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We've all been in lockdown for months, glued to the news, Russian political meddling and economic meltdown and of course, the global pandemic. Join Rund Abdelfattah and run team Arab Louis, the hosts of Throughline, NPR's history podcast from Typhoid Mary, forced into quarantine for 30 years to conspiracy theories. An all-American pastime throughline make sense of today by diving into the past. Listen to Through Line from NPR every Thursday. Wherever you get your podcasts. Welcome to All Together Now Fridays with The Moth.
I'm your host for this week. Maryknoll clucky as the mosque director of finance. You could probably imagine this is a little different than an ordinary day at work for me. But you're in trouble now. Someone gave me a microphone. Our story this week is about one of the most difficult sacrifices families make in the hopes of finding their way to something different. Maurice Ashley told this story at a main stage show in New York City, where the theme of the night was New York stories.
Here's Moreese live at the mom.
We were Barel children, my brother, my sister and myself, every few months, my uncle would drive to Norman Manley Airport in Jamaica to pick up a barrel and bring it back to our house.
And in that barrel would be goodis from my mom, who was now living in New York.
And she would send down supplies like flour and rice and canned goods and stuff for school, like notebooks and pencils.
She even sent down games. One of the things she sent down, actually was a baseball glove and a softball in Jamaica.
We didn't know what to do with that. So I threw away the glove and we kicked around a softball like it was a soccer ball.
And that barrel was a connection to my mom, because even though she had left when I was a little boy, too, I knew that someday we would see her again. And that barrel was that constant reminder.
And she had left because Jamaica was tough. Jamaica in the late 1970s was filled with political violence. The Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party would go at odds at each other. You thought Democrats and Republicans were bad?
There was a lady who was a mother of one of my friends, and she talked sympathetically about the other party and they burn the house down. There will be nights when helicopters, police helicopters would fly overhead, the searchlight would stream into our homes looking for young men who had started trouble. I was afraid that my brother would one day be scooped up in one of their raids.
He was eight years older than I was and that I'd never see him again. But the one person who kept us on the straight and narrow was our grandmother. She was tough. She had raised seven kids on her own and now she was raising her her daughter's three children and she was a teacher. So she would teach us stuff. She tells our timetables. He would drill us all the ABCs and grammar because it was her at one point that education was the way out.
But you had to study and work and study some more if you were ever going to be successful.
And she felt like it felt to me like she was really tough, particularly tough on me.
I felt like she would always be harsher and harsher and always want to drill more and more.
I can understand why. And I remember one summer, having gotten a barrel from my mother and getting notebooks and she would send us comics as well.
So I had these Archie and Jughead, they were my favorites and I'd read only a couple of books, but we'd read I'd read that over and over, read them some Archie, some Jugg, some Veronica. That was my thing.
And I drew in the notebooks and I drew and drew and drew.
And then the end of the summer came and my grandmother said, where the notebooks. And I said, I drawn in them and she became infuriated and she got out a belt and she started hating me.
And I got scared and I ran out of the house and we shared a compound with another family and they had three dogs. And the dogs got excited hearing all the commotion. And they came over to me and they started barking.
And then one of them jumped up and bit my ear and the blood started coming out. And that's when my grandmother stopped screaming, so I couldn't understand why why was she so tough and what were we living in? And then the day finally came, we heard that we were going to take pictures for a visa, our visas.
We went and we took our pictures. We were going to the United States. We're going to go to New York and finally live with my mom.
And my friends could barely hide their envy because we had heard about the United States.
It was a land of milk and honey. The streets were paved with gold. Yeah. The only thing we knew about Jamaica, about the United States was what we saw on television. So it was the Partridge Family.
And girls were going to chase me like Danny Partridge or it was Arnold and Willis on Different Strokes. And we were going to live in a penthouse apartment. Actually bet my brother we're going to live in a penthouse apartment with a pool on the roof.
I don't even know where I got that one from. It was just like it seemed right. The pool on the roof, 20 bucks.
Take the bet. He took the bet.
And finally, the day came was August 28, 1978. We went to the airport, my mother, when my grandmother and uncle and we say our goodbyes, we got on the plane. We flew into the air the first time on a plane. We finally get over the lights of the city. I see the lights outside. I'm excited.
I take off my seatbelt and start looking to see the lights. A flight attendant comes over and smacks me on the hand, sit down.
I sit down. I'm still looking. Finally, we land, we go outside and there's my mom. Ten years she had worked to get us there, and so we're now we're driving down the streets in New York, United States, but the streets aren't paved with gold, linen and boulevards.
Got garbage. I'm a little confused.
So we drive and we turn at Rockaway Park. Ways is Brownsville, now Brownsville, Brooklyn.
We drive Rockaway Parkway and we get to this house as I step out the car like two storey shanty looking thing.
My brother said it reminded him of a jailhouse look on the corner there, four buildings flanking the corner, the four stories high, and they're all burnt out and abandoned like haunted houses.
I turned to my mother and I first words come out of my mouth. I say, Who are we visiting?
Instant flame in her eyes. She said, this is where you're going to live for me, we go inside, go into this two bedroom apartment. My mother would have one bedroom.
Me, my sister, my 20 year old brother share the other one. We go on to the streets the next day walking around.
My mother takes me to the school that I'm going to go to when school starts and I'm in shock on the side of the building.
There's graffiti now in Jamaica, education.
Like I said, it's everything. It's the only way out. To have graffiti on the side of a school building is like defacing St. Patrick's Cathedral.
I don't understand how this possible, so a week later, school starts, as soon as we start the day in math, everything's too easy. It feels like a year, maybe even more. Before I go home to my mother that day, I said I can't be in the right class because she gives me the Jamaican report card.
And I took it to school and took it to the guidance counselor. I said, look, look at my grades. Look how smart I was, you know?
And lady looks at me, says, now you're in the best class in the school. That's it.
And things didn't get much better after that because the drug dealers in the neighborhood, I mean, violence in Jamaica was tough, but in Brooklyn, it was different.
It was political violence there. But here it was the drug dealers shooting at each other every single night or just shooting just to let us know who ran the neighborhood.
And then things started to get dreary. It got cold. We don't know about cold in Jamaica.
It's freezing in New York. And then I met someone.
I met a kid and I was talking to him and he was from Jamaica. And I said, Where are you from Jamaica to?
And he said, you're not from Jamaica. So, yes, I am.
You say you don't sound Jamaican at all.
I had somehow lost my accent without even trying.
And I couldn't understand my mother, I was thinking we had a house in Jamaica, we had a great school, it wasn't cold.
Look at this place, the violence here, it's random. You worked for ten years for this.
What are you thinking? But life went on a little while after that. I went into a library and for me, reading those Archie and Jughead comics over and over, because that's all we had.
Suddenly I had a library full of books, and for me books were like gold. And on one of those bookshelves there was a book on chess. And so I take the book out, I open it up, and there all these strategies and tactics and positional plans and famous players alike, kind of Capablanca and all these exotic places I've never been to never, ever dreamt existed.
And I'm thinking, this is cool. I played a lot of games in Jamaica.
Chess was one of them and I was like this, I can do this. And so I start studying the book and I find out there's a whole world of chess. And so I start going into the parks to play chess in Brooklyn and get play talk with the hustlers. And then I go to the Manhattan Chess Club and I play there and I find out that they're experts in Masters and so start getting better and better. My rating goes up and then I turn into an expert and pretty soon after that I'm a master.
And then soon after that I'm a senior master. I'm one of the best players in the country.
And my whole world opens and then I begin to understand, because on the chess board, pieces are plastic, they're inanimate, they come alive in the mind of the player and the imagination of the one who is manipulating them. And you have to see what can happen on the board.
The plans are in your expertise, your judgment, your vision, and what my young mind didn't know that my mother had spent all that time sacrificing the intimacy of her children and my grandmother, those elder years, those precious older years of her life, is that those grey woman had seen that vision and that now, through their sacrifice, through their determination and hard work, I was now living their dreams with.
That was Morris, Ashley Morris is a history making chess grandmaster. He was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2016. Morris and I have a lot in common, so I followed up with him to ask more about his career, family and life in general. Here's Moreese. So that moment when you when the grand master title, what did that moment mean to you, your family, your mom, your grandma or.
My grandmother was not alive. She had long passed. But my grandmother's influence was very powerful on us. She had all these sayings and stories that she would tell and I would hear her voice often. I would hear the things that she said while I was trying to become successful myself. And I remember the one thing that she she said that really stuck with me is this idea of. People being a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
I was trying to become a grandmaster of one thing, but I had a lot of interests beyond chess. I would often hear this mantra of hers almost like a curse, you know, after her passing. It really was something that that stayed with me. And I guess part of me wanted to be successful for her as well. The day that I did accomplish the feat of becoming a grandmaster, getting my last Naum, it's called that same day I was thinking about her and thinking about this this same quote I told you, Jack of all trades, master of none.
And I was really nervous because I knew if I won this game, I would become a grandmaster. And I remember owning the shirt. And then this hit me and her voice hit me. And I dropped the iron and started crying because I realized my grandmother was speaking out of love and not out of malice. And it was this release from me, that moment. And I was able to get myself together and go to the game and eventually calm down.
And at one point, I was an incredible peace during the game itself and. Was able to just play with a different kind of freedom and it just came, the wind just came and there was, you know, I became a grandmaster that day. It was a fantastic moment for all of us, I mean, for myself. It was an achievement of a lifetime, a dream come true. And for everyone around me, they realized how much I poured into it.
They got it. This grandmaster title was not something trivial and people were just thrilled. It's it was very satisfying, especially I always know that I accomplished this sort of risky endeavor of dreaming about becoming a chess grandmaster and making a life around it. But somehow I managed to do what I wanted to do and it worked. It's really beautiful to to hear that, because I just I often find that at least within my family culture, especially when you come from families of immigrants, that there is always kind of this set path that you need to take in order to be successful.
And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact, you know, they risked so much to either bring you here or come here that they want this guaranteed result, which is often like you must be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, X, Y and Z. And I think it's incredible that you were able to go against the grain, which I think is something not always allowed in certain cultures and backgrounds. You talk about in your story about living the American dream.
I guess I'm curious to know from when you first got here to when you won that first grandmaster title to to possibly now what does the definition of the American dream look like to you now versus today?
I. I see the American dream for its warts. Particularly as a black person, and you know what, I consider it a different kind of dream, American dream, if you will, because those black people who were ripped from their homes in Africa and taken through the middle passages and then had to live as slaves for those centuries. Not knowing that whatever they did, they were not going to be rewarded for, they had the strength to survive and that strength produced this generation, everything that happened then produce this generation.
And to me, that strength is inspiring. It's incredible. And it's something that I wish to fulfill. In my actions, their dreams, their aspirations for the future generations. That that we we represent them well. Here are black people showing what the true beauty of the American experiment is. That was Maurice Ashley to hear more from our conversation, head to our website. The mortgage stress. Listening to Maury's this story made me feel so seen, but let me stop you right there before you get too excited.
I can't play chess to save my life. I didn't earn a grandmaster title in anything. But when I was two, my older siblings and I were sent to live with our grandparents in Ghana while our dad stayed behind in the US before the start of the school year, we would happily open boxes from our father that had fancy American sneakers that lit up bedazzled clothes before Bedazzle was a thing notebook's stickers and other accessories, things that would pretty much read.
I have family in America. Yep, that was us, the American kids in Ghana. Just like Moreese. These boxes filled us with joy and fostered an idealized image of America. My dreams didn't include a penthouse with a pool on the roof, but they did include a purple TV, my own room with purple decor in the big fancy house. Everything would sparkle glymour and we would live happily ever after. A few months shy of my ninth birthday, I was told that we were returning to the US.
When the day came, I remember getting on the plane. My mind was racing with visions of the American dream. But when I did get here, my life was not as expected. Later in life, I realized that returning to the US granted me certain luxuries that I may not have had in Ghana. But it also came with its own set of challenges, from language barriers to not being accepted. As an American, it made me question my sense of belonging.
But as I got older, I realized I didn't have to identify with one country over the other because both have very much contributed to who I am and how I navigate this World Series. And I really connected over our stories. But we were also able to recognize some of our differences, which reminded me that no two journeys are alike and our stories are unique, complex and nuanced. But we can often find pieces of ourselves in the reflection of each other's stories.
If you are inspired to think more deeply about our story this week, here are a few questions to get you started. Have you ever felt torn or defined by a certain culture or country? Can you remember when something didn't quite meet your expectations? When was the last time you were excited about the unknown? That's all for this week. Until next time. From all of us here at The Moth, we have a story where the week.
Marina Clucky is the director of finance at The Moth. She's been known to manage a budget or two or 20, probably way more than you want to know about. She's a certified public accountant who laughs often. She's also a traveler at heart and is proud of her Ghanian Haitian heritage. She says she's happiest when all her siblings are in a room reminiscing and cackling about all the trouble they used to get into when they were kids.
Podcast Production by Julia Purcell. The Moth podcast is presented by the Public Radio Exchange helping make public radio more public approx dog.