Most people know Malik Yoba for his role as Detective J.C. Williams on the popular cop series New York Undercover, and more recently, his appearance on season one of Empire. I don’t follow Malik on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, but I hear about his whereabouts and latest projects on a regular basis because he is one of my husband’s closest friends. At last, this summer, I had the opportunity to put a face to a name of someone I’ve heard so much about.
In my parents’ living room, my two-year-old niece and and three-year-old step-daughter have Malik’s undivided attention. He’s casual in dark-washed blue jeans, a blue long-sleeved button down rolled up to his elbows, and blue, red, and black color-blocked Nikes. He leans forward on the floral-printed sofa as the girls perform an impromptu dance. Though he is the actor, the performer, tonight it is not so. For this father of three, right now it’s all about these little girls. He knows just what to say to make them light up. When the girls finish their dance, he turns his attention to my sister and me, and greets us with huge bear hugs. Malik and I agree that it feels as though we’ve known each other for a long time, even though we’ve never met face-to-face before tonight.
We asked Malik about his eventful day. He recently discovered that Aliquippa, PA, was the hometown of his father, now deceased. Intrigued and inspired, he traveled to Pittsburgh to spend a day exploring Aliquippa. Led on a personal tour by the city’s Mayor, Dwan Walker, Malik saw the abandoned house where his father grew up. He greeted neighbors and purchased artwork from a young aspiring football player next door. He looked through archived photos of the city and visited Aliquppa’s high school stadium, “The Pit,” where he offered students inspirational words.
Malik recapped his day but kept it relatively brief.
“(People in Aliquippa are) definitely warm and friendly folks. I always like coming from New York where people have forgotten some of the old school social graces, to places where folks still refer to each other as Mr. So-and So, Mrs. Mary, Mr. John. That kind of thing, I like that. People kept saying, ‘welcome home, welcome home,’ so there was definitely a very embracing spirit of the people for sure. I’ve visited a lot of small towns in America, and I can always appreciate people who manage to live, survive, and or thrive in those smaller communities. So even though there’s not a strong economic base, there’s still a sense of hope.”
Malik shared that he’s only beginning to process the events of today, another part of the story that is his life. While it will take some time, he is already thinking of how the connection to Aliquippa can live on by incorporating it into his upcoming solo show.
The aroma of dinner lures us into the dining room where my father confirms dinner is ready. We hold hands around the table to pray, and my mother commences a prayer thanking God we are having dinner with a star. Once we say “amen,” Malik tells my niece she’s the star.
Over grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, greens, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese prepared by my father, Malik asks each of us questions, genuinely interested in our stories. He asks my mom about her long teaching career, and my father about his Trinidadian roots. He then shifts the conversation to my sister and me—asking me to tell the story of how my husband and I met, and asking my sister and me how long we’ve been teachers, how we got into teaching, and about the ethos of our schools.
As someone who works with teenagers for a living, I’m constantly thinking about their well-beings, their lives, and their futures. In my classes, we occasionally take a break from our literary discussions to chat about big life topics. My students would probably want to know what a talented and adept actor considers his most meaningful accomplishment, so I asked Malik. Surprisingly, it isn’t a particular award or role. It is family.
“Professionally, I’ve had many moments that I’m proud of,” he says, “but I raising human beings and being able to ultimately find peace [in my co-parenting relationship] where there was once discord is a major, major accomplishment.”
I dig a bit deeper and learn that Malik has children the age of my students. I ask what advice he has for teenagers who are trying to make sense of the world. He says, “One of the most amazing qualities of any human being is integrity. Consistently being authentic. Being courageous enough to be who you are because so many people live in the world not knowing who they are.
“I just had my kids for a summer vacation and the thing that they talked about the most, particularly the girls–I have a 13-year-old boy and 14- and 17-year-old girls–is everybody wants to be like everybody else, no one’s being original, no one’s standing out, and that’s a conversation I have with adults. I was really struck by how often they talked about that over the two-week period that we were all together. I asked them where does that come from, why do you guys talk about this so much right now, and they were just talking about, “ooh look at this, this person on Snapchat or this person on Instagram.” Everyone wants to dress the same and talk the same. I think that the world is filled with so many people who don’t mean what they say, who just have a hard time listening to that inner voice that gives you that individuality, and they feel they have to conform. Be the type of person that people never, ever question what you’re about.”
The evening wraps up around 9:30; Malik’s day started early so he is tired. But long after we say our good-byes, Malik’s words about knowing what you’re about, and his feelings regarding his trip to Aliquippa, stay with me. For quite some time, I’ve wanted to explore and learn more about my father’s Trinidadian side. Perhaps my father and I will take that trip to Trinidad that we’ve been talking about for years. Or maybe I’ll at least get started by digging around on ancestry.com. Everybody’s got a story; I want to know more about mine.