I've always thought of myself as a coward. Most of my memories of my childhood involve me being afraid in some way-afraid of other kids, afraid of being hurt or embarrassed, afraid of being seen as weak.
But mostly, I was afraid of my father.
When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of her head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am today.
Within everything that I have done since then--the awards and accolades, the spotlights and the attention, the characters and the laughs--there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in that moment. For failing to stand up to my father.
For being a coward.
What you have come to understand as "Will Smith," the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction--a carefully crafted and honed character--designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.
My father was my hero.
His name was Willard Carroll Smith, but we all called him "Daddio."
Daddio was born and raised in the rough and rugged streets of North Philadelphia in the 1940s. Daddio's father, my grandfather, owned a small fish market. He had to work from 4:00 a.m. until late at night every day. My grandmother was a nurse and often worked the night shift at the hospital. As a result, Daddio spent much of his childhood alone and unsupervised. The North Philly streets had a way of hardening you. You either crystallized into a mean motherfucker, or the hood broke you. Daddio was smoking cigarettes by eleven and drinking by the age of fourteen. My father developed a defiant and aggressive attitude that would continue all his life.
When he was fourteen, my grandparents, fearing where his life was headed, scraped together what money they could and sent him to an agricultural boarding school in the Pennsylvania countryside where kids learned farming techniques and basic handyman work. It was a strict and traditional place, and by sending him there they hoped to introduce some much-needed structure and discipline into his life.
But nobody was going to tell my father what to do. Other than working on some of the tractor engines, he couldn't be bothered with what he described as "that hillbilly bullshit." He would skip classes; he smoked cigarettes and kept on drinking.
At age sixteen, Daddio was done with this school and ready to go home. He decided to get himself kicked out. He started disrupting classes, ignoring all the rules, and antagonizing anyone in a position of authority. But when the administrators tried to send him home, my grandparents refused to take him back. "We paid for the full year," they said. "You're getting paid to deal with him, so deal with him." Daddio was stuck.
But Daddio was a hustler--he was going to find his way out: On his seventeenth birthday, he snuck off campus, walked half a dozen miles to the nearest recruiting office, and enlisted in the United States Air Force. This was classic Daddio--he was so hell-bent on defying authority and rebelling against both his parents and the school that he jumped out of the frying pan of an agricultural boarding school and directly into the fire of the United States military. He ended up in the exact structure and discipline my grandparents had desperately hoped to instill in him.
But as it turned out, Daddio loved it. It was in the military that he discovered the transformative power of order and discipline, two values that he came to worship as the guardrails protecting him from the worst parts of himself. Wake up at 4:00 a.m., train all morning, work all day, study all night--he found his lane. He discovered that he could outlast anybody, and he began to take pride in that. It was another aspect of his defiant attitude. Nobody could force him to wake up with a bugle horn because he already was up.
With his passionate work ethic, boundless energy, and undeniable intelligence, he should have quickly risen through the ranks. But there were two issues.
First, he had a brutal temper, and superior officer or not, if you were wrong, he wasn't doing it. Second, his drinking. Let me tell you, my father was one of the smartest people I've ever known, but when he was angry, or drunk, he became an idiot. He would break his own rules, subvert his own objectives, destroy his own things.
After about two years in the military, this self-destructive streak peeked through the veil of order and ended his service career.
One night, he and the guys from his platoon were gambling. (Daddio was sweet with a pair of dice.) He took those dudes for almost a thousand dollars. Once he'd stashed the winnings in his footlocker, he headed out to get something to eat, but when he returned from the mess hall, the guys had stolen back the money. In his fury, Daddio drank himself into a frenzy, took out his service pistol, and lit up the barracks. Nobody got hurt, but it was enough for the air force to show him the door. He was fortunate that he wasn't court-martialed--instead, they just discharged him, put him on a bus, and invited him to never come back.
This was a tension that ripped through my father's entire life--he demanded such rigid perfection from himself and the people around him, yet after too many drinks, or if he snapped, he would burn everything to the ground.
Daddio moved back to Philly. Undaunted, he took a job in a steel mill while putting himself through night school. He studied engineering and showed a real aptitude for both electricity and the science of refrigeration. One day, after being passed over for a promotion at the steel mill for the third or fourth time because of his race, he simply walked out the door and never went back. He knew refrigeration, so he decided heÕd start his own business.
Daddio was brilliant. Like many sons, I worshipped my father, but he also terrified me. He was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and also one of my greatest sources of pain.
My mom was born Carolyn Elaine Bright. She's a Pittsburgh girl, born and raised in Homewood, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the east side of the city.
My mother, a.k.a. "Mom-Mom," is eloquent and sophisticated. She has a petite frame, with long, elegant, piano player's fingers, perfectly sized to deliver a gorgeous rendition of "Für Elise." She had been a standout student at Westinghouse High School and was one of the first Black women to ever study at Carnegie Mellon University. Mom-Mom would often say that knowledge was the only thing that the world couldn't take away from you. And she only cared about three things: education, education, and education.
She loved business-banking, finance, sales, contracts. Mom-Mom always had her own money.
Life moved quickly for my mother, as it often did in those days. She married her first husband at the age of twenty, had a daughter, and was divorced less than three years later. By twenty-five, as a struggling single mom, she was probably one of the most educated African American women in all of Pittsburgh, yet she was still working jobs beneath the level of her true potential. Feeling trapped and craving bigger opportunities, she packed up the baby and moved to live with her mother--my grandmother Gigi--in Philadelphia.
My parents met in the summer of 1964. Mom-Mom was working as a notary in the Fidelity Bank in Philly. She was rolling out with some girlfriends to a party, and one of them told her she just had to meet this man. His name was Will Smith.
In many ways, Mom-Mom is the total opposite of my father. Whereas Daddio was the boisterous, charismatic center of attention, Mom-Mom is quiet and reserved; not because she's shy or intimidated, but because she "only speaks when it improves on silence." She loves words and always chooses them carefully--she speaks with an academic sophistication. Daddio, on the other hand, was loud, spewing the lingo of a 1950s North Philly hood rat. He loved the poetry of his profanity--I once heard him call a man a "dirty rat, cocksuckin', low-down, mangy pig fucker."
Mom-Mom doesn't use profanity.
It's important to note here, that back in the day, Daddio was the man. Six foot two, smart, good-looking, the proud owner of a fire-engine-red convertible Pontiac. He was funny; he could sing; he could play the guitar. He could lock people into him--he was always the dude standing in the middle of a party with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a master storyteller who could keep a room buzzing.
When Mom-Mom first saw Daddio, he reminded her of a tall Marvin Gaye. He was savvy and knew his way around people. He could talk his way into a party, get free drinks and a table near the front. Daddio had a way of moving through the world like everything was under control, it was all going to be fine. This was comforting for my mom.
My mother's memory of their first days together is just a blurred montage of restaurants and clubs, strung together by a stream of jokes and laughter. Mom-Mom couldn't get over how funny he was, but most important to her, he was ambitious. He had his own business. He had employees. He wanted to work in white neighborhoods, with white people working for him.
Daddio was going places.
My father wasn't used to interacting with women of my mother's educational accomplishments--Man, this bird's smart as a muthafucka, he thought. Daddio was the street smarts to Mom-Mom's book smarts.
My parents had a lot in common, too. They both had a passion for music. They loved jazz, blues, and, later, funk and R&B. They lived through the glorious Motown days and spent much of it dancing together in musty basement parties and jazz clubs.
But there were strange commonalities, as well--the stuff that startles you and makes you think, This must be God's plan. Both of my parents had mothers who were nurses who worked night shifts (one was Helen; one was Ellen). Both of my parents had short-lived marriages in their early twenties, and they both had daughters. And in perhaps the strangest coincidence, they had both named their daughters Pam.
My parents got married in a small ceremony at Niagara Falls in 1966. Soon after, Daddio moved into my grandmother Gigi's house, on North Fifty-Fourth Street in West Philadelphia. It wasn't long before they combined their very different strengths and talents into an effective team. Mom-Mom ran Daddio's office: payroll, contracts, taxes, accounting, permits. And Daddio got to do what he did best: work hard and make money.
Both of my parents would later speak fondly of those early years. They were young, in love, ambitious, and they were movin' on up.
My full name is Willard Carroll Smith II--not Junior. Daddio would always correct people: 'Hey! He ain't no mutherfuckin' Junior.' He felt like calling me 'Junior' diminished both of us.
I was born on September 25, 1968. My mom says that from the moment I showed up, I was a talker. Always smiling, yapping, and babbling away, content to just be making noise.
Gigi worked the graveyard shift at Jefferson Hospital in Center City, Philadelphia, so she'd take care of me in the mornings while my parents were at work. Her house had a huge porch, which served as my front-row seat to the drama of North Fifty-Fourth Street, and a stage on which I could join in the theatrics. She'd prop me up on that porch and watch me jibber-jabber with anybody and everybody who walked by. Even at that age, I loved having an audience.
My twin brother and sister, Harry and Ellen, were born on May 5, 1971. And counting Mom-Mom's daughter Pam, just like that there would now be six of us under one roof.
Fortunately, the North Philly entrepreneur in Daddio was alive and well. He had gone from repairing refrigerators to installing and maintaining refrigerator and freezer cases in major supermarkets. Business was taking off-he was expanding beyond Philly into the surrounding suburbs. He started to build a fleet of trucks and hire a crew of refrigeration and electrical technicians. He also rented a small building to use as his base of operations.
Daddio was always hustling. I remember one particularly frigid winter, cash got tight, so he taught himself how to repair kerosene heaters. They were all the rage in Philly at the time. He put up a bunch of flyers, and people started bringing him their broken heaters. Daddio figured out that once he'd fixed a heater, he'd have to "test" it for a couple days, to make sure it was working. At any given time, he'd have ten or twelve kerosene heaters "being tested for the quality of his work." That many heaters will easily warm a West Philly row home, even in the coldest of winters. So Daddio canceled our gas service, kept his family warm and toasty for the winter, and got paid for it.
By the time that I was two years old, Daddio had established his business firmly enough to buy a house about a mile away from Gigi in a middle-class neighborhood of West Philly called Wynnefield.
I grew up at 5943 Woodcrest Avenue on a tree-lined street of thirty grayish-red brick row homes, all connected. The physical proximity of the houses cultivated a strong sense of community. (It also meant that if your neighbor had roaches, you had roaches, too.) Everybody knew everybody.
For a young Black family in the 1970s, this was as American dream as you could get.
Across the street was Beeber Middle School and its majestic concrete playground. Basketball, baseball, girls jumpin' double Dutch. The ol' heads slap-boxing. And the second the summer hit, pop goes the water plug. Our neighborhood was thick with kids, and we were always outside playing. Living within one hundred yards of my house, there were almost forty kids my age. Stacey, David, Reecie, Cheri, Michael, Teddy, Shawn, Omarr, and on and on--and that's not even counting their siblings, or the kids on the next blocks. (Stacey Brooks is my oldest friend in the world. We met the day my family moved to Woodcrest. I was two, she was three. Our mothers pushed our strollers up to each other and introduced us. I was in love with her by the time I was seven. But she was in love with David Brandon. He was nine.)
Copyright © 2021 by Will Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.