I was born like anyone else. Mom and Dad loved me like anyone else’s parents loved them. Like anyone else, after school, ran from skinheads.
I went to school with my two brothers at Pleasant Hill Junior academy in northern California. Dad paid us $20 for every A we brought home on a report card, $10 for every B: straight A household.
I fought in school. In a circle of hungry, white children, I shoved Stephen Bradley on the kickball field. Everybody egged Stephen to “get” me. My best friend, Michael, shouted for Stephen to kill me. Isolation stung like the teacher’s paddling before she sent me home to West Oakland where my father didn’t let my brothers and me play outside. He worried that if we played basketball across the street, we’d either get shot or grow up to be n–––––s.
Learned what it was to be black, like anyone else.
I don’t remember the name of the second school that expelled me, but I know when my war with it began. The campus sat atop a cliff in southern California, shielded from view by a tree line. That’s where my fifth grade teacher told me to take off my Malcolm X T-shirt.
My father had bought the shirt for me at a Nelson Mandela rally where I embarrassed him on national television. A news reporter stooped to chirp a question at me. Her short hair smelled floral, like my teacher-crush in the fourth grade.
“Hi, handsome. Do you know what everyone’s celebrating today?”
I nodded eagerly. I didn’t know, but I knew I was supposed to know.
“Do you want to tell the camera what Mr. Mandela did?”
“He, he freed the slaves.”
I grinned up at my father in time to see the proud smile wilt from his face. Red flooded his light skin.
He sent me to live with Grandma-ma on a dirt road – not because he was embarrassed, but because he was trying to save me from Oakland. He sent me with the Malcolm X T-shirt. When I wore it to the school tucked behind the tree line, that fifth grade teacher sprang to her feet and rounded her desk.
“Take that shirt off,” she said.
Confused, I stopped in the aisle between desks, next to a kid wearing an AC/DC shirt. “Why?”
She raised a hand and a foot at the same time, stomping when she pointed. “That man is a racist. You will not wear that shirt in my class.”
I barely knew who Malcolm X was, but I knew he stood for black dignity. I knew my dad loved him because Malcolm faced bullies and pushed back.
“He’s not a racist!” I said before she sent me to the principal’s office. “This is America. I can wear anything I want,” I told the principal. Sitting, he clasped his hands atop a desk as big as a courtroom, dark hairs curling on his wrists. Next to his desk, on a shelf, his tarantula Charlie touched one leg to the glass of its aquarium.
“This is a private school,” he said. “The 1st Amendment doesn’t protect you.”
Black boys don’t have rights like everyone else.
I declared a guerilla war like anyone else with no power would. If the teacher left her lunch unattended, I licked her sliced apples and dipped them in the trash. I jimmied the lunchroom door with an old library card and stole the quarters from the cash box.
“Emile, I know you broke into the lunchroom,” the principal said, sitting behind his desk.
“No you don’t,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what.” He stood and walked to place his hairy fingers on his tarantula’s tank. “Charlie here has a special power that tells him when someone is lying. I’m going to pick him up and let you hold him. If he doesn’t bite you, you’re off the hook.”
I shook my head. “Tarantulas bite when they sense fear. I’m afraid of spiders so he’ll bite.” Any idiot who watched television knew that. The principal’s thin mouth tightened. “Go back to class.”
Resistance made me powerful like everyone else.
The next time I raided, a wedge of sunlight on the linoleum showed the way to the lunchroom. The closer I came to the lunchroom door, the more walking felt like wading. My sneakers creaked against the floor.
The door stood ajar, and I stared at a deeper darkness hanging between the jambs. I kicked the door closed and crossed the hall to the water fountain. As I headed back the way I’d come, a tall shadow shifted in the stairwell: the principal. I pretended not to see him and returned to class.
Two feelings churned in my mind when I stole: fear and power. The fear made me a coward, but the act of stealing, of forcing my limbs to move – though ice bid them freeze – made me brave, like everyone else. Without the act, I sat in class feeling ashamed. Weak.
After school, I returned to the lunchroom and stole the whole cash box. On the bus ride home, part of me felt guilty, but I ripped into that piece like my uncle’s dog ripped into stray cats. Fuck the school. I couldn’t do anything to make them respect my rights, but they couldn’t do anything to make me follow their rules. Except call Grandma-ma.
The next day, she found me in my bedroom playing Metal Gear, a military-themed video game, where I played a Special Forces soldier creeping through dark halls with a knife.
“Emile,” she said.
I jammed my thumb against the game controller, pausing the game. I knew something was wrong because she usually called me “Booga.”
“Ya principal said you’re stealin’ from the school.” She’d grown up in North Carolina, birthed my father in Baltimore, and raised him among the rural fields of California. “Tell Grandma-ma the truth, baby.”
I denied it.
“Where’d you get the money to buy that air pistol I saw?”
“Okay, baby, wait right here.”
Grandma-ma returned to my bedroom with a switch, picked from one of her peach trees, and skinned my ass alive. I hollered and ran, but she had strong, fast hands from plucking chickens and shotgunning chicken hawks. She caught my wrist, so I ended up flying circles around her, flapping like a headless hen.
“What will ‘dem people thaynk of us? If you lie, yu’ll steal; if you steal, yu’ll kill!” During my childhood, Grandma-ma declared this self-fulfilling prophecy almost as often as she said, “I love you.”
Grandma-ma drove me to school the next day and forced me to confess to the principal. But that now meant she’d collaborated with the enemy, and so the guerrilla war spread from school to home. I terrorized Grandma-ma’s chickens with rocks – only stopped terrorizing them after the rooster tried to kill me. I went on the warpath against Grandma-ma’s honeybees, but called off the war after I whacked the hive with a plan and ran back home screaming her name. Grandma-ma capitulated and sent me back to my father after I ran away from home. I brought the war with me to the Oakland Unified School District. I stopped doing homework in the seventh grade, barely did class work. I attended public school now and although most of my new teachers were African-American, I was convinced they’d betray me to prove they were “good blacks,” like Grandma-ma.
Father wanted to be one of the “good blacks,” like anyone else. He used to sit me down to talk after he beat me with his bullwhip. He’d tell me he loved me so much that he’d fight Mike Tyson for me, how he struggled through racism in medical school, how angry it made him when cops pulled him over and treated him like a drug dealer in front of my brothers and me.
I wish he could have told me that his anger at the cops protected him from feeling ashamed at his powerlessness. I wish he’d admitted that he was terrified of failing as a black father, wish he’d explained what it meant to him that he’d never had a father. Instead he said, “I’m hard on you, son, because you have to be twice as good as any white boy to make it in this world.”
Fuck that. I chased expulsion in every private and public school I attended from there on out.
Dad would fight Mike Tyson for me, but he wouldn’t pick me up from juvenile hall. He left me in that cell like anyone else to teach me a lesson. When I went to court for sentencing, my public defender said the judge was waiting for my father, so the court could release me on probation. Dad arrived. Everyone rose for the judge, and then Dad told the court to keep me, that he’d tried everything and couldn’t fix me. I died.
Reborn amid the strip searches and isolation cells of juvenile hall.
What I knew about juvie was you’re supposed to do push-ups. I learned that you’re not supposed to care about anything — especially yourself — and that you’re tougher than anyone who’s not in jail. So I did what I was supposed to do.
I was small for my age but strong from carrying firewood for Grandma-ma and hauling bricks for Dad. A quiet kid, I’d trained my face to show no emotion but anger, and that helped me in juvenile hall, where people tend to victimize people they know. My mask prevented anyone from knowing me. When bigger kids watched me, they didn’t know whether I was a target to bully or the boy who’d ruin their reputations.
I stayed in detention for 45 days awaiting placement in a boys’ home with all the other fatherless kids. My cell neighbor, Joseph, liked to regale me with war stories about group homes that would let me play the video games my dad hated.
“Thursday’s movie night, and cool counselors bring rated-R,” Joseph said. “Like titties and shit.”
His voice issued from my toilet. We’d repeatedly slammed our pillows over the toilet seat, forcing the water out with air pressure, so we could use the emptied pipes between our cells as an intercom.
“You said you like movies, right?” Joseph asked.
“Yeah, my dad used to take us to see hella movies.”
“Folks,” Joseph said, using my nickname, “forget that stuff. The court probably going to send me back to the same home. You should try to go there too; it’s easy to sneak out at night.”
“Sneak out where?” I asked. “Home?”
“Naw, fool, girls,” he said. “I’m gonna tell ‘em you my cousin. Get you some pussy.”
“Ah dog, I love pussy!” I said, because I figured that was something that people who had sex a lot would say.
“It’s all good, Folks, you gonna be my cousin.”
Fell in love with a new family, like anyone else.
Then Dad changed his mind about leaving me. I was disappointed. I’d begun to look forward to a life shuffling between group homes with Joseph. I’d experienced a familial sense of belonging among Alameda County’s thrown away children. When I returned home, I sought the same bond among the boys who ran from truancy officers through my junior high school’s hallways. In my new family, we would fight and exploit one another, but we wouldn’t throw each other away. Our brotherhood came as close to unconditional love as I’d ever experienced, but the fraternity did have one condition: I had to be steel like everyone else.
“Sock that fool!” Hassaan slapped my arm with one hand and pointed his other at a Vietnamese kid in the crosswalk with his friends.
It had started as a joke. Hassaan, Zeke and I were standing amid the stream of kids flowing from our junior high to either of two nearby bus stops. Hassaan, unwrapping a Hava Tampa cigar in front of a corner store. I, waiting for the girl I liked to come and take me to her house. Zeke, staring at the Vietnamese kid across the street. The latter had come off the overpass, and he stared back, gripping the straps of his backpack like a parachutist about to jump off the curb. His friends: two girls, white-knuckled textbooks to their chests as they huddled around him.
“Look at this cat,” Zeke said. “Who he supposed to be?”
“Sir-Lancelot-looking motherfucka,” I said.
“I want to be saved,” Hassaan sang falsetto, mimicking the chorus of a rap song by E-40 that ridiculed chivalrous men. Bobbing as if dancing to music, he slowly pumped his fists, smoke trailing from the cigar vised between his knuckles. His hair fell in silken curls because his mother was white. Dancing on the corner, smiling with his eyes closed, he looked like a young Michael Jackson. “E, you should sock that fool.”
“Hell naw,” Zeke said. “You fixin’ to get E’s ass kicked out here. Dude’ll bust out kung fu, and we’ll have to save him.”
“Fuck that fool.” I made myself laugh. “Pass the Tampa.”
Hassaan withdrew the cigar from my reach and pointed the fingers holding it at Zeke. “E ain’t soft. He came outta juvie, fool.”
“Soft n––––s go to jail all the time,” Zeke said. “Dude’s dad like a doctor or some shit.”
Hassaan’s temper showed around his mouth, lips pursing. Zeke wasn’t just implying that I was soft. He was implying Hassaan was soft for being my friend.
The crossing light switched from the red hand to the walking man, and the crossing siren for blind pedestrians started chirping. The boy gripping his straps and the girls clutching their books began to cross the street.
“E, sock that fool,” Hassaan said without looking at me. He faced Zeke, smoke jetting from his nostrils.
I wasn’t smiling anymore. I’d rejected my father and most of the principles for which he stood – honor your father, get an education, work harder, save money, put God first, even before your children. Only one principle had stuck. Never throw the first punch; never start the fight. My father had been bullied as a kid, and from him, I learned to despise bullies.
“E, show this n–––a, sock that fool.”
I’d been hurting people for a long time, but I’d always convinced myself that they’d deserved it. Stephen Bradley had shoved me first. The principal had suspended me for standing up to oppression. Grandma-ma had betrayed me; my father abandoned me. But the boy crossing the street had never done anything to me.
“Sock that fool!”
Gotta be steel, like everyone else.
“Hey!” I skipped my foot off the curb, casual as I hopped onto the street – no parachute. The Vietnamese boy averted his gaze and veered outside the crosswalk. I quickened my step and caught him. I wanted to punch him, to have it finished. I couldn’t. I couldn’t, and that frustrated me so much that I did something worse. I grabbed his backpack and wrestled until I tore it from his grip.
“Bounce!” I said, and he prodded the girls to run ahead of him before he followed.
His backpack sagged from the strap I held. I flung it into the gutter, returned to the corner.
“Respect, n–––a, respect!” Zeke hopped from foot to foot, excited. He smoked the Tampa now.
“Pass that shit,” I said.
Hassaan made a production of snatching the cigar and bringing it to me. Grinning, he held it like a scepter. Love danced in his eyes, and I tried to let that be the reason I could be proud of what I’d done.
Fear of losing love wouldn’t let me run the night rival drug dealers came to take over my neighborhood.
“You little n–––––s got ten seconds ‘fore I start shooting,” one said. He was a pretty boy with a neat beard, black coat, and an AP-9 semi-automatic braced against his shoulder. He stood in the street like God had dropped him there. His boys lounged by a Mustang parked in a side lot adjoining an apartment building. They laughed at my friends, who scattered at a fast walk toward the nearest block corner. Two of them, Tall Tim and Monster, lingered around my Cadillac in the driveway of the apartments. They stayed because I’d stayed.
Though my friends sometimes carried guns, I was the only one who had one that night. I kept it in my trunk beneath a tire, but if I opened my trunk with violence pending, the gunmen would know why. I didn’t want to die at sixteen years old, but.
Mom and Dad loved me like anyone else’s did, but I’d left them. I’d thrown away my education, my second chances, my principles; what I had to show for all my loss was the admiration that resulted from my reputation. If I lost that because I couldn’t make the hard choice, I would have nothing. No one.
I opened the trunk just high enough to slip my hand inside and wedge it beneath the tire. By the fender, Monster strained at an invisible leash. I watched his gaze clear my shoulder as he tracked the gunman moving past us. Tall Tim started walking, and I hoped his movement distracted the gunman from me. My arm ached as my fingers spidered around under the tire until my nails scratched gunmetal.
I shoved the gun in my pocket. I was alive, so the gunman hadn’t seen me.
“What you waiting for?” Monster whispered, hate and humiliation storming through his face. “You spooked?”
My hands shook so violently that I didn’t bother to shut the trunk. “I know what I’m doing,” I lied and brushed past him.
On the street, the pretty boy fired into the sky. “Bounce!”
On the sidewalk, I doubled my pace, the expectation of being shot blooming willies across my back. If I reached the corner quickly enough, I could double back through an alley without the gunman seeing me.
Making my way through the alley, the night came alive with military-grade weapon fire. Two feelings churned through me: fear and power. Fear made me a coward, but the act of drawing the automatic pistol from my pocket made me god of thunder.
The alley let out on the lot where the gunman’s companions waited by the Mustang. They hooted and hopped, celebrating the pretty boy’s show of power. I stepped out from the cover of the apartment wall.
Raised my gun.
Lost myself in the rumbles, like anyone else.