In the rare moments when I really reflect back on my childhood, sometimes it is too painful to think about, the reality of what my world was like, along with the world of many others who share my pain, will not allow me to sleep at night. It is hard to get rid of that feeling in the pit my stomach when I think about life during those times.
The faces of fallen friends who died very young, some as young as 12 and 13, stare back at me, illuminated by the prison lights and silhouettes. Those moments make me think back when I attended the wakes and funerals, fighting back the tears and avoiding the looks and stares of mothers. Mothers who often shout out in pain why was her son or daughter taken, and not the son or daughter of some other mother. These nights make me think about the times when I cried out why him and not me as the alcohol fueled the rage and anger boiling inside of me. I think back to the times when, and how many times, I was close to being the one shot dead, stabbed or beaten to death. Not really caring, actually preparing myself for an early death, if I lived or died.
They talk about a way out. The only way out, for most, comes by way of drugs, a good get high, alcohol, pills, heroin, weed and anything else that will take the pain away. The pain of what one witnesses every day in the “hood”. The death, violence and poverty that exist in the hood. It is a battle to stay sane and not go crazy.
Growing up in a world eating free cheese, eggs, peanut and drinking free powdered milk from welfare. Living in places that resemble prison complex’s. It seems the bars around the projects and on the windows were designed to keep us in. I swear when I think back to every apartment or project I lived in we were barred in. The hood was protected and patrolled by drug dealers and gangbangers. The were the ones that defended the hood from the other hoods. Or others lurking for prey to survive off. The hood policed the hood, as crazy as that sounds. How could one not be attracted to the respect of these young men who defended the “hood”. They projected the sense of fearlessness that one needs to survive the “hood.” Fear will kill you if you don’t know how to make it work for you. All it takes is to witness the death of a close friend to decide what side of fear you want to be on.
In the hood school is not an option, especially if you were poor and could not afford nice clothes and shoes. I remember wearing shoes from Payless or any one of the other cheap outlet stores, or the Compton swap meet. I remember not being able to buy the required gym shorts and tee-shirts required for gym class. I remember trying out for the football team and being laughed at because I did not have a helmet. That would be the last time I would be ridiculed and laughed at. I simply stopped going to school.
Nights like these, when I reflect back, I applaud my mother. Who was a single black woman raising 6 kids, 4 boys and 2 girls, on her own. We lived in one of the most dangerous cities at that time, Compton California, (South Central LA). I applaud how she held it together as we moved from house to house, shelter to shelter, project to project. She always found a way to overcome these hard times and give us a little bit more than we had.
It is no surprise that I sit in prison now. It is no surprise that all, expect one, of my brothers, and almost all my cousins, have been to prison. Or have been caught in the web of drug addiction. Who would be surprised by that? Who would be surprised to know that many of us turned to substances to numb the pain, even at young ages. A way to escape the hood, even if only for a moment.
They talk about the causalities of the Iraq/Afghanistan war. What about the war of drugs that claimed many lives. The nameless and faceless youth caught up in a struggle they did not create. During my youth the murder rate topped 300 most years between 1986 and 1991 (the year I came to prison), drug and crime related killing in DC. It was much higher in LA during those days. All young men and women. It is a shame to consider a 20 to life sentence was my way out the hood alive.
Stats show that:
*During the time between 1982 and 1991 homicide was the most common cause of death for y young African American. make and female. The probability of a young African American female dying by homicide was for time that of a non African American. Young African American males were 11 times more likely to die of homicide than that of non African American males
*Guns were involved in more that 75% of adolescent killings
*Children were becoming involved in violence at youngest ages. In a study of first and second graders in Washington DC 45 % said they had witness shootings. 39 % said they had seen dead bodies.
(American Psychology Association Commission on Youth and Violence, 1993)
*Between 1987 and 1991, the number for violent crimes index for juveniles increased by 80% twice the number for person 18 years of age or older
*Juvenile arrested for murder increase by 88% compared to 21% for those 18 and older
*The estimate 122,900 violent crimes index arrest of juveniles in 1991 was the highest in history, with 3,400 being for murder
*Juveniles accounted for 17% of all violent crime arrest in 1991
*Three of every 10 juveniles murder arrest involved a victim under the age of 18
*Juvenile arrest rates for heroin and cocaine increased dramatically, more than 700% between 1980 and 1990 for black youth the rate increased more that 2000%, compared with 250% increase by white youth.
*900,000 youth between ages 12 and 19 were the victims of 1.9 million violent crimes, rape, robbery and assault each year between 1985 and 1988
*67 out of every 1,000 teenagers were victim of violent crimes each year, compared with 26 per 1000 persons age 20 or older between 1985 and 1988
*Teen victimization were most likely to occur in or around schools -37% of the violent crimes victimizations of youth between 12 and 15 years of age old occurred at school
*FBI data shows that in 1991 more than 2,200 youth under 18 were involved in the US and average to more than 6 youth homicide each year
(Juvenile and Violence: Juvenile Offending and victimization, July 1993)
Considering these staggering stats it is chilling to think that these were the odds myself and others like me were up against during those times. These are the numbers that the powers to be, courts, judges, probation and parole officials don’t ponder when a young black man stands before them, as they enter the prison system, or come before them to be let out. They see and hear the crimes committed but they often respond by saying, “I have heard this before and I am tired of hearing the same story.”
Well it is the same story for a reason. More times than not it is the same story. The story of survival. The story of abuse, lack of education, poverty, and other social factors that deprive many of an equal start at life, as one starts his life’s journey in the “hood”. As George Jackson said, “Born to a premature death, a menial, subservient wage worker, odd job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under the hatches, without bail – that’s me, the colonial victim.”
Yeah this is the story, they get to so tired of hearing, of the one born into a world where the deck is stacked against them from birth. Many are offspring’s of drug abusers, were neglected, under-educated and who came from broken and violent homes and communities. Born into a household as a second and third generation drug dealers, pimps, robbers, crooks and prostitutes born to fathers without names and faces. Talk about the causalities of war.
How can one stand up and explain to a judge the realties of his life. How can he be truthful, when the truth is going to get him sent to prison for many years of his life, that he grew up in a place where he had to rob, steal and maybe kill to survive. To those people it makes no sense. It is not possible that one can come from a background like this. It seems like a lie and excuse. They lack of understand often cause me to ask myself how did the rich and privilege get the right to rule and judge the poor and under-privilege. A class of people who could never, and often times never try to understand the young men that stand before them. They will never understand the journey of one who is conditioned to be institutionalized before understanding what those words mean.
As a side note I want to say that the hood is a place of extreme victimization but there is a cure for that. Just the name “the hood” in itself denotes a certain sort of defect. When you take out the mother (motherhood) and the father (fatherhood) and the child (childhood) and the neighbor out the neighborhood all you are left with is ” the hood”. If you take out these key components of the neighborhood out all you are left with is a community of victims.
These are the thoughts that cause me to toss and turn at night in my prison cot. To know I am here yet invisible at the same time. As Howard Zinn so eloquently put it, ” In one year 375,000 people will be in jail or in prison and 54,000 in juvenile detention, there will be 900,000 under probation and 300,000 on parole in total 16,000,000 people affected by the criminal justice system. Considering turnover in any one year, several million people will come in and out of this system. It is a population largely invisible to middle-class Americans, but if 20 million blacks could be invisible for so long, why not 4 or 5 million “criminals.” (A People’s History of the United States, Zinn 2003, p 517)
I guess this explains why I can’t make parole. Regardless of the struggle, pain, hardships and accomplishments, to many I am visible. A night the cell I reside in is very real. The experience of my incarceration, one I have felt every single day since the age of 17, the age I was when I entered prison, up until now 23 years later, is very real. But to others I am others like me no longer exist. Our efforts to contribute to society no longer matter. There seems to be no room for redemption. But the struggle continues and will not stop. If there was one thing about growing up in the hood taught me it would be that no matter what I can survive.