Up from the Street Corner
Congressional Black Caucus leader Kweisi Mfume had a rough start in life. But he has remade himself into a polished, pragmatic player
She knew she was dying; she kept telling me that. But you can't conceive of not being with your mother when you're 16.... I rode to the hospital in the ambulance, and I felt her grow cold lying on that [hospital] table.... My mother was and, even in death, probably still is the most important person in my life. After she died of cancer, things spun out of control.
One week after she died, her only son dropped out of the 10th grade and the family split up: Two daughters went to live with an aunt, another moved in with a grandmother. The teenage boy moved in with his uncles and went to work in a factory, pulling bread from a slicer, putting it into wrappers. There was also an early morning job at the local market, carrying ice, loading displays with rabbit and chicken parts. On Sundays, he shined the shoes of churchgoers. As he watched the other kids graduate, he grew more bitter. He would walk by his mother's Catholic church and think about spitting at it. He couldn't do it, but he couldn't go in, either.
The stepfather he loathed grew worse. When the mother was alive, he would poke at the son's face when she wasn't looking. Once the son drove his fist through the glass in the front door so he could run in and protect his mother from the man cursing her, making her cry. He grabbed a jagged piece of glass and, without knowing it, squeezed it in anger until he bled. After his mother died, his stepfather "pushed around" a sister during a visit. In retribution, the 18-year-old threw a brick through his stepfather's window, then smashed his windshield with a baseball bat. "I was really ready to hurt him," he says softly. "That was the first time in his life he hollered at me and I didn't flinch."
Not only did I run with all the worst people, I became the leader.... I was locked up a couple of times on suspicion of theft because I happened to be on the corner, happened to be black and happened to be young. And before I knew it, I was a teenage parent, not once but twice, three times, four times, five times.
There was no way Mfume would run from his five sons, born to three mothers. He had suffered the abuse of a stepfather, and never knew his own father until the night his mom died. The man he had always thought of as a family friend just knocked on the door that night and told him. It was, says Mfume, a wish come true. And while he chose not to marry his own sons' mothers, his children knew their father. Indeed, the boys--now ranging in age from 20 to 24--say he was always supportive, financially and emotionally. "They only had one father, and I was it," he says. For 16 years he worked two jobs to support everyone. Their mothers, whom Mfume calls "principled people who carried values," raised the boys during the week. On weekends, eldest son Donald recalls, the six spent "bonding time." The boys' pictures are prominent in Mfume's office. A protective Donald bristles at the "out-of-wedlock thing" that still raises political problems: "My father is not a classic example of that cliche."