Understanding My Nephew's Generation—Or Trying To

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A young man stacks rocks in a riverbed
My nephew, Reggie Cole, stacking stones in a dry riverbed near Auburn, CA. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

After I enter my debit card information into my nephew's phone, confirming the purchase of a Sacramento-to-Oakland Greyhound ticket so he can attend the funeral of a friend who'd passed from fentanyl poisoning, I hand the phone back, asking if this was the first close friend he's lost.

No, he replies—another buddy of his died at the start of the pandemic. COVID-19 related. Damn. I offer my condolences, and really didn't know what else to say.

At 18 years old, my nephew Reggie is a struggling high school super-senior who has dreams of being a mechanic—and even bigger dreams of racing the Le Mans in France. But right now, he's staying on my couch, trying to figure out life.

I place myself in his shoes: At 18, I was working multiple jobs and was headed to college. But a number of my close friends who weren't going to college were dying of gunshots, losing their minds while popping pills, and/or being hit with charges that would start them on a path of living in and out of incarceration.

Reggie at the SFMoMA, posing in front of a sculpture of stacked fake human brains.
Reggie at SFMOMA, posing in front of a sculpture of stacked fake human brains. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I can help my nephew understand gun violence and mass incarceration. But I don't know what it's like to deal with deaths from fentanyl and COVID. I don't know what it's like to be 18 right now.

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The morning after our convo we grab breakfast, I pass him a few bucks, and drop him at the Greyhound. Then I sit down for work, opening my phone to read an Associated Press story about overdoses reaching a record high.

My nephew's friend is one of the estimated 100,000 people who've died of an overdose in the past 12 months.

My nephew represents the story of so many young people right now. Trying to figure it all out from a couch, a cot, a passenger seat in a car or a park bench. And the worst part: the guidance of older folks, such as myself, doesn't quite fit what they're experiencing.

They're dealing with a school system that was dysfunctional pre-pandemic, and was all but obliterated when learning became "distanced." They're looking for a job in a market where employers are reportedly seeking workers, but it gets tricky if you don't have a GED or a driver's license; the latter is basically a necessity for joining the gig economy. And a number of development resources, like trade schools, are either shuttered or aren't accepting new students. I know, I've called.

The way the cost of housing has impacted Reggie's generation, I'm happy he isn't living in his car, like some of his peers. But by definition, he is functionally "homeless." Despite floating from couch to couch, he wouldn't be counted on the official government homeless assessment report. And to think: African Americans already make up a disproportionate amount of homelessness in this country. I wonder how steep of an undercount that is?

Then there's the issue of increasing wealth inequality. California, the land of economic disparities, is the place where the food that feeds the world is grown, but people who pick it are paid pennies. There are a multitude of millionaires and a heap of homelessness homies. What's to become of an undereducated, informally skilled young Black man?

I'm a student of this stuff—you know, this whole "Black man in America" thing. During my late teens and early 20s, I worked as a resident assistant in Howard University's largest freshmen male dormitory, and as a teacher in Oakland's African Male Achievement program. I've read and written more pieces on the topic than I can count. Plus, shit, I'm a Black man in America. I live this too.

But you don't have to be Black, a man or even America to know that your late teens and early 20s are an extremely important period in life. It's when a simple decision, or a set of them, can affect the rest of your life, and possibly even generations of your family.

Artist Dana King and my nephew Reggie met and instantly clicked on their shared love of racing.
Artist Dana King and my nephew Reggie met and instantly clicked on their shared love of racing. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

So I'm stressing him. Not just about finding a job, gaining skills and finishing school. But starting with making handwritten to-do lists that include the simple things. Because the failures he's faced in life have left his self-esteem depleted, and now it's on him to build himself back up through seeing his own incremental successes. Because that's what I did.

I encourage visiting the library and spending time in cafes, taking time to read books, because that mediative period is needed, even if it's just a few minutes. Because that's what I did.

I push him to exercise and eat well, because we've been miseducated about the importance of a healthy diet, and need to make a drastic change. Because, again, that's what I did.

He dismisses my sermon about how Red Hot burritos and Cup O' Noodles aren't sufficient, and knocks me off my fake-vegan hill by telling me that I cook like a woke white man.

He's comedic. Sincere. A lil' hard headed and forgetful. But he has potential.

I regularly talk to groups of students who are Reggie's age and younger. In the past couple of weeks, I've led virtual discussions with students at Rudsdale High School about the importance of their worldview and telling their stories through photos, and I've talked to students at Madison Park Academy Elementary School about the importance of simply showing up.

This past Friday, I was underdressed as I sat on a panel about fatherhood at Contra Costa College's African American Male Symposium. We answered questions about the metamorphosis that occurred when we found out we were having children, and our favorite thing to do with our kids. My five year-old daughter sat in the front row, spacing out on her tablet. My nephew sat next to her, and was surprisingly paying attention. He even asked a question: "How do you not repeat the mistakes of your father?"

It was funny, because the whole time I'm up there talking to this room full of over 100 high schoolers, I just wanted to blurt out that we adults don't have it together either. We don't have the answers. With crumbling infrastructure, failing public schools, an unjust criminal justice system and an ongoing housing crisis, I'm sorry, but this generation, like the generation before mine, has failed my nephew and his peers. I have absolutely no idea how they're going to deal with it.

Aside from racing cars, Reggie loves fishing. In fact, he's taught me more about fishing than anyone.
Aside from racing cars, Reggie loves fishing. In fact, he's taught me more about fishing than anyone. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Yesterday, lightweight frustrated that my advice wasn’t helping much, I had a timely learning experience in the DMV parking lot.

My nephew is inside, taking a written driver’s license test—you know, so he can enter the gig economy and stop taking the bus back and forth to Oakland. Outside the building, another young Black man is in the parking lot, smoking a Black & Mild near the popped hood of a Honda. The young man calls me “OG” and asks for a jump. We try it, but my hybrid isn’t built for that shit, or maybe his car just isn’t receptive. Whatever the case, it doesn’t work.

He calls a tow truck as I look up the nearest auto parts store; we talk the whole time. Well, he talks. I listen. He tells me about his automobile blunders, what music he listens to on his battery-draining sound system, and how badly he has to get to work.

The tow truck comes, the young man thanks me and gives me a fist bump through my driver’s side window before leaving. Not long after, my nephew comes back from his test. I ask him how it went.

He didn't pass.

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During our ride home, we don’t listen to music—instead, I keep asking questions, and listen to him.