Renewal is the modus operandi for the Mshaka-Morris family. Married to filmmaker/author Thembisa Mshaka, Anthony L. Morris (leader of The Morris Team at the Corcoran Group) is called one of the best real estate agents in New York. His wife can believe that. Along with loving his work, she says, “He rescues people from predatory lenders, [and] he finds apartments for people who don’t think they can get one. He’s always been my hero, but it’s really inspiring to watch him be that for other people.”
Morris believes that you have to care for your marriage if you want it to be worth something. He analogizes, “Like with a house, you have to work on it. People who don’t keep their houses up may want to sell it, but they didn’t keep the house in condition. You have to renovate. You have to rehab the relationship. Nothing is going to cultivate your marriage for you.”
Attending San Francisco State University (among other schools), he offers, “I’m the Sarah Palin of my family. I went to like five colleges.” And Anthony is a comedian. No, seriously. After surviving a mutual life struggle, he and a friend challenged one another. “What’s the scariest thing we could possibly do?” Both agreed: “Standup comedy.” For the last four years, he’s been a comic on the New York City scene.
The Divorce Counselor, Thembisa’s heartwarming tale of friction and love, is a short film inspired by the director-writer-producer and her husband’s venture into couples therapy. “I have no stigma around it because my mother was a therapist,” she says. “We get couples therapy and individual therapy. We believe that mental health is important.” Thembisa adds, “Whatever it takes to be the best partner I can be for my husband.”
“The road to Thembisa was bumpy,” says her husband. “At the time that I met her, I had just recovered from an addiction.” Growing up in San Francisco, Anthony received lessons of survival and hard love from his family and the matriarch of the community, his mom. “My uncles were pimps. My mother didn’t want me to be a pimp. So she taught me how to be a drug dealer.”
At the age of 11, his mother showed him how to weigh the drugs while laying down her version of the Notorious BIG’s “Ten Crack Commandments”—instructions on how to be a hustler. Anthony recalls, “She said ‘Listen, I’m going to teach you how to do this so that you will always have a hustle. You will always know how to get money. I’m going to teach you so that you never sell for anybody else. You only sell for yourself. No snitchin’. Don’t hold nothin’ for nobody.’ ”
By 13, he was a full-blown street professional. Morris says, “I got good grades and I was a drug dealer.”
Generational habits are the hardest to break, but Anthony is determined to obliterate them. “My great-grandmother was a cocaine addict. Can you believe that? Great grandma!” Anthony’s biological father was physically abusive. His father’s father was abusive. Breaking cycles means everything to Morris—a key component to the evolution of himself and his family.
“My father told me once that he couldn’t figure how to break the cycle. So it’s my responsibility to break it. That’s another thing that motivates my relationship with my son: to make sure I’m not handing down things that I know are detrimental to our family and to our lineage.”
Thembisa is a descendant of the Black Is Beautiful and Women Rock mindset. Her parents attended Lincoln University, whose alumni brag consists of Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and Gil Scott-Heron. Mshaka’s mother was one of the first women to gender-integrate the college.
“My mom’s attitudes about women’s equality have shaped my own life and my own work.” Thembisa respectfully states, “My mother was a clinical therapist and social worker. She was very committed to service and the mental health and care of others.” Her Pan-African mother and father changed their surname to Mshaka when they got married. “Thembisa means hope. My middle name is Shalewa, which means ‘in this house.’ Mshaka means ‘under the reign of Shaka Zulu.’ ”
The first date between Mshaka and Morris would be Anthony’s first jazz concert (saxophonist Stanley Turrentine). Thembisa recalls, “Neither of us really had any money. But I was able to get these tickets from work. We didn’t have cars, so my friend took us. She was looking at him like, ‘Who is this dusty rapper?’ ”
Anthony’s side: “Her friend drove us to the venue. She gave me the evil eye in the rearview mirror on the way there and when she picked us up. But the show and the date was great. I felt like I was able to be myself and I didn’t feel judged.” Thembisa, a Muslim woman, wore her hair covered. This was a new experience, too, for the West Coast MC. “So there was this whole other thing happening with beauty to embrace.”
Starting her career as freelance journalist, the graduate of Mills College (an all-women’s school in Oakland) achieved her first magazine cover with an interview with rapper KRS-One. As the rap editor at The Gavin Report, a national trade publication akin to Billboard, she significantly notes, “I was the first African-American woman and youngest person to hold that post. I had over 300 radio stations reporting to me every week. I ran the hip-hop charts. I was a national trade magazine writer/editor with a lot of power in a visible position.”
In the course of her relationship, Thembisa found that in T-Mor’s love life, she was one of the girls in rotation. “I ain’t no radio single! We’re not doing that.” Programming cancelled, their relationship experienced six months of dead air.
Married for 18 years this April, Anthony says, “I’ve been blessed so hard. My wife is a blessing to me. My children are a blessing to me.”
Mecca Jihad Mshaka Morris (14) and Umi Nia Mshaka Morris (3) are the fruit of their union. “Mecca, my son, is a skateboard junkie. Mecca is very astute. He has my family’s sense of humor,” Anthony says. “We get it from my mother.” Thembisa says that one of the ways her husband’s family shows love is to play the dozens. “Mecca and his father have that skill between them. We didn’t play the dozens in my family. Not only am I not good at it, I take it personally!”
Both parents contend that their daughter is super cool, too. “Umi is sweet and scary smart,” her father says. “It’s crazy. I can have a full conversation with a 2½-year-old. And I love it.” A tomboy at heart, Thembisa thinks her daughter’s personality may be of ancestral legacy. Although a Brooklyn girl, “Umi reminds me of my mother. The grandkids in my family called my mother Umi. My mom was from Virginia. Like her, my daughter has that Southern feminine quality about her.”
“When I look at [my kids] and how I parent, I want to be the kind of father that I wish I had,” Anthony says. “One who validates my humanity and hears me as a whole person. One who gives me the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t judge. Wouldn’t beat. A loving father.”
Thembisa would want her son to describe her as “someone who was honest with him and gave him the space to talk about his feelings. As well, I want him to say I’m the person who taught him to be a womanist.”
When her son was 10, he talked to her about the fact that he wasn’t learning anything about Black history in school, she decided to take control and start from the beginning. Let Black history class begin: The Morrises took Mecca to Egypt. “That’s how I do it.”
The Mshaka-Morris home is infused with music. “We listen to everything. Jimi Hendrix, Queen, Wu-Tang Clan.” Having a keen awareness of the allure of hip-hop, “I also talk to my son about the music and lyrics, so he doesn’t feel like he has to take anything on.” She also makes sure he’s informed. Hearing him singing along with “Shabba” by A$AP Ferg, she told her son, “You know, Shabba Ranks is not just some… thing. He’s one of the best dancehall artist of all time.”
Never missing a beat, the former music executive and author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business gathered her Shabba Ranks collection and played the music for him in the car so he could get that lesson.
Another cool fact about the Morris family: Vacations are incorporated into the health of their lifestyle. Thembisa explains, “There is a yearly family vacation, a couples vacation and an individual vacation in which each adult gets 10 days.” Meeca is old enough to experience his own time at camp. Every facet of their family allowed space to renew.
“We’ve done our best to get our children online as quickly as possible,” Anthony says, “I don’t mean the internet. I mean consciously.” He continues, “I have the best family. I have the most fun. I love the fact that I see myself in my family. I love the fact that I can see myself in Thembisa.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.