My earliest memory…her screams awoke me. She tumbled down the stairs by the force of his hand. I stood, silently. He said nothing. He didn’t even turn to me when she screamed my name begging me to go back to sleep just so he could continue the beating without a witness. I froze, dry-eyed and confused. I never had control over my circumstances.
I watched her wash dishes while I ate Cocoa Puffs. There was finally some sense of peace. We were so far from the violence I had seen before. Moments later her new man walked in and stabbed her three times in the abdomen. He didn’t look my direction. I couldn’t cry because I had to be strong for my big sister who didn’t witness it but was hysterical. What should have been the most joyous and innocent period of my life was filled with so much violence and turmoil…and it was all beyond my control.
We lived in utter poverty. By the age of six we had slept on downtown streets that reeked of urine and in a battered women’s shelter where us kids portrayed the violence we had seen men inflict on our mothers. It was at the shelter where I got in my first fight and decided I would never lose a fight again as the blood ran down my face. Now that I think about it, I remember the taste. It was in our housing development where I began to learn how to survive in a world that showed me daily it didn’t want me to exist.
I couldn’t control my mother’s depression or her temper. I couldn’t control whether my mother would blame me (again) for her next break-up. I couldn’t control how many meals I would get in a day, though I was guaranteed two at school. I couldn’t control the daily gunshots that I wanted so badly to go away. I realized quickly what I could control was my ability to adapt for survival.
Kevin lived in my hood. His family moved from Chicago because they wanted to be in a safer city. Thinking back on it, they should have stayed in the Chi. We were in the same grade, and he quickly became my best friend. His mother had suffered some injury to her left eye that left the eyelid sealed shut and discolored. Initially, I was scared of her mainly because she didn’t talk much, but that quickly changed. Once a week I would go to Kevin’s place and his mom would give us $1 each if we beat her rugs. We beat the hell out of those rugs. It became this crazy release for us. And each week we decided we would walk down the street to the corner store to buy some Mr. Pibb and Lucas.
We wanted to increase our chances of survival so we practiced running from drive-bys. It might sound silly to people who didn’t have as many (or any) in their community, but for us it was necessary. You never wanted to be caught off guard in a situation like that. Those who’ve seen it happen understand. We analyzed the vehicles approaching, their speed, the tint of their windows, if we could see the body language of the occupants. Kevin would call out when a car was “it”…and we’d run…each time faster than before. In all those trips to the corner store, no car was ever really “it”, thankfully. But those actions we took back then would save my life years later. All it took was us deciding that we wanted to have some kind of control over the violence that was inflicted upon us. We wanted to survive.
Kevin’s older brother was Tre, and homie was cool. He was 16, hair like “O-Dog”, and was always skateboarding. He showed me my first skateboard, and I would watch him and his homeboy pull stunts. He quickly became a big brother to me. I would go to him for so much. Their mom would feed me whenever I hadn’t eaten, which was often. When we had evening programs at school I would ride with their family because we didn’t have a car. When I told Tre that my teacher Mrs. Dobson had sat me in a corner and stopped teaching me to read because I “was too slow”, he made me point her out after one of our programs and approached her demanding that she teach me. I didn’t have parents who would do that. The parents we end up with aren’t within our control, but neither are the people who choose to love us.
After several months, Kevin and Tre moved to a development a couple miles away. Tre would still skate in our hood, so I still got to see him. He told me to wait for him in front of his development until he got off his school bus, and he would teach me how to skateboard. I was excited. I was just in first grade and didn’t have much guidance so it was something I really needed. Clearly, the lack of guidance is evident by parents so uninvolved that their first grader walked two miles away from home.
The next day I anxiously began walking to Tre’s bus stop. I arrived just as his bus did. As I walked towards him, I realized that he was running. He was running faster than Kevin and I would run from potential drive-bys. We were running towards each other. I assumed he was just as excited as I was to start skateboarding and was happy to see me. That’s when I heard the POP. His body jerked. He fell to the pavement, face down. A bullet to the head killed him. It came from some boy on the same school bus. I approached his body and watched the blood run from his head. I wanted so badly to control the blood…to stop it from spilling on to the sidewalk and pouring on to the street. I wanted to bring life back to his eyes that were stuck wide open. I wanted him to get up, and we could walk to his mom and she could fix everything like she always did. I felt so helpless. This would be the first time I saw a dead body but not the last.
No matter what actions I took to try to extend my life and watch out for untrustworthy, disloyal, people I couldn’t control the reality that people I loved would be snatched from me…and ultimately, I could still be snatched from them. Our names would be memorialized on t-shirts, spray paint on dingy buildings, and even on black and brown flesh.