The first house my family owned was in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. We moved into it in 1957, when I was eleven years old. Before that, we lived in subsidized housing. We were among a group of families first to move into a mixed neighborhood, away from the two neighborhoods in San Francisco that had been home to African Americans.
Our neighborhood was made up of newer houses adjacent to Golden Gate Park, built in the twenties like ours, and older ones -- big houses -- some had been owned by shipping magnates.
We lived upstairs and rented out the downstairs. I can tell you what our house looked like, but the thing I remember most is what living in it was like. The thing about my home was that everyone participated in the work that had to be done. When we had to paint the house, my dad, my brother Reginald, and I painted the house. When cleaning needed to be done, someone would mop the kitchen floor, someone would wax the kitchen floor, someone would clean the bathroom.
If we were cooking Saturday night dinner, one of us had to be peeling potatoes, one of us had to be frying potatoes. I learned how to cook because that was a responsibility we all shared. All the boys knew how to cook. My dad knew how to cook.
There are twelve years between my youngest brother, Martin, and me -- so you know what that meant. I had to babysit Martin; I had to change him; I had to bathe him. So did the other children who were old enough. All those things we did, we all had to do. A lot of that structure was the structure my mom had when she was growing up on a cotton farm in Georgia. Everyone worked on the farm, everyone picked cotton, everyone had a responsibility.
And you combine that with the pride, the sense of ownership, the whole idea of middle-class aspiration -- well, you can see why it was so important to us. Still is today. Because we all knew that when we had to clean out the junk in the basement -- it was our junk and our basement, you know?
All of my siblings have owned homes. It's no surprise. I think that's how family works; I think that's a little bit of what home is. Conscientiousness goes from one generation to the next; the values of your parents that become yours in the watching and the doing.
For us, it was equanimity and responsibility, ownership and aspiration. And the idea that you work together, that the family becomes an organization where everybody puts their own personal agenda aside to contribute to the agenda of the whole. Mutual support and collaboration and teamwork -- this was a very poignant part of what I felt growing up. Of course, there was also lots of fun to be had. The neighborhood was exciting, changing, moving all the time. A big multigenerational family lived across the street. I think they may have been from Arkansas, but what I really remember was people -- grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles -- filling three floors. Seven boys and two or three girls. I still have dreams about that house. You could make up a baseball or basketball team with them. Go to Golden Gate Park. Play football. And always make up a reason to fight afterward.