Recently I decided to take a break from science fiction reading to delve into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thought provoking book, Between The World and Me. I fully expected to be treated to a unique perspective on the multitude of complex issues that face my hometown. I least expected to be completely confronted with my own past experiences.
If you haven’t read it, and you really should, Coates starts his book with a letter to his son that is powerful, personal, and alarming. He warns his son of the dangers of being a black man in America and the ever present threat to the fragile human body.
Coates weaves poetic truths in the telling of his own personal story including detailed experiences very similar to my own. So many similarities that the lines separating our two lives began to blur as I read on. He speaks to the perilous navigation of Baltimore streets, PG county cops, and social constructs of New York City.
My own story is also rooted in fear. I learned to live in fear early on as a child growing up in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. If an arrow lodged in my right shoulder blade, as described in my previous post, The First Time I Almost Died, didn’t teach me about the fragility of the human body, then watching two teenage girls’ hand-to-hand combat tete-a-tete quickly turn to knife wielding and stabbing certainly did. That was the first time that I saw significant amounts of somebody else’s blood. And there were plenty of other occasions to learn that lesson.
One triple H (Hazy, Hot, and Humid) day on the playground of my old elementary school Dickey Hill, I sat on the sideline of the basketball court watching the older high school boys hoop, shirtless and sweaty. Afros flopping with every shot and rebound. I waited patiently for the heat to chase them away so I could have a chance to improve my game. They were so much better than me and I wanted to run and gun with the big boys one day.
It was hot and I thought about giving up my hoop dreams for the apartment complex swimming pool. The game drew close to ending and the familiar cry of “who go next?” rang out. “Who got next”, as in who is next in line to challenge the winning team, almost always invited discrepancies. This day was no different.
The teams generally split between neighborhoods; my Wakefield Apartments vs kids from the notorious Forest Heights. Wakefield put claims on “Next” and Forest Heights disputed. These two neighborhoods, separated by Windsor Mill Rd and the sports fields in Leakin Park, were forever at odds with one another. Constantly disputing over everything with one central question to be answered – who was tougher.
Wakefield’s claims on “Next” did not sit well with two brothers from Forest Heights. The younger of the two staked his claim on the game after having just arrived to the court. Everyone knew that his declaration was without merit and so predictably the “us” vs “them” forces began on a collision course. First came heated words without reason followed by shoving and punches thrown between the younger of the two brothers and my fellow Wakefielder; a Cherry Hill transplant like myself.
The older of the two brothers watched with content as his younger brother sought to handle business. But he loss ground. He was the smaller of the two contenders and didn’t take kindly to his public embarrassment. So he reached into a Crown Royal whiskey bag and withdrew a .22 caliber pistol, aimed, and fired two shots at his scrambling challenger. Most on the playground broke in different directions or hit the ground seeking cover. I froze like a fawn playing a game of “you can’t see me” with a hunter. Heart pounding and ready to wet myself, I realized that the shooter, not more than a few yards away, fired at his challenger who was running in my direction. The shooter then fled on foot back towards Forest Heights.
The stunned crowd began to move and there was again bustling activity. My fellow Wakefielder emerged from behind his parked blue Toyota Corolla to notice two bullet holes in the passenger door. He was pissed. I, too my surprise, had not yet wet my pants, but the day wasn’t over. “Tell your brother when I see him I’m going to fuck him up”, he says to the older sibling whose “Oh, really?” response brought about a collective “oh shit” moment from the rest of us onlookers. He too reached into a bag and withdrew a handgun and began firing at a now moving blue Toyota Corolla. It was at this point that I detected moisture in my underwear.
Later that day I examined the bullet holes in the car. The bullets created two round holes surrounded by dented metal and chipped paint. I imagined what it might have looked like if those lead slugs tore threw my skin and flesh and perhaps hit bone. I was fascinated by the damage and ran my fingers over the holes in the car and then over my own torso.
My youth was full of narrow escapes. Moments when I could have been damaged severely or permanently. At times, like Ta-Nehisi, I lived in fear every time I left my house. Never afraid of one-on-one encounters. I never shied away from a fair fight. Being jumped by multiple people or defending myself against weapons that could tear my flesh is what created angst. During what seemed like a weeks-long period in middle school, I watched as a group of boys chose random victims on the bus and beat them mercilessly and for no apparent reason other than to terrorize. One boy that I hung out with from time to time was victimized. Beaten bloody. Busted lip, bloodied nose, swollen eye with contusions. He was no small boy. He stood tall and wiry with lengthy arms to his advantage. But he was not match for 5 boys hell bent on terror.
Each day that I boarded the bus, I feared that my ticket would get pulled next. That I would find myself scrapping for my life. That I’d arrive at school like Kenny did; ugly and battered. Humiliated as the bus driver and riders stared out of windows as if nothing was happening. I was lucky. My number never came up but the fear remained for a while.
One truism that I learned from the character Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is that the world is made up of takers and those that get took. Even as a boy I knew that there existed in my world those who would plunder. Those who would take your belongings, your money, even your health and dignity. It’s a hell of a thing when you become conscious of your own fragility and vulnerability. Impacts you in ways that you cannot fully comprehend. The funny thing is, we moved from what was at the time a hostile Cherry Hill neighborhood to one that we thought was safer in Wakefield. The fact of the matter is when you are economically vulnerable, there aren’t many safe places to retreat.
Without doubt, these experience have impacted me in profound ways. Contributed to defense mechanisms manifested in hot tempered, guarded behavior. Always ready to push back on those who would take from me, threaten me or my family; a punch first and reason later strategy. Strike with words and fists. But never plunder others.
Yes, Coates book is a stark reminder of a life, my life, of fragility and survival.