I remember the first time it happened.
I was in sixth grade. It was my second week at St. Barts, a private Catholic school in Penn Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. My parents took me out of the city schools and sent me there because of its academic record and its athletic reputation. Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. My dad convinced my mom to enroll me there because its basketball team played over 40 games a year (which is insane for a middle school program), and it was a consistent pipeline to a successful high school program. Which, eventually, would lead to a college basketball scholarship. (The academics were top-notch, too. But this move was totally about basketball.)
So, every day, the 12-year-old me would catch two city buses to make the hourlong commute to school. Which was fine in the morning. But on the days we’d have basketball conditioning or math-club practice or something after school, I wouldn’t leave campus until maybe 6 or 7 o’clock. And since it wasn’t particularly safe for me to catch the bus that late by myself, and since my parents weren’t able to pick me up, I’d get rides from the parents of my classmates.
Now, St. Barts was also predominantly white. Which meant that the parents giving me rides home were usually white. Which also meant that I spent a lot of time around some of these families. We’d go to dinner, I’d spend the night at their houses, and I’d occasionally watch some of the kids say “f—k” or “s—t” or “c—t” (yes, these sixth-graders were already saying c—t) around their parents.
The first time it happened, we were in the car headed to Pizza Hut. I was in the backseat with two of my classmates; their parents were in the front. We were talking about school that day, and one of them said, “Yeah, that goddamn Mrs. Smith is such a f—king jagoff.” Instinctively I braced myself for the brake slam, tire screech and whirlwind backhand slap and choke-slam from the front seat that was surely coming. I think I even had an out-of-body experience, my ethereal being lifting from the backseat and hovering outside the car, waiting to witness the carnage that would soon take place.
Except nothing happened. Well, nothing aside from “Josh, watch your mouth.” Which confirmed that their parents did, in fact, hear them but just didn’t give any f—ks. My mind has never been blown the way it was blown that day. Like, imagine Katt Williams’ hair on a gusty day. That was my mind.
Sure, I cussed just as much as any other 12-year-old boy—I’d tell Andrew Dice Clay’s “Jack and Jill” jokes in the locker room—but cussing in front of adults was still a no-no for me. And cussing in front of your actual parents? You might as well just pick out your own cemetery plot. (“Here lies Damon. He cussed and now he’s dead.”)
It’s been over 20 years since that day in that backseat. I write and speak for a living now. Often, the things I write and the things I say in public contain profanity. Sometimes, even the titles of the things I write contain a cuss word or two. But still, as a grown-ass man with a wife and a daughter and an accountant and what I suspect is an arthritic left knee, I do not cuss in front of my dad. (Or my mom when she was still alive.) Or my uncles and aunts. Or my mother-in-law. Or any family, really, younger or older. Or while in the presence of anyone I consider to be an elder.
Now, have I slipped and cussed in front of my dad before? Of course. But each time it happened, it was a definite slip. Not a bulls—t “I slipped and fell and landed with my penis in my sexy co-worker” slip, but an actual accident. Like slipping and falling on black ice. But instead of black ice, it was a sheet of wayward “s—ts” or loose and lost “f—ks.”
I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a racial thing or even just a “This is just how I was raised” thing. But there are certain things I’ll just never be quite comfortable with. Beets, for instance. And Drake’s album covers. And using profanity in regular conversation with my dad is one of them.
But—and this is where it gets weird—I know he reads my work. And frequently shares and emails it to friends and family. And I know other elders—my uncles, my wife’s aunt, my friend’s parents, etc.—read and share it, too. And they’re all big fans. And I love that they’re big fans. But I have to admit that sometimes I cringe a bit at the thought of my dad reading, sharing and commenting on (yikes!!!) a piece titled, “Why a Man Enjoying a Woman’s Finger in His Butt Doesn’t Make Him Gay (NTTAWWT), Explained.”
Of course, I’m not embarrassed by my work or anything. I believe I’m good at what I do. I take pride in it, I work on it, and I also trust that the elders interested in my work bring the same eye and ear and sensibility to it that they’d bring while consuming a movie or a book or a song with adult themes and occasional profanity. But still, both the 12-year-old me waiting for a nonexistent smack and the grown-ass me refusing to cuss in front of my dad still exist in me, which has the tendency to make things a bit awkward.
I’ve learned how to deal with it, though. I still have those out-of-body experiences. But this time I’m hovering above my dad’s laptop, watching him read my work and cringing while he reads another off-color analogy. But instead of anticipating a smack, I stand surprised as he laughs at it, hits like and shares it on his Facebook page.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.