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First published in 1999. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.
Born with a Veil
Prince shows amazing strength and resiliency despite a childhood of extreme instability, poverty, and frequent upheavals, against a backdrop of crime, prisons, drugs, and violence. He eventually escaped the hardships of his youth, by way of "rich white" schools, which his mother always sought out for him, and through emulating positive role models as opposed to the omnipresent negative forces in his life. He excelled in school, being the only black kid in advanced classes. With the strong influence of teachers and a highly successful black Big Brother, Prince rose above his situation—to attend a prestigious college—while still feeling connected to his past and his "people."
Prince epitomizes the transformative power of the psyche, as he looks back on all the people who "hurt" him in life and reframes situations, viewing them as ultimately "helpful" in arriving at his present identity. This essay was written in his sophomore year.
My father received a phone call from some of his friends. They were going out and wanted him to come along. He said, "Hell, yeah. You know I'm down for some action. When y'all coming by here?" As he got ready to go out, my mother grew worried. She had asked him to stop hanging around this set of friends, but he had told her to shut up and leave him alone.
"You trying to run my life again? I'm a man! Damn, I can make my own motherfucking decisions!"
He pushed her aside gently and she jumped rightback in his face and told him, "I am telling you not to go out tonight! I have a bad feeling." He looked at her funny. She said, "I had a dream this morning that you would go out and not come back for seven years. Don't leave! Please stay with me tonight!" He said, "Awww, fuck that old voodoo shit. I'm going out, woman." That was the end of their discussion until his friends came by. She protested again for him not to leave, but he was even more adamant because his friends were there waiting. He did not want to look pussy-whipped and he wasn't about to go out like some kind of sucker. He pushed her away from the door and left. He pulled his coat around him as he climbed into the back seat. She watched from the balcony as the mist swallowed the car.
That night, my father and his friends robbed a convenience store. During the crime they shot and killed a bystander, the son of a wealthy local car dealer. Newly identified as one of the area's most wanted criminals, my father went into hiding for more than a year. The police continued to search for him and ultimately followed my mother on one of her regular visits to his secret apartment. The police arrested both my parents and took them to jail, where I was born a few days later.
While my mother was in custody for aiding and abetting a fugitive, she went into labor. She was taken to the hospital where, after my birth, they took me away from her and sent her back to her cell. My grandmother picked me up from the hospital. At the time, my mother had been going to school and working. She was released from jail a week after my birth and turned to my father's mother, Jenelle, for support. We moved to an apartment in South Central L.A. I would frequently spend the night at my Uncle William's house. Though William is my father's younger brother, he is only four years older than I am. We had lots of experiences together—good and bad. When we were older, we grew close through fending off gang assaults and finding our way across South Central L.A. William is more like a brother to me than an uncle. These days, though, because he did not get out of that environment, he is hard to talk to. He still lives with my grandmother and is struggling to support her, his daughter, and himself.
Some weekends, my mother would pack up our old Mercury Comet (complete with tail fins and rust spots) with cold fried chicken and lemonade and take William and me to visit my father in Soledad State Prison, some 250 miles north of Los Angeles. We always ate at Denny's on the way up because the drive took so long. On the visits we met my father in a common room with other prisoners, where he would show us off to the other inmates and then proceed to argue with my mother about the course of his life and whether they could be back together after he was released. William and I would escape this situation as fast as we could. We usually asked my mom for the car keys so that we could go and get some lemonade out of the back of the car. When my mother returned from the meeting room, she would have tears in her eyes. She would tell me, because there was no one else to tell, how my father was trying to change her into something she was not. I still do not know what she meant, but I do know that it greatly troubled her. I could never watch my mother cry without crying myself.
My first experiences with my father in prison struck me then as merely inconvenient and a little troubling because of the fighting and tears. I did not feel that something was strange or missing in my life. My mother took very good care of me on her own, so I managed to ignore the gentle voice in my mind that told me something was seriously wrong with my father's situation and his relationship with my mother.
My mother and I soon moved from South Central L.A. to a suburb in the San Fernando Valley, known as the home of the "valley girls." By that time my father had been in prison for 5 years, and my mother and I were living with a man named Lewis who owned a new Cutlass Supreme. I'm not sure who he was or why we lived with him; I guess he was my mother's boyfriend. It is an indication of the relationship I have with my mother that I don't particularly resent her or look down on her for living with another man while her husband, my father, was in jail; for the first 8 years of my life my mother and I struggled by ourselves, relying heavily on each other. We were always very close; I got to know her as a human being—sometimes more than I wish I had. If I didn't know so much about how she struggled to raise me, I could be more selfish and just blame her for all of our problems, like most children do. Instead I find myself blaming others!
When we were living in Canoga Park [San Fernando Valley], I had my first experience with racism. William came over and we decided to go to the park. We dug in the sand, played with the sand hornets, and made mud pies to throw at each other. Then, as we were about to get on the merry-go-round, a mother ran up and yanked her child off of it. On the way home William told me she had muttered to her child about us "nigger children," and I was incredulous. I did not yet have the slightest idea of what it meant to be black, much less black and living in a valley suburb. That lady helped me to begin to understand.
My early school experience in the valley was the first indication of what would become a trend in my life. I attended a preschool best characterized as a white hippie experimental school. The school was built out of dark wooden logs to give it a natural look, like a logger's cabin, out there in the tree-covered valleys of Southern California. I guess I must have excelled at this school because I was labeled "gifted" and received lots of compliments. Teachers always liked me, because I was eager to learn and intelligent to boot.
My own school experience makes me thoroughly aware of the identity problem that faces young black students who have a drive or natural tendency to excel. If my mother taught me about anything besides God, she taught me to excel at school. From a very early age I learned that "education was the way out." I no longer believe this is the only way—it is possible for a man like me to excel in the world without formal education—but this valuable lesson helped me through the first 18 years of my life. It kept me focused, out of trouble, and on a generally good track, so now my options are open. Some people, like my father and every drug dealer/gangbanger/hustler in America, learn that school is not the only option before they figure out what other options are viable. They often make the wrong choices and ruin their futures. Some good and valuable lessons have to be taught early, before other lessons of life poison the mind.
That is why my teachers always singled me out. Not only was I intelligent but also I was already psychologically primed to learn and endure ridiculously long-suffering classroom "education." I am happy to say that since then I have thoroughly rid myself of this patient Protestant work ethic! I now work only for who and what I love and want, unless I am coerced by the trusty "low grades versus future options" temptation.
Just as I had lessons in "academic achievement," I also got instruction in irresponsibility, mainly from my father, but sometimes even from my mother. I remember one night we went in Lewis's Cutlass to pick up my mother's younger brother Jeffrey. I recall the group Frankie Beverly and Maze on the radio singing a bluesy, slow, soul song called "Happy Feelings." I seem to remember that while we were driving around, we continued to collect passengers, people I thought I knew. Marijuana smoke filled the car, which is probably why I don't remember any of them. I was laughing along with the adults. My Uncle Jeffrey was sitting in the front seat and he turned around to me in the back, where I sat between two other people. He told me to come a little closer to him and close my eyes, which I did. He put his hand over my mouth and his mouth over my nose and told me to inhale. My lungs were quickly filled with the heavy, fragrant, painful smoke that burning marijuana leaves produce. I got so high that night!
My mother mildly protested my corruption, but then took the joint from her brother. She was driving and damned if she wasn't going to have any. She finished the joint and drove on. A while later my mother and uncle started arguing about something. The other people in the car went silent, and the music stopped. My mother was yelling at the top of her lungs at her brother. He was cursing her and yelling too. I was upset because I had seen what happens when men start to yell at women. They continued yelling and my mother, cursing, pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway and told my uncle, "Get the fuck out of my car!" He said, "Bitch! You get out of the car! Fuck you!" She was furious, her eyes were red from the smoke and the anger, her arms had stiffened and her fists were clenched tighter than her teeth. My uncle's bottom lip was hanging and his brow was frowned. My mother opened up her door and told him again to "get the fuck out" before she had to make him. He now had an excuse to get really mad, so he said, "Fuck you bitch! Come take me out!" My mother wasn't playing that night. She got out, and I gasped when a car sped right past her as she walked around the front of the Cutlass. My mother threw open his car door and pulled him out. They continued to yell and then my uncle hit her across the face and kicked her so that she fell into his seat. He pulled her out of the car again and hit her some more. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, telling him to stop and leave her alone. I had a feeling in the back of my head from the weed and a burning sensation under the skin. He stopped hitting her but continued his yelling. The other people got out of the car, and one man held him back even though he had stopped. He was still mad and wanted the other man to let him go, but the man didn't, so they started fighting. My mother got in the car and left them. The car aired out as we drove back home. That was my first exposure to drugs and the whole party scene.
In the years since, I have gotten to see firsthand what that lifestyle did to my Uncle Jeffrey. He never developed the maturity to take responsibility for himself. He now has several terminal, malignant brain tumors from 20-odd years of chronic drug use. He has come back to my mother time and time again for a place to stay now that he has cancer, because he cannot cope in the world by himself. The unfortunate part is that even before he had cancer, he was incompetent. Seeing his sad state helped me decide against drugs and irresponsibility as a way of life. Those who hurt you can actually help you.
Speaking of hurt, my mother and I had to move suddenly from our nice two-story home in the San Fernando Valley. I don't know why, but one day all of our furniture was gone, her boyfriend Lewis was gone, and we were in dire straits. The last afternoon we were in that house, with the sun shining through the bay windows upstairs, across the desolate, dust-covered floor, I asked my mother for a spoonful of peanut butter, my favorite snack. She cried the bitterest tears because she could not give it to me. We had nowhere to go, so we spent that first night in a park restroom. I was sensitive about sleeping on the floor of the women's restroom in a municipal park. After I awoke (my mother didn't sleep) and washed up as best as I could in the sinks there, we bought some cherries from a Mexican street vendor with the little bit of money mom had. We did not live on the street for long, though. We moved in with our lesbian cousin Esther and her son, Samuel, but soon found a place around the corner from Esther's. At first we had no furniture or food—only some books. Even though we were right around the corner from an elementary school, I was "bussed" to integrate a white school because of the "gifted" status I had acquired at my preschool. I was stamped legitimate: "Class A1 Negro—Handle Carefully," or, in the words of Ralph Ellison, "Keep this nigger running!" In any case, it helped me more than it hurt.
My father finally got out of prison after 6 years. He was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed a lot. He had very crude but handsome features. I look just like him, except that my features were mellowed by my mother's. I have good memories of him holding my mother and smoking weed, talking to me as a father should talk to his son. He always offered me some of his weed. I accepted once, much to my mother's chagrin. She had become a little less tolerant of my corruption. I didn't appreciate her concern then—in fact, like most children I knew, I loved my "nice" father more than my "mean" mother. I often told him he was nicer than her, especially after he let me do something I wanted to do.
He was a brilliant man, but his brilliance had been corrupted by the way he grew up. As a child he faced a bleak future and he was not capable of hoping to create more for himself. Like most poor blacks, he was a victim of the hopelessness and despair that permeates the ghettos. His environment never even hinted to him that he could possibly succeed. His mother (my grandmother and William's mother) lived fast when he was growing up. She never told him that he could succeed and never gave him a reason to hope. He needed attention; she needed gin. She got her gin; he went to juvenile hall. He was classified as "incorrigible" by the age of 13. He was in and out of the juvenile system regularly until the year he turned 18 and went to the state penitentiary. He never got the help I did, and by the time my grandmother calmed down, it was too late for my father.
I remember one time he took me to the movies. We had to ride the bus to get to the double feature, and on the way we stopped at an apartment complex where my father met briefly with some of his associates. He was wearing a black jacket, a burgundy braided tie, and some slacks. He looked very sharp. He shook hands with some laughing, jive-talking men and we then got on the bus again. He began to explain to me some of his religious beliefs: that man created himself, that God had never done anything for him, and that each man needed to do for himself. I asked him, in my misunderstanding of atheism, if he meant that God would only help those who helped themselves. He said, "NO! I mean there is no God." I still did not understand how God could not exist, so I just left that topic alone.
We got off the bus for a second time, but we still weren't at the movie theater. We went into a cheap motel, he rented a room for a couple of dollars, and we proceeded to the room. Once we were in the room, the conversation died down. I watched curiously as he produced a vial, a small mirror, and a rolled up hundred dollar bill from his stylish black jacket. He poured some powder, cut it into lines, rolled his hundred tighter than it had been, and took a snort. Several snorts and high sighs later, he told me, "Don't you ever let me catch you doing this stuff." I said, "Okay." I didn't know what the fuss was about. I did not know what he had done nor had I seen anyone else do it, so I did not understand his warning or his newly excited, happy conversation.
We soon had to change houses again because my father double-crossed some "business partners," who came one night and shot up our house with automatic rifles, hoping to kill him and not caring if they killed us, his family. My mother had a premonition and woke us up before they came. We drove out of the apartment complex with my father in the trunk of the car, just in case they drove by. My parents moved to Oakland to start a carpet-cleaning company. They bought the equipment with money from some of my father's illegal exploits. I was to stay with my grandmother and William. I ended up having to move to Oakland, though, because my uncle went into the hospital. My grandmother had been leaving me at home alone a lot to look after him before he went to the hospital.
Oakland, for me, was a place of loneliness and unhappiness. I stayed in the house for the most part, where I read and read and read. I read whatever I could get my hands on: old Richie Rich comic books, science fiction of all kinds, Disney books, Aesop's fables, black and African history, and so on. I was lucky that my mother always bought me books. She ensured that I had something to do when I was sent to my room for stealing! I had no friends in Oakland. My mother and father were always fighting. He would beat her up and bruise her face, she would throw things, and then they would make up. My father had friends in Oakland, so he left us. The rent ran out, and one cold rainy night we had to get our bags and move back to Los Angeles. My mother and I left on a bus for L.A. in the middle of the night. I don't know where my father was.
In L.A. we had to live with my father's mother, Jenelle, for a while. When my mother and father got back together, we moved again. In L.A. I was still able to attend the same rich white integrated school. My mother was now pregnant. My father owned a dry-cleaning store, and things were going well financially, so we moved into a duplex on a relatively nice street. The nice times did not last. My father continued to beat my mother. She was getting more and more pregnant and they continued to fight about the type of food she was eating: She was a vegetarian, but my father wanted her to eat meat for the baby's sake. My father was an atheist and my mother was a born-again Christian, which produced more conflict. I could never help my mother. When, late at night, the screams or thuds or bumps would interrupt my descent into sleep, I could not help her. Several times I tried, but I was always told, "Go back to your room, Prince! This doesn't concern you!", or "Prince, leave us alone right now." I shuffled quietly back to my room and slept fitfully on my box mattress with layers of old blankets and quilts to offer a little padding.
My mother finally could not take it anymore. I was 7 going on 8 at this time, and one day right after school let out for summer vacation she approached me saying, "We are going to stay with your grandmother Jenelle." I was happy that I would get to hang out with William, but I sensed that something was wrong. We moved in with Jenelle for the second time in a year, and things were rough. When my mother was 8-months pregnant, she went into labor in the kitchen, and my grandmother had to whisk her off to the hospital.
My mother returned from the hospital, and as she walked in the door I caught a glimpse of the baby in her arms. It was white as chalk—I could see the veins in its head and the light brown downy hair. "It's a boy," she said, noting my wonder. "It's your little brother." She cooed gently to him. He gurgled. She walked over to the liquor cabinet and put the hand-held cradle on top of it. William and I gathered around the cradle to examine my baby brother. His eyes were closed, and he looked nothing like a regular person. He was so yellow! "What is his name?" I asked. "His name is Raphael," said my mother. I thought he looked like a Raphael, such a gentle sounding name, and this baby was so harmless and unprotected. What better name could there be for such a creature? I liked him.
The next day my mother and my grandmother had a fight.
"I'm sorry," my grandmother said, "but I will not have you in my house one more day! You have got to go!"
"What do you mean?" my mother protested. "You're going to throw us out in the street? You know we don't have anyplace else to go!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't help you," my grandmother replied. "You have got to go."
So we left. My grandmother cursed at us on the way down the stairs and on our way out the driveway. The whole apartment complex was aware of our departure.
We went back to our old street, but this time we did not go back to my father. My mother had gotten to be close friends with our landlady, who lived next door. She was a middle-aged white woman with a very nicely furnished apartment. I was amazed that this comfortable home was right next door to us the whole time.
My mother cradled Raphael in her lap while she went through the agonizing humility of explaining her situation to this woman. Thank God that the woman was kind-hearted and a friend to my mother in her time of need. I was happy to be there. I slept comfortably in a fully mattressed bed with new, clean-smelling comforters. But I awoke the next morning to the sound of anxious knocking at the front door.
"Open the door! Is my wife in there?
"No, she is not here."
"You're lying! Open the damn door! I need to talk to her!" He knocked at the door with his foot.
"I told you. She is not here." This old white lady was very cool about it. She did not start to panic, though she did get nervous. Finally she convinced him to go away, although she was aware that my father knew my mother and I were there. Later she told my mother, "I have got to ask you to leave. I cannot have all of this destruction and confusion coming to my house. I'm old, and I need my peace." My mother replied, "I don't want to burden you, so I'll go."
My mom decided it was time to move to Atlanta. She started to pack up the mufflerless Volvo we bought from a friend for $200. It had rust spots like our old Comet, but it ran. My mother still had her key to our duplex next door, so we went in, hoping that my father was not there. He wasn't. We packed our clothes swiftly and made many trips back and forth to the car, which was parked behind the apartment. Our Volvo was blocking the driveway, the nose was facing the street so that when we finished we could leave. The phone rang. My mom looked at it the first time it rang and then proceeded to pick up another bag. It rang three more times. Exasperated, she picked up the phone and dropped the duffel bag to the floor. "Hello?" A look of terror came over her. "Is that you? What are you talking about?" She hung up the phone, looking pale. My mother began talking to herself in a low, angry, growling voice. I couldn't help but hear what she was saying. "Do you know what your father just said? That motherfucker says he is going to come over here and kill me if we try to leave. Bastard! Hurry up and pack, God damn it."
We packed fast and furious, gathering what we could fit in the trunk and backseat. My mother handed me the last bag to put in the car and she got in to open the door for me. Just then a car pulled up in the driveway blocking us and my father leapt out, shining black metal in his left hand. He stomped up to my mother who had gotten out of the car and said, "You ain't taking my son nowhere!" She yelled back, "We are leaving! You wanna kill me, go right ahead! But motherfucker, I'm leaving!" She got in the car and told me to do the same. I was standing there on the passenger side looking at them argue, and my dad came around the back of the car to tell me to come with him. "Come on with me, son," my dad said calmly, putting his gun back in his pants. "Prince, get your ass in this car!" my mom screamed at me. "Son!" my father pleaded. My mother was screaming for me to get in the car, or "I will leave your ass here!" I was in a tug of war, and only I could sway the balance. I decided to get in the car with my mother, and she proceeded to push the other car out of the way. Once we were on the street, she headed west into the sunset and never looked back. But I looked back and I saw my father standing there alone. Sunlight shined in the sweat that rolled down his face, making it glisten. He stood in that sharp black jacket with his hands on his hips. That was the last time I saw my father.
Leaving my father and other family in California was a turning point in my life. My quest for identity was made more difficult, but at least I knew I was capable of making decisions. I can all too easily imagine what might have happened to me had I stayed in Los Angeles with my father. I would have grown up even more quickly than I did with my mother. I would have been forced to assume responsibility for myself that I was simply not capable of handling. After I grew frustrated with the institutional academic route to success, I would probably have joined a gang to fulfill my inner drive and motivation. Even considering all the poverty, crime, delinquency, drugs, violence, and abuse that surrounded me in the South, I am still glad I made the choice to go with my mother and brother.
My father left Los Angeles for the South himself, back to Mississippi where he was born. He tried to rob a bank there but was hit by a bus while fleeing, fell into a coma, and went to prison for 4 years. The same year he got out he went back for armed robbery and is still there today. It seems like I might have ended up with my mother either way!
Three days after we left Los Angeles, we arrived in Houston, Texas. My mother's father lived there, and it was supposed to be just a "rest stop" on the way to Atlanta, but it turned into our home. We stayed with my mother's father while my mother drove a paper route. She eventually found a better job at a day-care center and we were able to get our own place.
As we had done in L.A., my mother and I sought out the best school to enroll me in. The morning we found it, we stepped off the city bus into a new world filled with elegance and style. Southern plantation-style affluence had a different look than big city affluence, which was gaudy and glittery, like neon lights. Southern affluence was understated and elegant: wide streets lined with oak trees, Porsches, and Rolls Royces. That was the street that led to Tall Oaks Elementary. Even the hot-lunch trucks had style.
While a day at school was a welcome escape from the troubles of home, school was still hard emotionally. The wealth of the other students made me very self-conscious. I was very aware of my poverty each time I had to borrow money from my teacher or the cashier in the cafeteria line to pay for lunch. Sometimes I just couldn't bring myself to ask them for help again, so I would fast. My self-esteem plummeted even though I was doing well in my classes.
I often got into trouble and was sent to the principal's office more than once. I took many notes home to my mother. My teachers made contracts with my mother: If I did my homework for the week, I would get a star sent home on Friday; if I didn't do it, I would get a sad face. Even when I wasn't doing my work, I always hoped for the star. When I didn't get it, my mother would fuss at me or whip my ass, depending on her mood. I would come from the bus every Friday and walk into the day-care center where my mother worked. My mother would take me to the back so that she could examine my grades for that week. "Why the hell aren't you doing your homework?" I would make up an excuse or just say, "I'm bored." That was one that always seemed to work for us "gifted" children.
My family and I made seven moves in our first 2 years in Houston. We moved from my grandfather's house through a series of crime-infested neighborhoods, even to the day-care center where my mother worked. We would sleep in the back and wake before the kids started to arrive. Finally, we settled in a subsidized apartment in the same complex where one of my cousins lived. At last I was able to grow a little when we settled in this apartment. I would walk with my brother Raphael down to the library and look across the street at the city's university looming large upon the hill. I thought occasionally that I might go to college someday. In the meantime, while my classmates were enjoying chauffeured rides home in Rolls Royces and Aston Martins, I was enduring city bus rides (our Volvo broke down) to the health and human services department to cheat the government into giving us food stamps. Although my mother was employed and not "technically" eligible for public assistance, we managed to persuade them to our cause. It was a great assistance indeed—we ate well and did not have to worry about food for about 2 years. But my mother's "persuasive" tactics eventually got her into trouble. She was almost sentenced to prison for food stamp fraud, but because she had children they let her off with 10 years' probation. In order to feed us and to make sure she had enough income to pay our rent and keep our lights on, she had risked her freedom. This is but one of the sacrifices my mother had to make to raise me and my brother over the years. Regardless of what popular opinion has to say about "welfare queens," I know for a fact that my mother had to do what she did to pave the way for me and my brother.
At school I was the "special black student," a role that I quickly grew tired of. Once, when I cursed out a teacher who had been picking on me, I walked down to Mrs. Briggs office to talk to her about it. Mrs. Briggs was an understanding old white lady who seemed to look right inside of me. When I talked with her, I did not have to say much because she knew me so well. She had seen it coming and she helped me out a lot. "I understand that a lot of people are always pressuring you. Sometimes it doesn't feel so good, but you really do have to do your homework. And your teacher is just trying to push you because she cares about your education." I knew that already, but I still didn't like it. She gave me some advice that I will never forget. She told me that when I got home and went outside to play, if I heard a voice inside my head that told me to do my homework, that is what I should do. I should not ignore that little voice, because it was only looking out for me. The more I ignored it, the worse my grades and the pressure would be. I loved Mrs. Briggs for teaching me to listen to my conscience.
Another lesson I learned is that the best schools were rich and white. Being young, I did not know cause from effect, so I assumed that they were good because they were white. I had no idea that money and resources played a role in the matter. This lesson was reinforced by the simple fact that Tall Oaks was in a neighborhood as unlike mine as possible. Having said that, I have to say that the years from 2nd grade to 6th grade were the most joyful of my life! I was able for the first time to act like the child I was. I still had some adult responsibility, but more and more the freedom of childhood was within my grasp. In our apartment complex, I was able to make friends and play and fight and throw eggs at buses and do all the things that poor black boys do. I was comfortable because I was doing "normal things." I had not yet become frustrated and jaded by the poverty that confined us to the ghetto, nor had I become sensitive to the forces working to keep us there. I thank God that my mother was.
When I was 12, my mother put me in a program called Big Brothers and Sisters. Although the program is advertised for everyone, it is generally focused toward poor black and Mexican kids, who usually end up matched with uppermiddle-class whites. I was lucky because my big brother, Leon, was black and upwardly mobile. My involvement in the program opened up many opportunities for me, the value of which I was not aware at the time. Leon was one of the most positive elements in my life. I have not had many influential black role models in my life, and those that have been close enough to influence me have not been good influences. My Uncle Jeffrey and my father taught me how to use drugs and beat women! The lack of role models for black youth is a reality that I lived with for a long time, but I was rescued from my ignorance before it was too late.
Leon had had a relatively happy, working-class, two-parent upbringing. He went to a state college and a historically black law school, so he could offer me plenty of advice on school and on making plans for the future. I loved his rationality. I was a close-mouthed, shy, silent kid when I met him, but over the years, he helped me out of my shell, taught me things I knew nothing about, showed me parts of town I had never seen, and allowed me to witness his success. Last year he became a partner in his law firm and got married.
I got together with Leon in the middle of 6th grade. Under his tutelage and my mother's nourishment, my confidence grew and I was better prepared for school that next fall. However, 6th grade was the first and the last year (even in college!) that I went through exactly the same process as all the other students in preparation for school. I went school shopping for clothes and filler paper, I went to register on time, I went to orientation on time and with everyone else. It was a great experience. I felt really good about myself for the first time since we had moved to Houston. That confidence did not last past that year. In 7th grade, economic problems and the upheaval of more moving caused my grades to drop. I flunked out of the gifted program and lost my transfer to the "rich white" school, which meant that I had to attend my home school.
I have still not figured out exactly why I gave up on my schoolwork. I felt I really didn't belong at my home school, even though I had friends there. My home school reflected the poverty and anomie that marks inner cities across America. My brief stay there forced me to make more conscious decisions about the course of my life because I knew that I didn't want to fit in with these students, even though I felt attached to them. I would have to work to make it out of there and into a better life for myself, and whether or not I succeeded was entirely up to me. Not even my mother or Leon could help me. Leon and my mother were disappointed in my poor school performance, but what could they do? I did make it out of there and back to the better junior high school the next year, from which I eventually graduated with average grades and low self-esteem. My experience of flunking and being transferred to a poor school was another milestone in my search for identity; I learned that I am human and that even the most driven, talented, ambitious youngsters can fail. I was not as exceptional as others said I was. I was a human being, and human beings sometimes make the wrong choices, or just mess up. A wise man once said, "Even men of steel rust."
My family moved again during my freshman year, and I enrolled in the regular curriculum at the local high school because I was not willing to try to challenge myself by taking the advanced classes. I did well in school without even trying and kept a low profile. I made two friends and mainly hung out with them. I made enough As that by the fall semester of 10th grade my guidance counselor and science teacher (both black women) noticed that I was doing too well to be in regular classes.
My guidance counselor said, "I think you need to think about getting into more challenging classes."
"Naw, I don't think I should do that," I replied. I was still discouraged from middle school. She insisted that I undertake the challenge and recommended an advanced English class. "No, I really don't think I could handle the reading." The class required students to read five books during the whole term. I was lazy when it came to reading books for school. I had the most ravenous appetite for them if they were not assigned, but the stigma of schoolwork killed (and still kills!) my desire. So I went home to enjoy my Christmas vacation and to eat turkey.
My jaw dropped when I got back to school and saw my schedule: advanced English and advanced math. What was my guidance counselor trying to do? The thought of refusing her intimidated me, so I decided to just take it as it came. I thought I could at least keep up if I kept doing what I was doing in the regular classes. I was right. The advanced classes were not that much harder than the regular classes. In fact, they were easier because the teachers expected you to do well and provided encouragement. Although I had to read a book a week for my English class, I also got to do creative things with my work. Oral presentations, which came to be my favorite thing to do, were required of me for the first time in my life.
My isolation began that term. Though my two friends, Avery and Dwayne, were smart and capable of making it in the accelerated track, I was the only black student in the whole school in any advanced classes. Slowly, other friends and acquaintances began to fall away, so that when I graduated from 10th grade, the only two friends I had left were Avery and Dwayne. The isolation hurt, but I see now that it was a long time coming. All my schooling in Houston, except for my brief stint at the local junior high school, had set me up for it.
On the other hand, I had learned to use words to cope with every type of social situation. All the talking I had done to get out of fights, to repel potential offenses, and to persuade teachers that my work really was good, had prepared me for my next adventure in high school—debate. When I decided to take debate, I had expected to go into class, glibly discuss an arbitrary topic, and, as usual, win the argument. My debate coach, Mrs. Kendall, a short, round, motherly yet sardonic, chain-smoking white lady, quickly dispelled those ideas. Extensive amounts of research and preparation goes into debate, not only presentation and persuasiveness. I cannot say that I have mastered the activity yet, but I continue to learn in college as a member of one of the top collegiate debate teams.
Like Leon, Mrs. Kendall introduced me to many subjects that I had never been exposed to before. She introduced me to extracurricular activities that helped pave my way into college and prepare my mind for the tasks before me, and I love her for that. I learned more than I did in all of my other classes. Debate was the only forum in high school where I learned anything of intellectual value. Debate was the most satisfying thing I ever did with my time; it was the only activity that gave gratification in return for hard work. My teammates and I also learned about life as we traveled across Texas with Mrs. Kendall. She loved us all, and I love her for that too.
Debate made me feel that I was on my way. But to where? To college and my destiny, I suppose. I chose my college based on the strength of its debate team. My time at college has allowed me to put the past and the present in perspective. I have come to believe that I am either great, lucky, or blessed. I don't believe in luck so I must have some greatness in me and I must have a mission in life. From what my experience shows, I should be thoroughly fucked up in one way or another. If I am not a token-for-life-selling-out-dollar-chasing-white-man-in-black-skin because of the inferiority complex I got by encountering extreme affluence at school and desperate poverty at home, I should be a forty-ounce-drinking-blunt-smoking-rap-listening-bitch-slapping-ho-chasing -crack-slinging-street-nigger acting out the hostility, violence, and self-destruction that I witnessed at an early age and throughout my life. Having learned to snort cocaine and smoke marijuana at such a young age, I should be involved more deeply in the drug subculture than I am. I did become involved with drugs briefly in high school. A lot of the debaters (all white kids and advanced-class students) drank, smoked weed, and did acid, so I did too. I quickly learned that I was not drug-user material.
I am amazed that I do not have a more intense conflict about race. Incredibly, even my experience in high school reinforced the lesson that white is right when it comes to education. As I grew more sophisticated, I did escape the post-hoc fallacy I had fallen into earlier; I realized that it is money, not race, that is the defining factor in school quality. Tracking can segregate even the blackest neighborhood school systems! While in high school, I experienced patronizing white attitudes toward the "only black student in class" and "that talented young black man," but that was really nothing compared to the isolation forced on me by my former black peers. I never did figure out how to regain their acceptance, which at that time I felt I needed. So, out of frustration and pain, I just figured, hell, they might be right about the value of education and other ideas about what constitutes success. There was nothing I could rely upon to strengthen me because my role models were few and like most kids, my identity was strongly influenced by the acceptance of my peers. I know now how foolish we all were.
I learned from my high school experience just how correct W. E. B. DuBois was when he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
My perception of myself in early life reveals the truth of "the veil." It was only rarely and in the midst of a crisis that I was able to come to a conclusion about myself, by myself! In fact, this is a common dilemma of poverty and blackness in America, and perhaps of humanity. You find yourself constantly fighting everyone else around you to get what you need, so that you never have time to figure out what you want.
My entire school experience shows the truth of the "double-consciousness." I had to speak two languages—one of poverty and tired resignation, and one of hope and bright futures. I had to be aware of one group while in the midst of another and succeed in both! School also showed me how resentful blacks and patronizing whites looked upon my experience with "either contempt or pity," respectively.
The identity I have become comfortable with proves the truth of the "two souls warring"—I am not a middle-class "African American" wishing he had experienced the gritty poverty and violence of his underclass brother so that he could feel connected to blackness, nor am I simply a poor black who vainly wishes, Bigger Thomas-like, for the freedom and affluence of the whites. I have experienced the violence and desperate poverty of the ghetto and continue to live too close to it for comfort, but I have always seen a way out. The value my mother placed on education, the keystone of middle-class values, allowed me to learn the language and ways of middle-class America, but the center of my being still lies with my people. It has made for an interesting life.
The college experience has allowed me a chance to put my relationship with my mother into perspective. Recently she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and although she has undergone an operation, there is no telling whether the cancer may come back to kill her. When she was in the hospital she missed some probation hearings (from the food stamp fraud), and her probation officer decided to crack down on her and become a hard-ass. This put my mother on the spot again, and for what? For trying to take care of me and my little brother. The criminal process against my mother has begun again. The real crime is what they do to her, but I now can understand that all the persecution she has endured is simply the price she paid to ensure my brother's and my future. But having said that, I still feel hatred for those who have unjustly imposed such burdens on us throughout our lives. The forces which created the situation that produced my father are the same ones which continue to persecute my mother.
My personal growth has naturally included forays into the realm of the romantic. I am in a relationship with a young woman on campus, and she loves me, but we have been having problems recently. My early experience with my mother and father has kept me from making some of the same mistakes my father made, like hitting her or otherwise abusing her, but other problems fill the gaps. All the time I spent as a child struggling to maintain my sanity and be cool about things when hell was all around me, makes me a little difficult to communicate with. I also have a hard time listening and understanding other people's needs. It is the same callousness that allows desperate people to deal drugs to their neighbors and greedy people to colonize and enslave others. My obsession with my own well-being makes me stubborn, and once I make up my mind about how I feel, it is damn near impossible for me to understand how I can be wrong. It causes problems, but I want to change and experience the joy that comes from true intimacy and communication. I love my woman friend, but it is sometimes hard for me to express it. Same goes for her. But after all the fighting and all the crying, we still talk heart to heart. Although we do not "go out" anymore, we are starting again as friends. I guess friendship is what marriages or any other long-term relationships are built on. The best lesson to be learned from love can be found in Christ or Buddha; give without expecting something in return. Give something freely without tying your heartstrings around it. I have learned that lesson.
After all is said and done, I think it all comes down to faith. Faith is not required of most Americans, I think, and it is withheld by circumstance from those of us who need it most. Most of us cannot see beyond the four dim candle-lit walls that surround us when the light bill has not been paid. The darkness dims the spirit, and the pain of deprivation makes us callous and unfeeling.
I am currently studying in one of the most selective colleges in the country. I stand on the cusp of personal and financial success. My situation, however, is nothing I alone can be credited with, nor is it merely luck. It is just a blessing. I am grateful because I must be. I thank all the people who tried to hurt me but actually helped me: to the lady in the park who didn't want her daughter playing with "nigger" children, to all the gang members that sweated me over the years, to the racist teachers, to the folks who introduced me to drugs, to my father, to my drunken grandmother—and to all the "help" along the way. I thank all the people who wished me well: Mrs. Kendall, Mrs. Briggs, my high school guidance counselor, and science teacher. Finally, I thank my mother for all the sacrifices she made and continues to make for me and my brother Raphael. I also thank God for my destiny.
|I||Social Class and Race|
|Class and Race in Negotiating Identity||3|
|1||Born with a Veil||15|
|2||What Is Black Enough?||32|
|3||Living between the Lines||47|
|4||I Reconcile the Irreconcilable||60|
|The Social Construction of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture||75|
|The Intersections of Identity||85|
|6||Walking a Thin Line||112|
|8||Becoming Comfortable in My Skin||134|
|9||Caught between Two Cultures||148|
|10||Lost in the Middle||159|
|III||Resillence and Resistance|
|Resilience and Resistance||173|
|11||Gotta Keep Climbin' All de Time||186|
|13||Feeling the Pressure to Succeed||218|
|15||Reflections on My Survival||245|
|16||Quest for Peace||261|
|About the Contributors, Editors, and Foreword Writer||291|