitoring her trip via cell phone – checking in on her in half-hour or hourly intervals, depending on the length of her trip. Then, there was all the time she spent under the hood and literally under the family vehicle as Dad’s assistant mechanic, as an adolescent.

As a boy who did not grow up with my father in the house, all this was fascinating hyperbole to me until I met her family and saw the family dynamic in action.

As we got closer through courtship and subsequently got married, I learned more about the male role models of my wife’s life. My wife’s father worked in calibration and electronics by trade but was proficient in carpentry, brick-masonry, and a host of other skills. At one point, he was planning to build his own home. Then, there was my wife’s maternal grandfather, the legendary Toy Ballard, who was revered and feared in their small town of Ashland, Alabama. Known for his honesty, loyalty, work ethic, and propensity toward violence for anyone who disrespected him or his family, regardless of their race in the Jim-Crow south, Toy kept his word and kept a gun at every door and most windows of his home. With all the cross-burnings and lynchings that occurred during his adult life in rural Alabama, Toy’s family never had any visits from the Klan. Functionally illiterate, Toy was proficient in farming, mechanics, electricity, and so on – a literal jack of all trades – regularly went hunting with white men (in rural Alabama in the 60’s) and had a pet bull, yes, an actual bull, that rode with him to town in his pick-up. Not only were their stories fascinating, but inspirational.

Part of the inspiration led me to reflect on my upbringing and my formative years as an African American male in society. What contrasts in cultural norms and knowledge in comparison to my wife’s male role-models?! The depth of the generational differences in terms of experiences with racism, teachings, life outlook, familial structure, and regional perspective is too vast for this writing; however, what is significant in my reflection is the distortion of black male roles and definitions of manhood in the culture I grew up in. The notion that boys are not to show emotion, was, for me, couched in a sub-culture of bravado, fast cash, and cars. Simultaneously, the battered black male image of the near-extinct, ultra-aggressive, “super-predator” of the 80’s, found masculine validation in a racist society through multiple conquests of the “female species”. I grew up in a culture where my peers’ motto was “five twenties equal a hundred, and hundreds are easier to count”. Hustling for fast cash and spending it just a quick was our calling card and paying older cats to do stuff for us was the norm.

The ability, as a teenager, to give orders to older men, who may have fallen victim to alcohol or drug abuse in the late 70’s and early 80’s, to conduct tasks and run errands for us was, at the time, an extraordinary badge of respect and source of pride. Upon reflection, it was a horrendous destruction to a social hierarchy in the black community and deterioration of a fundamental knowledge exchange needed from the elder to the youth. The consequences have been recursively devastating, which finally leads me to the point of this seemingly aimless diatribe that has no data nor statistics. These older men of my youth that I refer to were the fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and big brothers in the Black community that fixed the cars repaired the appliances, built the houses, poured the concrete, maintained the landscapes, and defended the households of our mothers and grandmothers. They had skills to pay bills, protect what was theirs, and provide for their families.

When I was ready to settle down and I reflected on the lives of my wife’s grandfather and father, it dawned upon me the realization of a great loss suffered by me and legions of other African American males. Many of us never learned how to work on a car. Many of us do not know how to repair anything. Many of us have no interest in maintaining lawns, lifting, or building anything. And many of us lost our right to bear arms with the felony charges we acquired as youngsters. So, that means some of us cannot “lawfully” defend our own homes. These losses are significant, and I believe contribute to the depression stemming from societal oppressions on the black male psyche. Therapy Link w/ stats.

 

As I grew, matured, and got to the place where I had a true desire to settle down, I took a deep look at the word husband and what that truly meant. I looked up the word husband and beyond its ubiquitous noun meaning as a male spouse, there was also a verb that led me to the word husbandry. (See John 15:1 in the Bible KJV). The definition of husbandry alluded to management and conservation of resources; the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops, etc. And there it was, like a bolt of lightning, I was struck upon reflection of what honorable men did and the stark contrast of what I had learned in my youthful subculture. A good man manages his resources, tends to, cares for, and cultivates not only his crops and resources but also his wife and family. The depth of it struck well beyond the agricultural origins of the word, yet still had a direct connection as it pertains to true wealth building. The true foundational components of wealth are rooted in land and natural resources; they are the fundamental sources from which all other levels of wealth emerge.

What does all this mean, you may ask. Well, this is a sharing of my perspective showing how my life and outlook has changed for the better, over the years, by studying the world around me and self-introspection. In my revamping of the definition of a real man, I determined that perspective changes lives. Ownership of property changes perspective; commitment to something larger than oneself changes perspective, and having people depend on you changes your perspective…realizing you have something of value to contribute to others’ lives changes your perspective!

It is critical for a young man to develop not only his mind intellectually and his spirit, but to acquire manual skills to be a good husband. Oddly enough, that is the point of this writing; to convey the deep physical, spiritual, mental, and financial benefit to acquiring manual skill sets. It can even facilitate a lucrative career in the trades! It played an indirect role in my founding Heritage United Builders. [Take a look at this interview with Kanada Simmons from CEI Services as he uniquely articulates the point]. Sure, there is always someone else more skilled to provide services you do not have time or interest in performing and I am an absolute advocate for young women as well as young men learning manual skills. However, there is something special that happens in the spirit of a man when he accomplishes domestic tasks that provide or maintain comfort and security in his home for himself, for his wife, or for his family. And! I personally can admit I do not particularly care for ALWAYS needing to call other men into my home to provide comfort for my wife…aka the “honey-do” list.

 

My wife’s mother, my mother, made a striking statement to me when I told her I was writing about Dad and his skills. She said when she looked back on them buying their first home, “If Dad didn’t know how to do the things he did in the house over the years, we wouldn’t have made it”. This, of course, alluded to the financial benefits of his skills and the financial implications of not having them. Within a general societal consensus that homeownership is a foundational component of wealth-building, there is a lot to be gleaned from this wife’s statement of a couple who raised a family, took care of and carried the load for other family, travailed many a trial, and now own their home outright with superb credit in their golden years of retirement.

There is tremendous value in building, creating, repairing, and maintaining things, whether it is structures, vehicles, gardens, or relationships. I believe these things are the epitome of developing the type of wealth that provides for you, your family, and generations to come. Becoming a husband has been the best thing that has ever happened in my life and I pray to the Almighty that I will continue to grow in my role while enjoying opportunities to continue creating value for myself and others. I encourage you to learn a new skill or two, volunteer to help someone else, and then watch the additional doors that start opening in your mind, your spirit, and your life. Cheers to your development.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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