(from the archives, June 2004)
Spence, whom I salute again, mentions the following:
It was the knuckleheads that taught me the dozens--the value of using wordplay as a means of attack and defense. The knuckleheads taught me to stand up for what I believed in. The knuckleheads taught me what it meant to be confident in myself when all around me doubted. And it was the criminally minded knucklheads that taught me the value of having game even as they gave me strong anti-role models.
There's talk, now and again, about how many black middle class parents feel the necessity of sending their kids to live with their grandparents down South for the summer, or to stay with their ghetto cousins for a spell. Assuming these parents aren't complete idiots there is a reason I could agree with although I'd probably try to accomplish it a different way. That reason is to toughen up their otherwise dainty suburban offspring.
I know my kids ain't black. And when it comes to their adulthood, they won't need to be. They're brown - like the zillions in Africa, India and South and Central America. That's a good enough sample, and it's only skin color. They can't be black like me because my blackness was born of the times, not an essential, inescapable box, but a response to a condition. But so much of who I am is locked into that alternatively golden and grim experience. I wish I could teach them things I learned the way I learned them. I cannot send my kids back to the neighborhood I grew up in, but I understand why somebody might want to.
In the three-bedroom house I was raised in, we had Measles, Mumps, Chicken Pox, Rubella, Impetigo and Roaches. Every one of us five kids who bunked there survived them all and most of us, excepting my sister and I, grew taller than six foot two. In my neighborhood school, "Meet me after class" was most likely followed by "so I can kick your ass". I've played bicycle chicken with the Ice Cream Truck and been chased by more stray dogs and gangbangers than I care to think about. My sister swore to me last week that we used to jump from rooftop to rooftop. I don't know about that but we did make zip lines from the transformer level of power poles and hogtie each other for fun. I've talked about all kinds of ghetto games from suicide to slapboxing to stomp - but I never really wrote about 'Hide & Go Get It'. Use your imagination.
One of the reasons I don't back down about talking about my Black Nationalist roots is because, like my neighborhood, all that shit made me tough. And yes it was shit. You can't get that just by reading Ulysses. You get it from surviving the risk and the danger. Perhaps the Baby Boom was the lone exception in the struggles of life, and perhaps that cannot be compensated. Perhaps some folks feel the need to run with bulls in Pamplona, but I don't. Don't get me wrong, I got out of my hood before the Crack Wars. I would have needed a different kind of level of toughness, one perhaps completely incompatible with the life I live now, were I stuck back with Frankie, Mountain, Boo, Tissino, White Jerry, Nudie, Twin (and Twin), Shabazz, Ralphie, Rabo and KK. But I learned, and I overcame.
What do we owe our adversaries? What do we owe those thugs, knuckleheads, triflin' niggas (yeah that's what we called 'em), skanks and skeezers? We owe them not to punk out. They couldn't take us out of the game, so we shouldn't quit the game. I'll get mystical for a moment and talk about Lord not taking away my stumbling block. I don't thank God for creating temptation, but I understand purpose in the overcoming. But back from the abstract to the people. What do we owe them? I think we do owe them a little bit of respect for forcing us to deal with their reality.
After all, we know that achievement is real because we look at those who fell off. We faced the same choices they did and our choices landed us standing. And we've learned that the good are punished and the bad escape because of those knuckleheads. But we also know what works in the long term.