Besides the late Chadwick Boseman, no other actor of this generation brought Black masculinity to life with the range of Michael K. Williams. His most memorable character, The Wire’s Omar, was a homicidal stickup man clinging to a rigid morality in Baltimore’s vicious drug culture, a man who never pondered any contradiction between his open homosexuality, his love for his partners and his violent hypermasculinity. But there was also Chalky White, Boardwalk Empire’s benevolent Black gangster, who sacrificed his dignity and ultimately himself to keep his own people safe from the white mafiosi carving up prohibition era Atlantic City, and Lovecraft Country’s Montrose Freeman, who hid his secrets, shame and rage behind substance abuse.
Williams’ characters harbored nasty demons yet reflected light onto everyone around them. If Boseman was our gleaming superhero, Williams was our spotty mirror, coaxing introspection of our relationship with manhood out of what was intended to be a fleeting glance at ourselves. When he died of an overdose last year at age 54 at his apartment in his native Brooklyn, Williams left a story much like those of his enduring characters: a man of unrivaled brilliance who succumbed to an illness that had taken countless others in the community he loved in real life and represented on-screen.
He had also nearly completed a memoir, Scenes From My Life, which promises a deeper look into himself, as in the following excerpt where introspection is coaxed from him by an unlikely interrogator.
“Mr. Michael, could I ask you a question?”
His voice was still a child’s, but his tone had that grit, the kind that comes from experience. Daniel did not talk like someone with only sixteen years under his belt. But one thing I knew for sure: not everyone’s year on this Earth is created equal.
“Sure thing, my man,” I said. “Shoot.”
“Okay,” he said, leaning forward to be heard above the noise of the table. “Are you happy?”
My face likely betrayed me. Daniel was rangy and loose in the way of confident teenagers. And with one simple question, he had pulled my skin right off.
“Sorry, what?” I asked, tilting my ear forward. I’d heard him just fine, but I was thrown off. The smile across my face was for defense, honed over many years of self-protection. But Daniel saw right through it. Maybe that’s why he asked the question in the first place.
“Are you, like, happy?” he asked again, a little more hesitant, more like a teenager. Maybe he sensed my nervousness.
It had been a heavy day, so by dinner that night, I had let my guard down and switched into off mode. But I was sitting across from someone who didn’t have that luxury. When the dinner was over and we said our goodbyes, I could leave. But Daniel had to go home. So when he asked me if I was happy, I wanted to give him a real answer. Other people at the table must have sensed the energy shift because they stopped talking and looked over at us.
Now, I like to think I’m an open book. I actually pride myself on it. Friends know they can tell me anything, acquaintances tend to confide in me, full-on strangers walk up to me on the street and just start talking like we go way back. But maybe my openness was a front, a screen to make sure nobody ever got too close to the white meat. Daniel went right for it.
Happy? Was I happy? This kid didn’t have questions about Hollywood or Tupac or The Wire. I knew how to answer those. That’s just part of the job. But this? I was flying blind.
“Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said, stalling for time. Searching my brain, the voice of Reverend Ronald B. Christian popped into my head. Rev. Ron—the man who had saved my life. “You know,” I said, “my friend once explained that the word ‘happy’ is derived from the word ‘happenstance.’ Which means things that are given to you. So when you seek happiness, its source is outside of you.”
Daniel’s eyes were locked on mine—not just waiting to talk, but actually interested in the answer. Young people are open in a way that adults never are. Show me a struggling man and I’ll show you a boy never given a chance to change.
“But joy, he said, comes from a different source,” I continued. “When you have joy, there’s peace of mind. So you’re content with yourself. And I always took that as my goal.”
I thought Daniel might laugh at me or call BS. But instead he nodded, the words landing. “I get you, sure. I get it,” he said, leaning back. “Yeah, content. I like that.”
Excerpted from Scenes from My Life by Michael K. Williams and Jon Sternfeld. Copyright © 2022 by Michael K. Williams. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.