Sometimes, out of nowhere, a person comes into your life and offers you the gift of sight. Somebody you didn’t imagine could exist one day appears the next day, and sends a column of light into the settled passages of your mind, showing you something you needed to see. Not by anything they say or do, but by their way of being in the world.
I made a new friend this week. His name is Leon Mobley, and he plays the drums.
You might not have ever heard of Leon, but some of the people he’s played with in his 40-year career may ring a bell: Stevie Wonder. Michael Jackson. Mick Jagger. The Marley sons, the Fugees and the rapper Nas. A few years ago, Leon got a phone call from a friend to come play at the United Nations in New York for a fundraiser. It was Madonna. When Leon was 7, a friend of his uncle’s came by one night and scooped him up to play drums for a show in Boston. That was Duke Ellington.
How did the path of a world-traveling percussionist cross the path of a mom whose orbit often includes the town gas station, family day care and the nearby Target? They crossed because, incredibly, the place I reluctantly call home is also a place Leon calls home. Not two weeks ago, I sat on a train bound for a weekend in New York, feeling every Amtrak mile that put distance between me and the racial vacuum of this awfully lovely town. But this very same place — this land of saltbox barns and driveways that disappear into Yankee estates unseen — was drawing Leon closer. He couldn’t wait to get here.
Leon doesn’t own a house here and he wasn’t born here. He grew up in a housing project in Boston. Where he lived, a mayonnaise sandwich was a meal and the eggs at breakfast time came powdered, from a can. But in 1970, when he was in the third grade, Leon made a little piece of Boston history: He entered METCO, a newly established and voluntary school desegregation program between Boston and its ring of affluent suburbs. Waking up before the sun and taking the subway to a waiting station wagon that substituted for a bus, he was transported from his cramped high-rise to Dover, Mass., the country town next door to ours, the place where my husband and his father and four fathers before that were born. Little Leon Mobley, all of 8 years old, became the first student from METCO ever to attend Dover’s elementary school. And last week, for an entire week, he returned to that school to teach traditions of West African drumming and culture.
I wrote about Leon’s homecoming for a story in last week’s Boston Globe. Not everything from our two-hour phone conversation made it into print. For example, there was the time a kid in middle school walked up to him and said, “The only good nigger is a dead nigger.”
It’s strange to be a 41-year-old woman who writes about race and has lived here for 10 years, but who still feels paralyzed in the face of situations that are much, much tamer than that. Leon was just a kid. I’m sure he felt hurt, but he definitely wasn’t stunned. “I looked at him and said, ‘You need to kill somebody, you kill me,’ ” he said.
When I finally met Leon, it was at a suburban hotel off 95 in Newton, not far from here. The master drummer who has played at Wembley and hung out with Mandela had an audience of 35, give or take, in a lounge area outside a basement-level restaurant. When he started to drum, it looked like there wasn’t anywhere else in the world he wanted to be. Two days later, inside the school auditorium where he performed with school kids, he was greeted with the kind of deafening screams usually reserved for Justin Bieber. It was an amazing thing to watch.
It is said that when METCO first started, the program strategically sought out a certain kind of child. They were looking for little survivors, students who could cross from a world of powdered eggs to a world of poached eggs and find some way to hold onto themselves. They were looking for Leon Mobley. There was no diminishing this kid. Every experience he had here — being chased by state cops, being embraced by a local family, being nurtured by teachers or feared by townies — became fertile soil for his own growth. Deadbolt locks in one place, doors that were never locked in another place? It was all experience. He soaked up every lesson this place had to teach him. “Without Dover,” he once said of his adopted hometown, “there is no Leon Mobley.” There it is right there, that column of light.
I sound like a broken record, I know. But I still have so many questions about this: What is home? Is it history running deep over a few square miles? Is it a census tract with an acceptable threshold of your own kind, or is it the beat you hear in your head no matter where you are? How much of home is the feeling you get, and how much of it is the feeling you make?