By All Appearances
In 1939, his great-grandmother, Cleo Johnson, moved the family from Georgia to a house on East 26th in Brooklyn. She opened a restaurant on Green Avenue and served fried fish and sometimes pork chops with gravy. Nash’s mother, Brenda, grew up in the business and, at the age of five, was tasked with counting change for customers. She remembers the packed Friday nights and the smoky sting in her nose and eyes. But by 1977, the year she gave birth to Nash, the neighborhood had fallen into decline. Thieves killed the druggist on the corner, and months later, shot a man at a gas station across the street. Johnson closed the restaurant and returned south.
Thereafter, Nash spent his summers in Waycross, Georgia. He passed the time in a forest beside the house, imagining he was Indiana Jones, and when he grew bored, rode his bike around town, dropping in on elderly women he knew from church. On his great-grandmother’s urging, he did their chores. You mop that floor, and you do it with perfection, she would tell him. “I didn’t realize until much later that she was teaching me to be humble,” he said. “And getting me out of the house so she could watch her soap operas.” If he seemed at all listless, she would hand him a dictionary and tell him to memorize it. He didn’t mind this; he liked how the sounds fit together.
Nash was shy as a child and spent much of his time alone. While the neighborhood kids played skelly in the street, melting wax into bottle caps that they flicked across a chalk grid, he preferred imagining new worlds in the backyard. His action figures never fought—they went to school, found jobs, bought houses; he bent their plastic forms to fit behind miniature desks. He was a devout student and walked to school each morning with the New York Times tucked beneath his arm. Sometimes, when his older brothers and their friends listened to loud music, Nash rose from his homework, knocked on their doors, and told them to quiet down. “Let them be,” his mother would say. “I’d rather have them in the house than on the street.” Once, Nash replied, “Well, don’t bring the street into the house!” His mother told him to stop being like his father. Nash was in elementary school.
Frederick Nash was a quiet, stern man who spent much of his time in a study at the back of the house, building clocks and devising various entrepreneurial ventures. Nash generally feared his father, but he struggled with math and, on several occasions, having prayed first to God that he find the answer, went to his father for help. “He would always start with, ‘Why can’t you figure it out yourself?’ ” Nash recalled. “I hated when my father asked, ‘Why?’ He’d explain it to me and walk me through the steps. Then he’d say, ‘Did you understand?’ I was always afraid to say ‘no,’ so I said ‘yes.’ And I would start and mess up somewhere, and he would say, ‘You told me that you understood. If you don’t understand something then you must say so. Speak up for yourself. I’m not going to be here always to help you.’ ” Years later, Nash would realize that his father was, in fact, a gentle man. At night, he tucked his son in so tightly that Nash woke each morning still plastered to the bed.
In his mother’s words, it was “a really good childhood,” protected from—but not unconscious of—the world that dove and shifted around him. On Saturdays, Nash’s grandfather, an artist, took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on walking tours of the city’s architecture. Sometimes, they would sit together on Green Avenue with his grandfather’s “black, socialist friends.” On Sunday mornings, his mother would tune the radio to gospel classics, and when they returned from church, Nash would join his father, a Muslim, in listening to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, on the radio. Later, in high school, he devoured novels by James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room excited him for the “boundaries that it crossed”—a man was in love with a man—before he knew that he would love a man, too.
Nash wonders, looking back, if the multiplicity of his upbringing shielded him from the harsh reality of what it meant to be young and black in America. His encounters with prejudice came in shades of black: a racial hierarchy within his community that denied darker-complected people access to social clubs. “We don’t partake in that,” his mother would say, but when it came to “white-on-black” prejudice, “It just wasn’t part of my consciousness,” said Nash. His childhood opened his eyes on the world but not so wide that he ever doubted that the things he aspired to were possible.