Thursday, April 13, 2017

An Obscured Struggle

She had light skin and long hair...”

She was light skinned, with straight hair...”

She had really light skin and good hair...”

I often heard these sort of phrases countless times while growing up. Such utterances were always the code words proceeding judgment if a Black girl was worthy of being granted the lofty title of beautiful. My older brothers, cousins, their friends, and many other guys around the neighborhood began or ended their stories this way when bragging.

On uniquely rare occasions they sometimes mentioned seeing or speaking to a dark skinned girl they found attractive but this came with an indication of surprise. “She is really dark skinned but still really pretty” or “she's a chocolate/dark thing but still fine as hell” was their way of explaining what was treated like a rare phenomenon.

It would be exceedingly easy to vilify these individuals or rush to heap scorn upon them concerning their perceptions about light skin vs dark skin. However, such ire would be equally misguided. Why? First, because all of these young men were only teenagers who were just easily misguided, presumptuous, and ridiculous as so many kids are.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, their own perspectives of what constituted beauty in Black women/girls were drastically distorted by older men-- who themselves were the products of a colonial education in self-degradation-- and an endless stream of potent media.

As recently as the 80s and 90s there were few, if any, dark skinned women depicted as beautiful, attractive, or desirable in films, on television, and ironically even in rap videos. It is a tragic irony that media created by us would be so frequently guilty of carrying the most venom and disdain towards Black women.

Of course, there has always been a number of positive and intellectual artists in rap and hip-hop. However, their much-needed presence does not negate or detract from the more blatantly poisonous elements of the art that eagerly encouraged young Black men to stew within a toxic form of masculinity. A mindset where musical idols are celebrated, wealthy, and famous for demeaning, insulting, and callously dismissing Black women as little more than masturbatory aids to be used, abused, and ultimately cast aside.

Black women are routinely denounced for being stubborn, 'hardened', suspicious or uncompromising. But before making such broad, superficial generalizations do their accusers ever stop to examine what it is Black women have experienced for generations? And continue to experience daily? Women, in general, must struggle against the many burdens and obstacles placed before them by both overt and covert sexism. However, no other population of women in this country is so harried by persistent scorn, double-standards, vicious judgment, harsh accusation, and seemingly endless ridicule as Black women.

Caught between what can easily be described as an immovable anvil of centuries old, systemic racism, and the relentless hammer of struggles in our own community, Black women are forced to be made of sterner stuff, as fragility would only lead to drowning in utter despair.

This understanding is not presented as a carte blanche for the actions of every individual Black woman. Nor, is this the automatic blanket condemnation of all Black men. Instead, this is a sorrowful admittance that our community suffers from centuries worth of grievous wounds that have left lasting scars. Perhaps the deepest and slowest healing of these wounds is the way we view ourselves. The way we have negatively judged our hair, skin, and features.

Not only do we exist in a society where women are constantly judged predominately based on their perceived physical desirability but it is also a nation where White women are advertised as the ultimate expression of feminine beauty. Our community has been saturated by the constant deluge of this message for generations. This is why it is a unique pain Black women have predominately carried. Acknowledging this does not somehow mock, belittle, or lessen the overall struggle of Black men. Added knowledge brings only strength.

But where does it come from? What breeds this prevalent disdain of Black women and girls that infects parts of our own community? Maybe it starts early for young Black boys. Indoctrination is not always intentional but that never makes it less dangerous when it occurs.

As kids, we frequently played a game called “Capping” or “Playing the Dozens”. In layman's terms it was a game of exchanging comedic insults like, “You so stupid, when you read a sign saying 'Airport Left' you turned around and went home” or “You so broke you have to put a color TV on layaway because you can only pay off one color at a time”. To the more nonsensically abstract ones like, “Yo momma has only 1 eye and 1 leg, and they call her Ilean”, or “Yo momma have a wooden afro with leather sideburns”. We would eagerly gather to watch two verbal combatants battle for the biggest laughs until someone gave up. For the most part, these games remained friendly-- but sometimes wounded pride could dictate otherwise.

The topics varied wildly. But mothers, sisters, and Blackness seemed to fuel a major portion of these disses. More precisely, there were a vast number of insults about how hideous, comical, or pathetic dark skin was, especially concerning women. Some believe mothers and sisters were frequently targeted because they are held in high regards thus making it easier to possible offend one's opponent. But people want to believe many things despite the contrary. There are times you cannot see what is directly in front of you for any number of reasons. Sometimes it takes someone else to show you what has always been painfully obvious.

In my 5th grade class, the moment the daily 20 minutes of free time arrived, many of us boys would gather into a circle at the back of the class to play the dozens. Like a vicious verbal equivalent of the old gladiatorial games, mercy was only granted when someone tapped out allowing a new challenger to take on the winner.

A substitute teacher, Mr. Edwin, an older Black man from NY, was monitoring the class. During his extended stay, he enjoyed frequently talking about subjects like the Harlem Renaissance and all those figures who contributed to making those times so memorable through art, music, and literature. I found a great deal of enjoyment listening to these stories because I had never heard of the Harlem Renaissance up until this point in my life. Before his small lectures, my understanding of Black history was always centered around slavery, MLK, Rosa Parks, and little else.

On this day we were having a particularly brutal exchange when Mr. Edwin moved in closer to watch with what appeared to be mild amusement and interests. For the first few minutes, he remained silent and only observed.
Yo momma is so black,” Began Eshu to Kappa. “when she jumps into a hot bath it turns into coffee”

Everyone in the large circle laughed.

Yeah?” Kappa smirked at Eshu. “Yo momma so Black when she spits oil comes out.”

Everyone laughed again.

“I've got one!” Mr. Edwin finally jumped in with a jovial tone to all the kid's amazement.

“Really?” Eshu asked in surprise.

“Yeah. It's a good one.” Mr. Edwin nodded. “Ready?”

Everyone nodded excitedly while encouraging him to say his joke as well.

“Yo, Momma is so Black,” Then Mr. Edwin stopped without finishing the joke.

“She is so Black, what?” Asked Kappa in confusion.

“That's it.” Mr. Edwin shrugged as he looked between us. “All of your mothers are so Black. That is why each of you are so Black.”

“That's it?” Eshu asked in disappointment.

“I don't mean any disrespect Mr. Edwin but that was wack.” Kitsune chimed in causing many of the boys to laugh under their breath.

Oh. That's not the running joke? I thought the funny part of all this was being Black.” Mr. Edwin explained.

“What? No one said that.” Eshu replied defensively.

“Of course you did,” Mr. Edwin continued. “All of you were. You simply do not understand that is exactly what each of you are saying.”

“But there were a lot of other jokes.” Kappa reminded him.

“But not nearly as many as the ones about Black skin. Or why our mothers and sisters are comical, gross, or ugly because they are Black women and girls.” Mr. Edwin countered.

“But it's just a joke.” Eshu rolled his eyes with clear impatience.

“Let me ask each of you something.” Mr. Edwin pulled up a chair to sit with us. “Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why is it that Blackness is funny? Or why we demean our women for having dark skin? What is so funny about our natural state?”

“It is all just a joke. You are taking it way too serious.” Kitsune groaned with irritation.

“Only because I am old enough to remember when White folk were saying all those things about us in person, on the radio, the stage, and television while there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it.” Mr. Edwin continued patiently. “I'm not trying to stop any of you. I already know you would all just go running out at recess and continue there even if I told you to stop. I just want you all to think about what it is you are saying. I want you all, if even just for a few minutes, to seriously think about why is it that every punchline is little more than Black folk are funny looking or comical for being nothing more than Black folk. Or why is it that so many jokes are about how ugly our sisters and mothers are for being Black.”

Everyone was quiet as he looked between each of us sitting there in that circle. After glancing down at his watch he stood from his chair. “Free time is about up,” Mr. Edwin continued. “Now, can each of you promise me that?”

“Yes.” Most of the boys groaned out collectively as it was clear the mood had shifted.

“I know you all think its just a joke.” Mr. Edwin briefly tapped the side of his head. “But why does it have to be a joke at all our expense? Why does it have to be a joke about our women?” After that, he clapped his hands a couple of times to begin getting the rest of the class attention while walking towards the front of the room and announcing free time was over.

“I never thought about that,” Kappa admitted out loud causing some of the other boys mumbled their agreement.

“He is taking this way too serious,” Kitsune said with dismissive anger. “All that Black Power shit is so stupid. Who needs that?”

With that, we all returned to our normal seating arrangements to being the next lesson.

I learned something incredibly important that day. There is no oppression greater than when the oppressed begin to see themselves through the eyes of the oppressors. Shamefully, even within our community, it would seem it is a cruelty Black women continue to fight and resist even to this day.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Fall

The sudden loss of a loved one is a lot like abruptly being unable to breathe. Every moment, of every day, we perform this essential but automated function without ever thinking much about it. It is only when some form of misfortune seizes this ability do we truly understand just how wonderful it feels to draw breath into our lungs. Much in the same way, when a loved one dies unexpectedly we come to understand that we may have loved them deeply, and even wholly, but we did not realize how truly special it was to have them in our lives. We took for granted the gifts of being able to see and talk to them so regularly. Now that access is revoked, we are suffocating in our grief, and we would give almost anything to breathe.

It was this harsh lesson the world thrust upon me at the age of 12 when my father was murdered.

On the morning of the funeral, I had to drag myself out of bed. The entire time I felt broken and fragmented while getting dressed, like pouring shards of a shattered mirror into a suit shaped sack. As my mother, siblings, and I drove to the mortuary the sky was a funeral cliche if there ever was one. It was gray, cold and raining with dark, heavy clouds sluggishly floating above the city like a wounded armada.

Upon arriving my sisters, and second-oldest brother all climbed out of the car to go inside. Perhaps they were each far braver than me that day because as I went to follow, I instead hesitated, then simply remained seated. Suddenly the courage to face the indisputable evidence of this awful truth had fled me. My mother noticed this of course and instead of immediately going into the funeral home with the rest of her children, she walked around the car and sat with me. We did immediately begin speaking. Maybe she was gathering her thoughts on what to say. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for her.

I am not trying to push you.” My mother began gently with some noticeable hesitation that seemed uncharacteristic for her. “But he was,” She paused as if to reconsider her words. “, is your father, Walter. I know you said you do not want to see him this way. That you want to remember him the way he was... before he died. But if you do not come in to say goodbye, you may regret it later for the rest of your life. Just think about it.”

Perhaps a majority of parents and children would have exchanged a hug at the conclusion of such a statement. However, after saying what needed to be said, she climbed out of the car and went inside. We were not a very emotional family that displayed physical signs of affection. However, I never felt less loved in spite of this because she constantly demonstrated how much she loved us through her constant sacrifices that held more power than any words ever could.

I am uncertain as to how long I sat outside alone that day. I only remember I did not want to go in. I did not want to see my strong father, a man I believed could do anything and could survive anything, lying there in death. So, instead, I sat there staring down at my hands for a long time. I thought I would cry. I wanted to cry. But the pain was so intense it felt as if it was somehow inhibiting something deep within me.

The funeral home was on International blvd. A busy area constantly buzzing with activity. The garbled conversations of passing strangers on the sidewalk, and the constant sloshing of tires traveling across the wet asphalt, mixed with the non-rhythmic strumming of the rains falling against the car. But despite it, all my world was just my hands on my lap, that uncomfortable suit, and the gray shadows filling the vehicle.

How did this happen?” Is a question that haunted my mind again, and again. The world never felt as harsh, and heavy as it did on that day.

Occasionally I found myself unwillingly picturing the way my father must have died. I imagined what his murder must have looked like as the knife went plunging into him. It was a painful and infuriating train of thoughts with no brakes. Each time I allowed myself to think about it for too long a swell of primal, raw emotions howled from the darkest depth of my being and consoled the hurt with visions of potential, bloody revenge.

How did this happen?” The question repeated itself again as I lifted my eyes from my lap to stare at the building containing my father's remains. I was a child but I also was not completely naive. I knew the answer. His death was as violent as his life. But while I understood he was no saint this knowledge did not reduce the love I felt for him. It did not make the loss hurt less.

It was while staring at the large pair of decorative doors of the funeral home's entrance, that a new question occurred to me unprompted. “Where has he gone?” I firmly understood he was dead. I knew his body was lying inside. But that all felt like only part of an answer to this new, puzzling question. I was raised Baptist so of course, I knew and partially believed the teachings concerning the possible fate of souls in the afterlife.

But at that moment, while invisibly writhing in pain, at the bottom of that emotional impact crater, those teachings did not offer complete solace.

Was my father in Heaven? Hell? The purgatory my catholic neighbors sometimes spoke of? Or what if it was none of these. What if he was simply gone? Or wandering Downtown Oakland as some unfettered ghost? I was painfully desperate to know. I found myself wishing I could see where he had gone for just a second. But from the bottom of my heart, I urgently wanted to believe and hoped that maybe my father was finally with his mother, and brother, both who he loved so much. I briefly wondered, if there were such a place as heaven, would he have to walk there. My father loved walking and wandering from place to place.

I closed my eyes, and for a short while, it was all so easy to picture. I could see him walking with his hands in his pockets, a cigarette in his smiling mouth, and that brown hat he often wore resting on his head. He was walking down a path, surrounded by trees, through hills made gold by the summer, with the warm afternoon sun hanging overhead. My father was happy there. I think I finally began crying for a while.

There was a doubtless morbidity accompanying that sweetness. If even briefly, I found myself thinking that if I could just die at that moment, then maybe I could catch up with him, and we could walk together. It felt so profoundly real. Those hills, trees, fields, path and sun were all just a little ways away.

Come on, Walter.” My father would call out while patiently waiting along that mythical trail. How I wanted to feel my hand in his as we walked along, while he told me one of the seemingly endless jokes he remembered, or what he thought of a Stephen King book he had recently read. There would be the sun on my shoulders, and him at my side.

The wailing of a passing ambulance yanked me out of my head and away from the Elysian fields I was trying so hard to see. My fantasy was dashed against the rocks of life, stranding me once more in a reality of rain, wet cement, dim shadows, and sadness. I watched the ambulance speeding off towards whatever emergency or hospital it was trying to reach. As I wondered if the person they were responding to was dying, or dead, I truly hated Oakland for instance. I hated all the violence my city had shown me. I hated all the death I had witnessed. And I hated every selfish soul that helped usher in our collective misery.

The anger quickly abated. I was alone with my grief again. I began feeling sharp pangs of guilt about not going inside. It now felt terribly wrong just to sit outside while my father was lying in that building. Somehow, I finally managed to climb out of the car and close the door behind me. But even then I did not immediately begin my approach. I just stood there in the rain staring at that funeral home. I was realizing that more than just my father was being laid to rest. My dreams of having him around, of hearing his thoughts about my own writing, of being able to have him in my life more often, all of it was dead now.

Finally, I did go inside to face the awaiting reality. Low, yellow-orange lights, like the sad imitation of candles, lit the dim place of whites and dark browns. Orchestra music-- something heavy, slow, and sorrowful-- was playing over the speakers. I paused at the entrance leading into the chapel. I even considered turning around and going back outside. Then I opened the last door and entered.

There were not many people at my father's funeral. Perhaps even describing it as an intimate gathering would be an over-exaggeration of numbers. Most of his real friends had all died violently long before him. The only two members of his family that loved him, his older brother, and his mother were also gone. So it was just a few of us. My mother, sisters, brother, a couple of relatives, and a family friend. We all stood there around his white and silver casket. The truth is the casket was not remotely as fancy as it appeared. That was just an illusion. My family could not afford much so the funeral home opted for a sort of casing to make the plain wooden box appear more elegant for the ceremony.

I felt like I was floating on the air made nauseatingly sweet by some sort of incense. I finally stood there before my fallen hero. How utterly broken but peaceful he appeared to me as I looked down upon him with everything from love, to hate, to regret, and so many other things I could scarcely understand.

My father was dressed simply in a nice suit. The funeral home tried to make it appear as if he was only sleeping. But I understood that was as big a lie as the fake casing over his casket. He was dead and gone. As I stared down at him I remembered the last time we were together. He was laughing, joking, and talking. He gave me $5 dollars to go to the arcade but was gone before I returned. My mother relayed that he explained he had to go but would see me later. Later never came. I felt a terrible pain as I realized none of that was going to happen again.

Once more, I thought I would cry but nothing came except a grim epiphany in the form of understanding perhaps life would always be painful. Despite it all, I sincerely hoped my father was somewhere better than the hard life he had experienced. I hoped it was peaceful there. I wanted people who loved him to greet him as he arrived.

I thought about reaching out to touch my father but I dared not. It just felt inappropriate. So, instead, I settled on being able to do nothing more than stand there motionless as he waved one last time, then left down that long road.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

That Awful Drug

That Awful Drug

Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
--Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy

The classic depictions of Cupid are nothing but a lie. A clever PR job meant to soften the image of an otherwise ruthless opportunist. There is no winged infant firing off heart tipped arrows like a seasoned sniper. Or beautiful goddesses granting blessings to ease longing. The real Cupid is a drug pusher and pharmaceutical executive. A man with a charming smile, and an expensive suit, that both distracts from his cold eyes.

Despite a majority of first loves eventually hurting like a thousand sonsofbitches wielding rusty chainsaws, most of us will remain hopelessly addicted for the rest of our lives. Gay, Straight, Bi, all just arbitrary nonsense to Cupid. He only sees returning customers.

Do you remember your first love?

You most likely never asked for it. Cupid simply spiked your drink while you were distracted by life. Suddenly you were this crazy person wanting nothing more than to attach yourself to another crazy person, so you could both enjoy the high together.

That is how it began for me. I was 16 at the time. One moment I was minding my own business, the next I met this girl, and we both traded a shy smile. It began just as simple as that. From that point on, whenever I looked into those big brown eyes logic abandoned me, and in its place emerged a blinding desire that clouded my thoughts with want.

Her name was Puriel. She was a girl who normally kept her black, waist-length hair tied back in a braided bun. Always dressed conservatively in dark slacks or ankle length skirts, and blouses that were never brighter than earth tones. She watched the world inquisitively from behind a pair of thin framed glasses, and her full lips had an incredibly expressive way of either forming the most motherly of disapproving frowns, or the warmest of welcoming smiles.

Many others frequently described Puriel as being stand-offish, aloof, or guarded. Such views of her were not completely unfounded. But they were only half truths. These aspects of her personality were just a shield she constructed to protect herself after experiencing years of hurt at home, and rejection by her peers when she was younger. I knew and loved a side of Puriel that she rarely revealed to few others. The vulnerable, intellectually curious, passionate, and adventurous spirit that greatly desired freedom.

I saw this side of her when we sat alone together after school, and she would finally let her hair down, then rest her head on my shoulder with a quiet sigh. Or those times when things were so increasingly turbulent at home that Puriel had moments when she temporarily lost that strict control she kept over her emotions, and briefly ranted about how much she hated growing up with suffocatingly religious parents.

I especially loved the days we sat together talking about our dreams concerning the future. She frequently spoke about wanting to go to college someday and leaving home to see the world. Anytime Puriel talked about these subjects she would get this small, hopeful smile while looking off into the distance almost as if she could see those aspirations waiting for her on the far horizon. We were head-over-heels for one another. Deep in the throes of that youthful naivety, and passion, we more than once entertained the dreams of getting married and starting a life together. It all seemed so possible then.

An hour before classes began, every lunch break, and even two hours after the school day ended, we tried to see each other as much as possible. We were constantly stealing time from all our friends to make this happen. Our addiction reached such heights that more vocal friends began to complain about not seeing us. So-- despite it feeling like murder-- we both began trying to alternate days where we separated to hang with our individual social circles during lunch.

It was not all bliss. Constantly looming over our relationship was a tremendous issue we both tried to ignore. Puriel was absolutely forbidden to date. If her father had ever discovered she had a boyfriend he would have immediately demonstrated his immense displeasure to her with his fists. Of course, he would only beat his daughter to keep her safe from the evils of the world. A solution as loving, and effective as a relative burning down your house to defend it against burglars.

Learning this ugly truth locked me into a constant internal struggle. On one side was that achingly powerful want. I loved Puriel and did not want to lose her. On the other was my always scathing conscience. I was not only deathly afraid for her. I also felt increasingly selfish for continuing to pursue a relationship while being fully aware of the possible consequences.

We were together for nearly two years and as time went on the close calls only multiplied. The closest of these near misses occurred one day after school. I was leaning in to kiss Puriel but caught sight of her father's truck approaching from down the street. So, I instead embraced her close to myself and quickly turned until my back was facing the street. I prayed this would be enough to keep her hidden.

“What are you doing?” Puriel laughed in surprise.

“I saw your father's truck,” I said as calmly as I could but she tensed in my arms. The immediate fear that seized her was palpable. “I don't think he saw you. Just stay still.”

I looked over my shoulder to discover his vehicle slowed to a crawl. This was quickly seeming more and more like a worst-case scenario. Just as I was considering how I could protect her from her father, a great sense of relief washed over me when his vehicle picked up speed to continue searching for her.

“He's gone.” I released her.

“Oh god. That-- that was close.” Puriel's voice took on a noticeable tremble as she quickly hurried away from me. “I better go. I love you.”

“I love you.” I replied solemnly while watching her leave with this sinking feeling at the very core of my being.

From that day on my fears only multiplied. Even when we were together, no matter how truly happy I was to see her, the dread hounded me. There came a point where I could no longer reasonably justify the risks to myself. Even trying to reason that she was a willing participant in these possibly dire circumstances did little to soothe my conscience. In the end, no matter how much my heart begged, my more rational, guilt-ridden mind made what felt like the best choice. I decided to break-up with her.

It is still difficult to find a proper way to fully describe what that bleak moment was like. I can never forget Puriel's expression. It was something between crestfallen, anger, and disbelief. It was the look of a soul that had just been deeply betrayed. I do not blame her. I sincerely felt like I was standing there holding the still bloody knife that had just been used to stab her in the back. When I looked into her teary eyes I felt my resolve threatening to leave me. I was forced to avert my gaze least I change my mind.

I tried to explain why I was doing this. Why I was doing this awful thing to someone I claimed to care so much about. The multitude of ugly, spindly, inky fears I tried so hard to contain all spilled from me in one clumsy admittance. I confessed to being constantly frightened for her, of being unable to bear the weight of guilt if she was ever hurt because of me, and how exhausting it was trying to be together under constant subterfuge. But I could see none of that mattered. She was deeply hurt. I was the bad guy that day.

Puriel watched me for a few moments longer. It was some of the longest seconds of my life as her eyes searched my face with that questioning gaze. Then she turned and left. Just like that our story together was over.

I still occasionally wonder whatever happened to that mysterious girl with the bright smile and big dreams. I hope she grew into the woman she wanted to be and broke free of the shackles her parents tried forcing on her. I hope she went off to college and then found the courage to see the world. I want that all to be true. A few years ago I heard snippets of rumors concerning Puriel. People from back then claim to have heard she wandered to the east coast to live out many of those dreams. Others say she experienced more than one broken marriage, abuse, and stagnation. I wonder if any of what has been said about her is true? Then again, a lot of people say a lot of things.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Elementary Chaos Theory

My childhood memories of Oakland schools are of a system that was plagued by inadequacies. The phenomenally limited budget, coupled with poor materials and a shortage of staff, left the district in a frequently compromised situation much like a frail patient with a weakened immune system. There were numerous good teachers, parent volunteers, aides, and principals who not only worked hard with the limited resources provided to them but were also both compassionate and dedicated. However, these devoted souls, no matter how vigilant, were all just treatments for the symptoms instead of a cure. It was morphine keeping us students comfortable as long as possible before the disease eating away at our educational system ultimately lurched forward again.

My 5th grade class reflected this unfortunate vulnerability. It was considered by far the worst class in the entire school. Our teacher, Mr. Metis, functioned more as a beleaguered dungeon keeper than an educator. Many of his students were beyond the definitions of unruly or rude. These kids not only openly insulted him, ignored his instructions, or often disrupted the class. They would also frequently throw things like paper, erasers, pencils, and books at Mr. Metis when his back was turned. I am no less baffled now as an adult on why this was allowed to continue for so long. Then perhaps it is of no surprise that this situation would soon spiral into misfortune.

We were in the midst of a downpour the day it happened. The storm was not the surprise, however. As I walked to school that morning I could smell the rain before it started. In the 4th grade, during the science portion of class I learned what it meant when someone would claim they could smell rain coming. Our teacher, in the simplest terms possible, explained to her class that the scent we were detecting was referred to as ozone, resulting from oxygen and nitrogen molecules being split in our atmosphere, causing them to recombine into nitric oxide. This then mixes with other chemicals already in the atmosphere resulting in ozone, which gives off that faint, nearly chlorine smell drifting on the winds arriving before the actual storm. That was a better class with a much better teacher.

This day, like every other school day for weeks now was going absolutely nowhere. Like clockwork, anytime Mr. Edward turned his back on the class, someone threw something or yelled an insult at him. These constant disruptions were a thick mud keeping lessons plans stalled from the first bell to the last. I sat in the furthest back of the room mostly ignoring the chaos while watching the rain fall through the window, reading, or drawing.

On the few occasions turned my attention to the front of the class I found Mr. Metis sitting at his desk with a sort of haggard expression while shuffling through a small stack of quizzes only a very few of us participated in. He looked so sad, tired, and utterly defeated. It is at this point I could perhaps attempt to paint myself in a beneficial light that depicts me as some sort of special, sensitive child who was deeply moved by Mr. Metis' plight. No, do not confuse my observations with genuine concern. I felt little while watching events unfold from behind a thick glass of apathy. The truth is my father had been murdered only months earlier. I honestly could not have found it in me to feel anything more than that indifference.

It was shortly after I returned to watching the rain that a loud thud caused me to look up in time to witness a book someone had thrown, bouncing off Mr. Metis desk, and onto the floor. Parts of the class erupted with laughter as he watched them with an angry and flabbergasted expression on his face.

That is assault!” Mr. Metis warned as sternly as he could. This only caused more laughter. “If one of those books hit me,” He continued despite being mostly ignored. “and I catch who threw it, it won't be me, you, momma, daddy, and the principal! No sir! It will be me, you, momma, daddy and the police!”

Someone mockingly yelled “Shut the fuck up!” from the anonymity of the class causing even more laughter. Mr. Metis looked about the 30+ students in a vain attempt to find the instigators. Visibly his anger slowly ebbed into confusion, then confusion cooled to defeat, then he went quiet.

There were two particular boys who played the ringleaders in this mean-spirited circus, named Eshu, and Kitsune. Both had been held back at least once making them too old for the 5th grade. Both had serious behavioral issues and frequently bullied other kids. They were weapons-grade troublemakers equipped with an entire gaggle of loyal flunkies. Both were troubled boys who had little to no understanding they were only hurting themselves.

I was only on friendly terms with Eshu, and Kitsune. On occasions we talked about video games but never much else. I made the conscious effort to avoid them as much as possible. They never picked on me, or gave me any trouble, but I figure why risk a possible fight that could be avoided.

Today both boys were in rare form. They rallied most of the class behind them in their relentless tormenting of Mr. Metis. Each impotent warning, or issued threat only seemed to draw more ire and amusement from all involved. At one point the taunting and disrespect grew so merciless that Mr. Metis marched over to the phone that would contact the office on the first floor. He lifted the receiver as the laughter of the classroom partially trailed off. But he paused, appearing to change his mind with a shake of his head, before putting the phone back in place. I am not certain as to why Mr. Metis did not follow through. Perhaps it did not bode well for him to call for assistance the 5th or 6th time that week. This only served to further fuel his tormentors.

A knock at the door drew Mr. Metis attention and caused the troublemakers to quickly power down. This always happened in case it was the principal, or someone else with enough power to begin handing out punishments. Mr. Metis answered the door to find a student aide with some sort of message from another teacher.

Before I began searching through my desk for a book to read, I noticed Kitsune and Eshu leaning in close with a few of their loyalest acolytes. Their conspiratorial whispers were punctuated by snickers, and grinning glances at the teacher. It was clear they were up to something. I imagined a mean prank akin to the time they locked Mr. Metis outside of the class. I was soon to learn just how wrong my assumption was.

Hey, Walter.” Kitsune's whisper drew my attention from the book I had found. I looked up to see him grinning in a peculiar way. “Hey, watch this.” He added before turning back towards Mr. Metis.

I ceased reading and tuned my attention towards where they were all eagerly starring.

As the seconds stretched on my curiosity grew.

I kept watching.

Still watching.

Then nothing happened.

Finally, I shrugged and returned to my book. I figured they changed their minds about whatever it was they were planning. At this point I just wanted the final bell to ring. It was abundantly clear the day was going to end as pointless as it had began.

I was startled by the frightened, high-pitched scream of Kushiel, a girl that sat a few seats ahead of me. I jerked up from my book with just enough time to see the trophy tumbling through the air before its heavy, marble base slammed hard into the wall immediately to the right of Mr. Metis' face just as he was turning to the class from the entrance. The impact smashed a large hole in the plaster and shattered the trophy into several pieces, startling him into taking a few panicked steps back, where he bumped into the partially closed door, causing it to swing open.

The room erupted into an uproar of amused laughter as he stood there so startled and dumbfounded. Something entertaining was about to happen. Would he preform another ballad of pointless warnings? Would he commence his frantic dance routine towards the phone? The curtain was raised, Mr. Metis was on stage, and the audience was so eager to see him preform.

Yet, the longer he stood there oddly rigid, and starring into space with that frozen mask of fear, the quicker the laughter died off. It was now clear something was terribly wrong. Mr. Evans finally turned as if he was trying to leave the room but instead his legs went out beneath him, and he fell hard causing his head to audibly bounce off the floor. He rolled onto his back lying halfway between the hallway and the classroom.

Now there was a hard silence after that. A quiet so harsh that only the rain dared to disturb it as the storm continued pouring against the building. What had began as a comedic farce was suddenly a tragedy of their own making. The entire class had front row seats but its doubtful anyone was thanking their good fortunes for the view.

Reality was pissed but at least it was not rude. It announced its impending return with Kushiel's suddenly hysterical screams that filled the classroom. Panicked, and overwhelmed, she bolted to her feet, and fled from the class as if to get as far away as possible from the ugly thing that was happening. By now blood was slowly starting to form a small pool near Mr. Evan's head, blooming across the beige, brown and black swirl pattern of the floor.

The sight of blood ignited the fears of all the other kids. Many of them began running out of the class room all at once, pouring into the hallway, and banging frantically at the doors of neighboring classrooms.

Mr. Evans is dead! Mr. Evans is dead!” The terrified chorus repeated over and over.

Yet, even as the screams for help was alerting the rest of the upper floor classrooms to the current emergency, not every student in our class was trying to find help for Mr. Metis. Kitsune, Eshu, and the rest of their followers were now in frightened disarray while blaming and bickering. Normally the fear of the two older boys was enough to make the others submit but this latest escapade had gone much too far. None of the usual suspects were willing to be caught under the massive, flaming, many wheeled bus obviously speeding towards the class. A reckoning was nigh.
I sat there watching it all occur. I felt calm because most of the situation did not resonate with me on an emotional level. This time I did feel bad for Mr. Metis but I was also aware I could do nothing for him. I considered getting something soft to prop his head on but I decided against it as I recalled numerous warnings about not moving an injured person. I had no idea if this rule applied to this situation but I was not willing to risk it.

Soon, I stood from my desk, and left the other boys to continue their frantic scramble as I made my way to the downed Mr. Metis. Standing over him, I watched for several seconds to see if he was still breathing. I felt some small relief to see that he was.

Mr. Metis...” I began with some hesitation. He stirred a little but his eyes did not open. “Mr. Metis, I think help is coming soon.” It was all I could think to say in the given situation. I am not certain if he heard me. He appeared to be barely conscious and there was still so much noise coming from the hallway. After that I crossed over him and wandered out of the class.

By now other teachers were exiting their classrooms while demanding their own students remain seated. Some of the frightened kids were still yelling our teacher was dead. I was uncertain as to what to do next. I continued watching the commotion around me for a little while longer before walking to the end of the hall, and going down the two flights of steps leading to the first floor. Just as I was approaching the office Mr. Brontes, a very large man who served as security, quickly stepped out of the door.

Walter,” Mr. Brontes paused upon spotting me. “What happened up there?”

Someone threw something at Mr. Metis. I think it really scared him and he fainted.” I explained.

Did you see who threw whatever it was?” Mr. Brontes asked.

No. Sorry.” I replied.

Mr. Brontes watched me with what seemed to be suspicion before moving on. Maybe he felt like I knew more than what I was admitting to. I suppose if that were the case then there is some truth to it. Even if I did not see exactly who was responsible for throwing that trophy I was aware of who the conspirators were. Maybe I should have said something. But I honestly just did not want to get involved. How often has someone expected absolution with that excuse?

Soon, Mr. Ladon, the school's principal, emerged from his office. He immediately sprinted up the stairs to check on Mr. Metis. Mr. Brontes began corralling our entire class downstairs near the office. All the kids, even those who were never involved in the craziness, appeared shaken frightened by the unfortunate turn of events. The instigators were all still arguing as each was vying not to lose their head.

This all went on for several minutes until Mr. Brontes moved to the front entrance of the building, only several feet away from the office, and flung open one of the two pairs of large, beige doors just as the paramedics were pulling to a stop outside. A pair of EMT's hurried into the building with a stretcher and a cop following behind them.

Mr. Ladon was furious by the time he returned downstairs. “You should all be ashamed of yourself.” He began evenly as he looked among us gathered children. “What some of you did here today hurt an innocent man. And for what? What did he do to deserve this? He was only trying to teach each of you. Are you proud now? Are you happy about what happened here?”

Many of the students began to cry in the face of this admonishment. I briefly looked around until I spotted Kitsune, Eshu, and their acolytes, who were also crying. Back then, the fact that they, Mr. Metis biggest tormentors, were now crying as if they were expecting some form of pity or maybe a comforting hug, felt almost infuriatingly absurd to me. However, time changes us. Now, as an adult, I still understand what happened was wrong and accountability for one's actions is necessary. But I look back on those boys with the sympathy I would have readily denied them then. They were just children. Foolish, misinformed, troubled, children. The kind that slip through the cracks so frequently.

We are going to find out who did this.” Mr. Ladon warned gravely. “The responsible party will be found. There will be real repercussions for your actions.”

The crying only increased as the EMT's carefully carried Mr. Metis by on the gurney. His head was bandaged and there was a glazed look in his eyes. Mr. Ladon continued his lecture but at some point I stopped listening. I was watching the rain fall through the open door until I suddenly wanted to get away from everyone. I did not want to be privy to anymore crying and speeches. So, I turned and left.

As I wandered down the mostly empty halls in search of somewhere to sit alone the world seemed to grow increasingly silent and gray. It was like the constant downpour had somehow saturated everything to such a point that all the colors were being washed out and starting to spill into the gutters, leaving everything colorless and bleak.

I finally settled on going over to the secondary hallway to have a seat on the small flight of stairs leading outside. It was a secluded area few people ever went. I frequently came here during lunch to read, draw, or just think. I sat there on the steps reflecting on everything that had happened while watching the world though the windows above the exit. It all felt so disjointed and surreal.

Walter?” A soft and familiar woman's voice called me back from the solitude of my thoughts I had been wandering in for an unknown period of time. I turned to find Mr. Sashat, the school's special programs coordinator, and psychologist. She was a very friendly woman who always wore vibrant, floral print dresses, and scarves around her neck. Ironically, it was my frequent desire to be left alone that resulted in us crossing paths on such a routine basis. She constantly had a new book to lend me. I suspect it was her sly way of having me return so often.

Hi, Mrs. Sashat.” I said with a small smile.

What’s the matter?” She asked with some concern.

Nothing.” I replied. “Why?”

Well, I just heard about everything that occurred with Mr. Metis so I came to see what was happening. I was told you left. So, I walked around to find you.” Mrs. Sashat explained.

Oh.” Was all I could really think to say for a while. “I just didn’t want to be there with them. What’s the point?”

I can understand that. It was all so chaotic when I arrived. But maybe you should come and sit with me in my office for a short while.” Mrs. Sashat motioned for me to follow her so I did. We walked together without speaking until reaching her office, whereupon she unlocked the door, allowing me to enter first, then followed.

Mrs. Sashat's office always seemed to have a comfortable glow about it no matter the weather. There were a pair of large windows that overlooked the entire schoolyard. All about the room were a great deal of bookshelves. Trinkets from various cultures she had studied. Numerous posters all over the walls warned against drinking, drugs and unsafe sex, mingled with those espousing the virtues of honesty, kindness, and integrity. Besides the sound of rain there was some sort of R&B instrumental playing from the radio she kept on her desk.

How are you feeling?” Mrs. Sashat questioned gently as she sat down.

Okay, I guess.” I shrugged after sitting across from her.

Are you sure, Walter?” She further inquired. “A lot has happened today. It is okay to be sad or upset about any of it”

I quietly contemplated what she was explaining. I briefly wondered if I should feel something before dismissing the question. What happened had happened. There was no point in dwelling on it.

No. I guess I am alright.” I replied sincerely as turned to look outside through one of her windows. “Its been raining a lot lately.”

Yes. It has. The forecaster said it should last throughout the next couple of weeks.” Mrs. Sashat said cheerfully but not enough to conceal her concerns. But she did not press. She was always very patient that way. God knows she would need such dealing with me.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Dust

I grew up as the son of a Sunday-School teacher. Religious iconography, prayers, hymns and verses still fill many of my earliest memories like old relics heaped on dusty shelves at the furthest back of my mind. Barring illness, or an emergency, we attended church every Sunday. This dedication naturally extended to the weekly bible studies, special events, and of course the church's summer programs. Nearly every evening my mother read the bible to us for 20 minutes, and we said our prayers before bed.

The barest mentions of angels always drew my attention because I found the subject fascinating. The baptist church of my childhood did not espouse the romanticized versions of these otherworldly messengers that depicted them as adorable cupids, or just beautiful humans with magnificent wings. No, these were old testament tales that described angels as powerful beings that were wholly alien and unsettling in appearance.

As a child I was told there were angels of death. I often tried to picture in my mind how such beings would look so I could draw them. I came to envision these entities as lightless, winged silhouettes that trailed shadows in their wake. To me the angels of death were like the hunting hawks that circled the skies high above the Oakland Hills. I imagined these grim angels silently gathered above places where death was frequent. With so many dying regularly in East Oakland I doubtlessly knew they were circling high above our own city.

Many young men and women never left the old neighborhoods. Their individual stories abruptly ended sometime during the 90s when they were barely half the age I am now at the time of writing these words. It is easy to cluck one's tongue in disapproval, and offer only callous words of condemnation.

“There but for the grace of God, go I”, can be readily, and aptly applied to the tragic fates of these young people. However, one does not require faith in any Gods to understand the empathic meaning of this expression. This “grace” can be interpreted as the good fortunes of belonging to a healthy family, living in a crime-free community, having compassionate mentors as guides, or having access to the benefits and privileges inherited from a life in the higher socioeconomic brackets. People born into poor communities often start life with few of these graces.

Shalim was one of those young men. He was a friend of my oldest brothers, and a friendly familiar face around the neighborhood. At 23, he had a wife and two children that he supported with money earned through a minimum wage job, and supplemented by drug sells.

My friends, and I, came to know Shalim because we frequently saw him on our way home from school while in the 4th, and 5th grade. He normally asked what we learned in class that day, then would patiently listen and ask questions. At other times he occasionally wandered into this local liquor store many of us kids stopped at to play the Street Fighter II arcade. We all thought it was amusing how he never failed to select the fighter Dhaslim. No matter how many quarters this cost Shalim he was adamant about this choice. When we finally asked why he never tried one of the other characters, he smiled and explained, “He's not a brotha. But he is as close to one as I can get in this game.”

It was like that for a long time. I saw him all over the neighborhood, or sometimes at my house when he dropped by to hangout with one of my brothers.


The events of the night leading up to the tragedy still feels murky. One moment we were all sitting in the house watching television. The next we were ducked low as shots and panicked yells erupted from up the street. Then there was that dreaded and tense silence that always followed after nearby gunshots.

Outside a woman was yelling out for someone to call the paramedics. As my mother, siblings, and I finally risked cautiously looking out the windows, and back door, we could see many of our neighbors beginning to do the same.

“Shalim is hit! Shalim is hit!” A fearful man's voice began yelling. This awful news drew a few people from their homes, and they began hurrying up the street. I think everyone who dared to draw closer to the scene wanted to help him. Yet, to this day I am not sure what any of us thought we could do once we arrived. I remember hoping he was struck somewhere that would deliver only the consequences of short term pain. However, upon arriving we soon discovered the situation was much more grim.

Shalim was lying there on his back, starring up at the night sky with glossy eyes, while trembling and struggling to breathe. More then one round had struck from behind and become lodged somewhere within his chest. Some of his friends, including my oldest brother, were all knelled at his side encouraging him to hang-on, and trying to offer some semblance of comfort.

Multiple sirens heralded the arrival of an ambulance, and numerous police cruisers. Their flashing lights temporarily held the night at bay around us. The paramedics cleared everyone away and began immediately trying to save Shalim's life. They were urgently calling out all sorts of medical jargon to one another. The police began demanding answers from various people in the crowd. No one had any.

It felt at once horrifying, and absurd that we all could only gather there around Shalim to watch him drowning to death in his own blood. I felt partially disconnected from it all. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Or perhaps the intensity of the scene was just too much to fully process as a kid.

Somehow, despite the constant efforts of the paramedics, I came to the sad understanding there was nothing they could do. I sometimes flinched when those horrible, uncontrolled convulsions wracked Shalim body as if he was struggling against the inevitable, forcing the paramedics to try and hold him still so the desperate attempts to stabilize him could continue. Perhaps mercifully, it was not long before Shalim simply fell still. Someone mournfully screamed his name as if it could call him back to the world he was slipping away from. He died there that night.

What were the responding police officers doing as Shalim bled to death? They were discussing some sort of upcoming barbecue while laughing, and joking with one another. No one present at that tragedy was asking for them to feign signs of grief. None of us expected or perhaps even wanted their condolences, or pity. The issue was there was absolutely no professional decorum in the presence of what was clearly a murder.

Regardless of whatever personal opinions or prejudices they may have harbored for this young man, or despite if years of frequently responding to these sorts of tragedies left each of them exceedingly jaded. None of the above, or any number of other factors, would have made it any less cruel for these officers stand barely a few yards from Shalim's loved ones, all the while merrily chatting like they were attending a box social. Sometimes seasoned law enforcement, or medical personal forget-- or perhaps ignore-- that what is just another day on the job for them, is a personalized apocalypse for victims, or their loved ones.


At some point a large argument broke out as some of those within the crowd began calling the officers out with outrage and disgust. By then my family, and I were returning home.

Days later, I was the only one in my family who did not attend Shalim's funeral. I refused because I wanted to remember him as he was opposed to what was left of him in that coffin. Later that night I watched the cold, starry sky from my bedroom window. I was wondering which one of those shadowy angels swooped in and carried our friend's soul away.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Curious Artifact

Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s in East Oakland, I did not hear or know of much music outside of the familiar orbits of R&B, Rap, Motown, and Gospel. I was sort of aware other types of music existed, like for instance there was this rather large, but vague genre I frequently heard referred to as “White Music”, that was pretty much any, and everything under the Rock banner. But I knew little if anything at all about those songs, performers, or bands. The most Rock I ever came close to in those days was Run-DMC's and Aerosmith's “Walk this Way”.

For me the soundtrack of the late 80's to early 90's was composed of artists and groups like NWA, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B & Rakim, Dani Dane, Prince, MC Lyte, Too Short, Slick Rick, Das EFX, TLC, EPMD, Kid n Play, Heavy D, Keith Sweat, Jodeci, En Vogue, Boys 2 Men and others.

This is not to claim I lived in a complete genre-deprivation tank of some sort. Sometimes, while flipping through the channels with my older siblings, we would occasionally pause at MTV (when Yo MTV Raps were not playing) or VH1. Back then those rock, alternative and grunge performers/bands seemed all at once curious and alien. It was much like catching glimpses into an entirely different world that seemed so far, far away from my own.

There are three rock videos I still remember having a really vivid impression on me the first time I saw them by coincidence. The first was,“You Could Be Mine” by Gun & Roses, had clips of the Terminator 2 film in it. I recall thinking it was pretty cool and humorous that the Terminator actually encountered the band at the end of the concert just as they were leaving the stadium.

The second was “Creep” by Stone Temple Pilots. My second-oldest brother and I sitting on the couch one afternoon. Somehow we caught the song as it was beginning and decided not to change the channel. I recall feeling it sounded like an extremely sad song. When we heard the line about everyone running because some guy suddenly had a gun, my brother started laughing as he said, “Yeah. That's a damned good reason to start running.”

The third that left the most lasting, and powerful impression was “Sober” by Tool. I was 12 or 13, sitting on the floor in the living room with both my older brothers. They were waiting for “Yo MTV Raps” to begin, so they begrudgingly left the channel there because it was about 10 minutes to go. The video, with its bizarre, stop animation, and dark, seething music began, instantly catching our attention.

What in hell is this?” My oldest brother inquired curiously.

I don't know.” The second-oldest replied. “But it looks pretty fuckin crazy.”

I remember instantly being both fascinated and puzzled by “Sober”. I loved the imagery, that raw sound, and just the power it seemed to have. I use to draw monsters all the time so the actual video ignited my imagination to no end.

I wanted to know who the faceless man was, what sort of world he lived in, why was there flesh moving through a pipe in the wall, and perhaps most of all, what the hell was in that box he kept peeking into? I occasionally checked MTV from time to time in hopes of seeing that video again, but I would not see such again until years later.

Once, while walking home from my 5th-grade class, I came across CD lying on the sidewalk. Cassettes were still mostly my realm of experiences back then, so finding a random CD was strange in itself. I picked it up, of course, and if I recall correctly, it read Whitesnake. What a strange name. Was there a rapper or R&B group named Whitesnake?

I was so puzzled by the title and CD that I decided to bring it home to my second-oldest brother with all the urgency of an archeologist accidentally discovering alien technology. Back then my second oldest brother was like my guru. While growing up I believed he was one of the smartest people I knew and had a way of examining situations on an in-depth level. I found him in his bedroom and handed the album to him while explaining where I found it.

I think it's rock-- or maybe metal-- or some shit.” He said while casually looking it over. “White Snake, huh? Never heard of them. Want to see what's on it?” He asked with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.

I eagerly agreed as he placed the CD on the tray, and then pushed play. Almost immediately such a terrible, unfamiliar noise came from those speakers. To this day, I am not completely certain if the CD was perhaps scratched, or if that particular band was just that horrible. Either way, we threw it in the trash.