(Publisher’s note: This interview was originally featured in the June 2010 edition of H2H Magazine).
Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): As a young boy when did you begin questioning the whereabouts of your father, and what was going on at that time in your life?
Jesse Muhammad (JM): I actually never asked my mother about my father. When I was younger the only memory I have of him was seeing him for the first time when I was in elementary school. As a matter of fact, he stayed next door to my sister’s father. One day we were leaving from Alicia’s father’s home, and my mother said let’s stop at the next house. My father was outside. I can’t remember what age I was. She said to me, “That was your father”. I just recounted that story a couple months ago. I actually forgot about that. So that was when I first saw my father, or who I thought was my father.
EM: So what went through your mind after she told you that was your father?
JM: Due to the fact that I was young, I really didn’t think anything of it. It didn’t affect me. Well I didn’t think it did. At the time it didn’t really affect me. I was like, “Okay, fine”. It was interesting thought how he stayed right next door to Alicia’s dad. Right in Northwood Manor.
The time when I really wanted to know about my father was when I got to high school. I was in art class and my art teacher, “Ms. R”, had us working on a personal project book. She gave us a list of questions; what was our favorite adventure, our most memorable moment, what did we wish could happen, etc. One of the questions in addition to that was regarding the thing we wish, the most, could happen in our lives. I drew a picture where I just finished playing in a basketball game and a guy was shaking my hand. You couldn’t see his face, but you could see mine with my goggles on and my basketball jersey. The guy said, “Job well done son”. So I went home and showed the book to my mother, and she was like, “Hmm, I like this”. I remember, and she doesn’t know this and this is the first time I’m sharing this with anyone, after she saw it she went in her room and called one of her friends on the phone. I remember listening in to the conversation, and she was actually crying on the phone. She said, “Wow my son is at the point where I think he wants to know who his father is”. So from there I really wanted to know.
EM: Tell me about the day your mom approached you regarding her uncertainty of who your biological father was out of the two relationships she had close together between Earl Rideaux and Joe McCray.
JM: Well I just got back from a summer internship in 2001. I was in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was right after Hurricane Allison hit here in Houston. When I came back I stayed with her. I can remember it so vividly like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the couch and she was ironing. I always loved looking through her picture books (photo albums). I kept noticing she had all these pictures of this dark-skin brother everywhere, all up and down the picture book. So I asked her who he was, and she said, “Oh, that’s Joe. Everyone loved Joe. Your Grandmother loved him to death. Everybody wanted me to marry him”. I said, “Yeah, I can tell y’all were real close”.
She said, “Yeah, we were real close”. She paused for a second and said, “You know he went to his grave saying you were his son”. I just paused. She continued ironing and she said, “Truthfully I really never knew if he was your father or not. I was in between relationships with him and Earl. I really just don’t know”. I remember closing the book, went in my room, and closed the door. I remember being very upset with her at that time. Not really mad, but just disappointed. All this time I’m thinking my father was another man, and she really didn’t know. To be honest with you, we didn’t talk about it anymore. However, I remember calling my other siblings, and I mentioned it to them. Before I could even get all of the words out of my mouth they already knew. So I got mad at them. I went to my Grandmother and she said, “Oh yeah I’ve been thinking that for a long time”. I went to one of my Aunts and she said, “Oh yeah, I knew that”. I thought to myself of how everyone so conclusive that Joe was my father and nobody ever told me? So I just went into a shell and I never brought it up. That was in 2001, and I never asked anybody else about it. I just kept it to myself.
EM: From that day to 2009, how often did you think about finally finding out which one was your biological father?
JM: I would say, honestly, not a month went by where it didn’t cross my mind. It would be one of those situations where I would be driving down the street, or I’d be watching a particular movie and seeing a father and son uniting. I remember, and this is how I could tell that I wasn’t emotionally healed, watching an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-air. His father came back into his life, and Will bought that gift for him and they went to the park, you know. Then he just skipped out on him and made up some excuse, and I remember I cried watching that episode. I used to watch it a lot. It stopped me from wanting to go see movies like that. I would ask myself why was I crying, but I realized that’s what it was. I just learned to cope with it; act like it didn’t exist, and just keep going.
EM: Tell me about the day you finally decided to just do it, and finally begin the search. You submitted the post on Global Grind and your own personal blog. What was the response like from the readers?
JM: I was sitting at the breakfast table in my home, and people were texting me saying that I was about to be over 30 years old. This was in late August leading into September of 2009, right before my birthday (September 4th). Somebody texted me, and said that I was the type of person who was hard to buy gifts for. They asked, “What do you get someone who already has everything they want”? I was thinking to myself, “I don’t have everything I want. You can get me another car” (laughing). They said, “You seem to be happy with what you have. You never seem like to you want anything”. So the thought just came to me that maybe I should find out who my father is and quite suppressing it.
Well, I could have easily done it, blogged about it, etc. Out of the love and respect I have for my mother I called her to get her permission to do it, because 1) this world can be very judgmental towards women dealing with multiple relationships. We hold people’s past against them, and 2) I didn’t want people to try to ostracize my mother with ill will against her about the decision she made. So I called to get her permission, and honestly I didn’t know what she was going to say. When I told her about it she was elated. She said, “Yes, and not only would this be closure for you, but it would be closure for me”.
I was trying to decide which one to launch it on, my personal blog or Global Grind. I decided to launch it on Global Grind, because they focus more on the hip hop community and the bulk of their readers are young people. I figured that I would reach and touch more people starting off and launching it there. I launched it publically, but I wasn’t trying to get a T.V. deal or rally for myself. I wasn’t trying to win a blog award for myself. All I was trying to do was put myself in the public’s eye for the support. I wanted to put myself out there, and put my word out there that I was going to do this. That way I knew people were watching me and if that “I don’t care, I don’t need him” attitude popped up, I would think about all of those people I had attracted to cheer me on. I needed that support system, online and offline, so I could go through the process.
Before I launched the blog I read it to my mom for her to approve it. She cried over the phone, she approved it, and that’s what happened. We launched it.
EM: How soon was it from the day you launched that blog to the moment you made contact with Earl Rideaux? How did it come about?
JM: The night of the anniversary of my birth, September 4th and the day I launched it, we had that gathering (celebration). All of my siblings were made aware of what I planned to do. I had two choices: 1) I could either go and find Earl who is alive and take a DNA test, or 2) or go the route with Joe McCray who was actually killed in 1988, and I would have to seek out his family and take a DNA test. Of course everybody agreed the easiest thing to do was to find Earl. All I can tell you is that God orchestrated all of this, because I launched that blog on the September 4th. The next thing that I know, two days later on September 6th my sister, Alicia, calls me and says she has some good news. She was at Wal-mart and saw one of Earl’s daughters, Tiffany, leaving out while she was walking in. She told Tiffany that we had been trying to find them. So they exchanged numbers, and Tiffany said, “We have been hearing so much about our brother and we want to meet him”. I made arrangements to meet up with them on Labor Day on the 7th… three days later!
EM: What it was like for you to finally meet Earl, face to face, for the first time after the initial phone call?
JM: First let me say that the experience of meeting his daughters…there was an immediate attachment. We met at my Grandmother’s house. I met all of them except one. They immediately got attached to me, and they said that Earl would go on and on about how they needed to go out and find their brother. Earl told them, “He’s a super star doing all these wonderful things”. They were so happy. The youngest one, Crystal, was so happy because she and I look alike. After that we agreed to follow up.
Three or four days later, after gathering myself from experiencing that, I called Earl to talk to him. Every time after that our conversations were always short, because he really didn’t know what to say. One time I talked to him, he tried to go into apologies. I told him it really wasn’t necessary.
Well time was kind of elapsing, and I was waiting for him to call me. I’ll be honest, I went through one of those spells where I thought, “Maybe this wasn’t meant…here we go again”. However, there is no way that Allah would allow all this to happen this fast if it really wasn’t meant. One Sunday, I remember this vividly, after the mosque meeting we went and spoke at this shelter as usual. Afterwards, I was scheduled to meet a friend. While I waited at the gas station for him, I remember thinking to myself that I had to call Earl. I had to call and talk to him. So I called and nobody answered. I called again and left him a message. I called about three times in a row. The third time he picked up the phone. I told him, “I don’t know what your feelings are brotha, but I want to meet you in person”. That’s when I first asked him about getting a DNA test done. He said, “Whatever it takes for you to be happy, I’ll do it. I’ll meet you”.
So my mom picked me up and we went over to his house. Man, I haven’t been that nervous since…I can’t even remember. My mom was all excited, she was geeked. We had the video camera to record it. It felt like a reality show, for real. She was filming and I was talking into the camera. We went to the door, and I knocked. His wife answered, and said, “He’s here”! So she opened up the door, and we went in. I met him. I didn’t really have much to say, so I just hugged him. He introduced me to the other people who were there as his son. Shortly after that, we got into the car and headed over to go take the DNA test. He talked the whole time, I really didn’t have to say much.
EM: What was it like for you to blog about this the whole way through, every step of the way?
JM: First of all, it was a very inspiring experience. The more I blogged about it the more nervous I got about the whole situation, but it was exciting. This story got so far around the country…really I would say the world due to the internet. I still have compiled emails of people’s testimonies of wanting to do the same thing. I have volumes of them, no exaggeration. I have tweets, Facebook messages, emails, and comments. People were so excited. I didn’t set out for the attention, but blogging about it was a very uplifting experience and therapeutic too. As everyday went by, even when it wasn’t the exciting time, when I got frustrated from not getting a phone call I’d blog about it. That’s what led me to appreciate my blog even more and it made people love it even more too but it let them know that this is the type of person I am. I’m open, I’m honest, and that my blog isn’t a fake or fraud site. It connects people. It was an exciting experience.
EM: Fast forwarding to the DNA test…what was going through your mind as you were preparing to take that test? What were you thinking and feeling?
JM: I’ll be honest with you, I was sitting in that clinic feeling like I was about five years old, and I was just smiling the whole time. I couldn’t believe this was finally happening. I signed the paperwork. I was really excited about this. I was happy for my mother too, because she was sitting there watching like, “My baby is about to finally find out who he father is”.
When we took the test, I prayed about it hoping…I was 1000% wanting him to be my father. That was my prayer, because it would give me an opportunity to start fresh with the one that’s living. I knew that if the results were to be different then I’d have to deal with the fact that I wouldn’t see the one who was my father.
EM: What were the results and what was going through your mind after hearing the results?
JM: When we went back to the clinic, we were all in good spirits. The doctor kind of leaned back in his chair and he held the paper up, and from the look in his eyes I was thinking that it didn’t look too good. Then he just read it to us that there was zero percent chance of Earl being the father. All I remember was putting my hands over my mouth. When I looked back at the photos I was actually grinning. Earl face just kind of fell, he was hurt. I knew I was smiling because I wanted to cry. I really did, but for some reason I held it back. I was hurt. I remember Earl asking, “Is this test accurate? Do they make errors?” The doctor started explaining to us, scientifically, what the scores meant on the paper. He said that if we go anywhere else, it’s going to say the same thing. Even the doctor said that when he got the results in the mail he said he was upset and that he really wanted Earl to be the father. After that I just went into a little mini shell.
EM: Now that you know that Joe McCray is in fact your father and the circumstances is that he is deceased have you or are you making any attempts to connect with his side of the family? Is it a closed chapter for you since you now know?
JM: It’s definitely not a closed chapter. When I got the results, I immediately had the intensions of starting the second phase of this journey, which was to find the members of his family, my family. During the process people were giving me advice about ancestry.com, how to get a death certificate, but because I wanted the results to the DNA test to be otherwise I kind of just put all of that to the side. The painful thing that I know was a roadblock in me continuing the process, even up to now, that as a child I was being told that Joe was my God-Father. I actually met Joe before, several times in elementary when I used to live with my Grandmother. He used to come by every week giving my Grandmother gifts and money for me. I was told he was my God-Father. So I’m being told now that I was in the presence of my father every week and I was being told he was my God-Father. That’s crazy… So as I started thinking more on that I got angry again with my family. This was my father here the whole time. It made me realize that it was true about what this man said, that he went to his grave believing I was his son. He was giving to me up until the day he died. I remember when they told me he died. My Grandmother shared that my “God-Father” passed away, and I cried and cried. But that was really my father.
This whole process was showing the human side of me. People see me blogging on the internet, winning the awards, wearing the suits…they believe that I’m okay. A lot of people have been asking me about what’s going on with it, and I had to be honest with them. I started dealing with emotions that really got the best of me that it really killed my desire to keep pursuing the rest of it. It was too much weight. I just let it go. There was even a big gap between me blogging about it back in November and then again in late December for the New Year (My Most Memorable Moment in 2009).
From there I hadn’t blogged about it since, because I was just thinking about it. I still need to get into the phase of contacting his family. It’s just been difficult getting momentum with it. I’m going to bring it back out into the public again and get the people to back me up. Just like I needed people to be behind me to do the first part, I need people behind me to do this. I had the desire; I just didn’t have the energy or consistent motivation.
EM: Throughout your entire life you’ve managed to accomplish so much. You graduated from high school (star basketball player), you have a degree in engineering from Prairie View A&M University, you’re a photographer, and talented artist, graphics designer, mentor, motivational speaker, blogger with multiple awards, and the list keeps going. How were you able to accomplish so much throughout your life in the absence of such an important person as your father?
JM: I would definitely have to say that Allah had His hand on me, that’s number one. I know that none of which I have accomplished would not have been possible at all had He not been intervening. Second, His co-creator, my mom, in my life…she has definitely been all the man that I think most of us needed. My mother was not strict in that since, but she definitely handled her business, and being a single mother she had to play both mother and father to each of us. She worked multiple jobs, disciplined us when we needed to be, and she gave us chores constantly. She was always encouraging me, and unless she had to work my mom didn’t miss basketball games. As a matter of fact, my highlight tapes from high school that I showed to colleges they kept asking who was that lady that kept hollering, “Go baby! Take ‘em baby! I said, “Man, that’s my mama”. My mom would win “Basketball Parent of the Year” every year. When I was in Honor Society she was always there. Whenever I needed anything she was always there. She is my number one cheerleader to this day of anything I do and accomplish.
To be honest, my siblings have been a great support as well. At one point in time it was me and my two oldest brothers in an apartment together. Even in the midst of the wrong they were doing or teaching me to do—they say I’m always trying to get them arrested every time I bring this stuff up—but we were in survival mode and when no one else was taking care of me these two were taking care of me. They made sure I went to school every day, they did everything they could to make sure I ate every night. So my brothers have been great father-figures. Whenever one of us got into a fight, we all got into the fight. I have these two as the first men in my life, and I’m very appreciative of them.
I’m very appreciative of my sister as well. She’s a single mother and she is tough. She is a cheerleader too. The rumor is my sister spoils us more that our mother (laughing). My little brother has always been supportive. The family, when I was growing up, has been the aspect that has helped me to deal with not having a father, coupled with several teachers, professors, and their support. I was told that by having the name “Jesse Jackson” it naturally drew attention. It was never a time when I was just an ordinary student in class because of the name “Jesse Jackson”. I just drew attention. People used to always tell me I was going to do great things, so I had the support of people. That’s why I’m always so appreciative of people like my basketball coach, Coach Doyle.
EM: I remember you mentioning Minister Farrakhan as being your spiritual father in your life and how he stepped in for you.
JM: It’s an amazing thing that the man you’ve never shook hands with before, never sat at his table to eat dinner, never had any personal contact with him in the sense of in person, that through tapes that man can mentor you. That’s powerful. I remember when I first heard the audio tape of Minister Farrakhan, and the lecture was “I Accept the Challenge”, and my brother Deric let me listen to it on our way to the gym. He was trying to teach me how to life weights for varsity. He played the tape and I was like, “Who is that man, Dr. King”? Deric said, “Nah, that’s Minister Farrakhan”. So that tape all the way through high school became my pre-game lecture that I would listen before a game. When you talk about spiritual father, to hear that man break down scripture, he was answering a lot of questions I used to have back in bible study in children’s church. I used to ask all these questions and they wouldn’t answer them. After I listened to Minister Farrakhan he started answering all of those questions.
I was considered a popular person so I didn’t get too much correction, because I wasn’t really a problem child. There weren’t too many times my mother punished me. I was relatively considered a good child but when I heard Minister Farrakhan it made me realize that there was so much more to me that yet I’m not doing. So I was blessed that going into college I had a different mindset about getting a degree, a different mindset about purpose in life. People kept saying that I didn’t need the Nation of Islam to be a good person. They didn’t understand that I really didn’t have this big purpose until I started hearing him and watching him serving our people. The bigger purpose was that he opened my eyes.
I really wasn’t satisfied going to church to be honest with you. I was really going because we were being forced to go. It was only one church that I used to like going to because I knew I was going to learn something. It was St. John’s Church Downtown (Houston) where Pastor Rudy Ramus and his wife minister. That was the only church I ever went to where I knew I was going to learn something. Other than that church was just a hangout for me. However, hearing Minister Farrakhan gave me a whole other perspective on religion and spirituality.
I thank Allah for my family, and I thank Allah that He used my brother as a vessel to bring me to Minister Farrakhan. He, through all this time when I was coping with wanting to know who my father was and suppressing it, was the man who feeding me way in Chicago or wherever he was on the Earth. It’s amazing.
EM: With all of this being said, what words to you have for those, especially young boys, who currently have to grow up without their father, whether he is in jail, no longer living, or just unwilling to be in their lives?
JM: 1) Don’t use it as an excuse. I met a lot of people on this journey who was sharing with me their intimate regrets that they had. They actually used the absence of their dad as an excuse to do wrong, as an excuse to treat women like they do, as an excuse to mistreat their mother, and used it as an excuse to deal drugs. There’s many out there without their fathers and they use it as a crutch. I was blessed that I didn’t use it as a crutch, because I really had that “I don’t care” attitude. My thing was I wanted to be better. Even though deep down there may be issues there, but I can’t use that as an excuse, I have to go forward. Even when I was desirous of knowing who my father was in high school I couldn’t let that stop me, because I was already being told by my mother, my family, and my teachers was I was going to be somebody great. So if he wasn’t there, so what, I have to do what I have to do. So the biggest thing is don’t use it as an excuse.
2) For those who desire to search for their father, I would say that it’s not easy. Yours may not happen as fast as mine. It may be longer, but I say go for it! I learned so much from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad through Minister Farrakhan the importance of the Knowledge of Self, and now since finding out that Joe McCray is my biological father I’ve begun to ask my siblings what they knew about him. The more and more they describe him the more and more I understand why I am the way I am. They said he was the entrepreneur type, kind to women, and my mother kept telling me things that parallel with him and I. He was very industrial and a hard worker. Now I understand that those are attributes I didn’t get from my mother. Now I see. That knowledge of self helps you, because that knowledge of self is the knowledge of God in the same. When you decide to go on that journey to know the other side that you didn’t know it’s a beautiful feeling. So after getting past the tears and the pain, now I can come to grips that I know why I do what I do. I’d tell anyone that they need to go for it, you need to know.
3) I would honestly say that to anyone who goes on that journey and their father is still alive, don’t take it for granted. I would implement that atonement process, let go of the past, and work out what you need to work out. Build on that relationship, because I would give a lot to be able to sit here and eat dinner with Joe right now and for him to just talk to me. I really would. Even if he’s on drugs, I would still go talk to him. If Joe was alive and strung out on drugs, I’d go find him and help him. The thing about it is Minister Farrakhan teaches that we are not to judge our parents. Whatever state they’re in that’s what they’re in. We should always to grateful and humble, because it was through them that God allowed us to come into life. So I say if you find out who he is I say build a relationship, because I would trade places with you.
EM: Any future projects; books, movies, etc?
JM: Yes. I’m working on a book set to be released this year called, “In Search of My Father: You Can Do It Too”. It will be a compilation of the articles I wrote, the blogs, the photos, as well as the comments and advice I received from everyone. It will be a big compilation of the support I received. I have the entire tweet comments saved. It’s going to include the Facebook archive and what everyone said about how they felt. I plan, God-Willing, to put that book out this year. Also, I’ll outline the process, getting the death certificate, and everything.
No movie (laughing). I do have the YouTube of the video footage of when I went through the process, and I plan to upload those videos online when the book comes out so they can see the emotional responses. I have the footage of when we got the test results.
I think that the main thing with this interview, Hurt2Healing, is part of the inspirational energy that I needed to get off of my behind and find out who my other family members are. I plan to kick that off as soon as possible, because there is a possibility that he may have other children. So that means I may have some brothers and sisters out there. I need to find my aunts. So I have a couple leads in that. Other than that I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, which is a lot of stuff (laughing).
EM: I’m proud of you. I’m really proud of you. I appreciate this. Is there anything else you would like to add?
JM: Thank you. I would like to say first, All Praise Is Due To Allah for all of this and for considering me for this interview. Anyone who knows me knows I remain humble, because I know that I’m just a vessel being used with all of these gifts and talents that I have. So I don’t take for granted being given the cover of this magazine, not at all. I want to thank my mother, my brothers and sister for being so supportive. To my Grandmother who had a serious role in raising me, and I really am thankful for the things that she was seemingly doing to me that she was really doing for me. I owe her a lot as well. To all of the members of the Nation of Islam, my Muhammad family, for always being so supportive. For every last one that I have encountered and will encounter in this Nation, let’s keep pushing!
EM: Yes sir, thank you!