“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” – John Paul Sartre.
“Let me count the ways.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
September 13, 1977 – 0
I was born 13 years after segregation ended in the U.S. And even though the laws had changed, the psychological and emotional trauma had not ended for my family and community. My grandparents were my parents, it was either be adopted or be raised by them and so they took me in at three months of age. In 1977 Jimmy Carter was President, The miniseries Roots appeared on television, Apple Computer was first incorporated as a company, Elvis Presley died and Star Wars was born. In ’82, as far as I remember, we were reading in kindergarten. We all had the same book and the teacher, Ms. Margaret, called on members of the class to read a sentence out loud. And though I knew the words, for some reason Ms. Margaret let the other kids read out loud but not me. When I relayed this to my grandmother, Grandma immediately told me the teacher hadn’t let me read out loud because I was Black. Looking back, there was never any hard evidence this was true, but there wasn’t any hard evidence this wasn’t either. Certainly, to my grandmother who—was born in rural Mississippi in 1923, and didn’t see segregation end until she was 41 years of age—it was true enough. Grandma never questioned Ms. Margaret about why she wouldn’t let me read in school; instead she told me that I could read to her, and she could read to me. And so every night after school I’d read Bible books for children and Little Golden Books about dogs and trains. I would take my index finger and follow each word and if I didn’t know the word, I’d sound it out, and if I missed a word, Grandma would correct me. Reading after school taught me the difference between just getting an education and learning. My grandmother was either knowingly or unknowingly instilling in me the values of self-education and not waiting for the teacher to spoon-feed me, but to read on my own outside of class.
Practice on your own after school. Learn for you. Learn to be a better you. The heart of seeking freedom. Thank you Grandma for that.
September 13, 1984 – 7
When I reached 7 it was 1984. Ronald Reagan was president. I was in the second grade. The Olympics came to Los Angeles that summer. Michael Jackson’s Jheri curl caught on fire doing a Pepsi commercial. My grandparents let me watch R-rated movies—movies my friends couldn’t see, like Beverly Hills Cop and Purple Rain. As long as I read my Bible stories afterwards it was okay to watch them. Sort of like eat your broccoli and you can have cake. Every other Saturday Grandma took me to the theater. She’d go to sleep in her seat, and I’d watch the film. When the lights turned on, I woke Grandma up and we left.
Movies allowed me to dream in a way books didn’t. Movies required more use of my five senses. The smell of fresh popcorn, the taste of stale popcorn. The physical travel to a movie theater: a separate, sacred, place that wasn’t my everyday home. I could sit in a dark room in a soft chair, look up at a huge screen and see larger-than-life faces surrounded by sound and explosions and that synthesized ’80s music. 1984 had Ghostbusters, not that 2016 remake. 1984 had Red Dawn, not the 2012 remake. 1984 had Freddy Kruger and A Nightmare on Elm Street, not that 2010 remake. 1984 had the original Terminator. And, of course, the original The Karate Kid.
The world stage was complex. 1984 was 20 years after the end of racial segregation in America, but I could still turn on the evening news and watch Black people in South Africa being abused under Apartheid. It was one thing to feel safe as an American and another thing to feel safe as a Black person—and if you were both Black and American, there was always that rift.
In school, we were spoon-fed fear and stress. The teachers would tell us to work harder in school because children from both the Soviet Union and Japan were going to get ahead of us, and as American children: our grades were not just crucial for us, but for our nation’s future. We had to compete to be the best world leaders. And of course, more movies in and around 1984 reflected this. Rambo II Sylvester Stallone vs. the Southeast Asians. Commando Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. the South Americans. Missing in Action I and II Chuck Norris vs. the Vietnamese. Rocky IV Sylvester Stallone vs The Soviet Union. The Delta Force Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin teamed up to fight the Middle Easterners. America kicked everyone’s ass in the movies, and I watched them all. White American men scared the shit out of the entire Third World on the movie screens long before Black American rappers began scaring the shit out of the White world on audio cassette tapes.
But it was Bugs Bunny who had the biggest influence on me. Before my eighth birthday, I watched an episode titled: His Hare Raising Tale in which Bugs Bunny tells his life story to his nephew Clyde, recapping his adventures as a baseball player, then a boxer, then a vaudeville performer, then as an air force pilot, and finally an astronaut. Bugs Bunny did it all before Forrest Gump did it all—and at seven—I wanted to do it all, too. I was going to play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers like Kareem, run the 100 at the Olympics like Carl Lewis, and, in my off season, I was going to be an archeologist like Indiana Jones while living on a farm with my animals. I held big dreams in my little body. And every day after school, just as when I’d read with my grandmother in kindergarten, I dreamed, I practiced, I read on my own, and I made a whole lot of lists about who I was going to be and what I was going to do.
September 13, 1991 – 14
It was 1991 when I turned 14. George Bush (the father) was president. Black people celebrated the ending of Apartheid in South Africa, and wept at the death of Latasha Harlins, the 15 year old girl shot in the back of the head by a convenience store owner in Los Angeles over a bottle of orange juice. Rodney King was beaten and we watched it endlessly on the television news because there was no internet back then. Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, becoming the most famous face of AIDS. The Gulf War began, and the Soviet Union Dissolved—so all that B.S. they’d told me in elementary school about studying hard to compete against the Soviets meant nothing anymore.
Rap music became the budding popular form. 49 rap albums came out that year and I owned 17 of them. My grandparents still let me watch R-rated movies, and listen to gangster rap: I had it good. The only deal was I had to read the Bible, go to church, believe in Jesus and make As on my tests and so I did.
At the age of 14 I had a different set of dreams. All of those Bible stories for children I’d read with my grandma in kindergarten, and all of that Bible reading I was doing on my own, turned me into a low-grade fundamentalist. It wasn’t my dream anymore to be the human Bugs Bunny, but rather the Black Billy Graham; I was going to be a minister. In fact, Grandma would often tell me, “Boy, you gonna be a preacher one day.”
And so after school I studied my Bible and did my research on what it took to start a church and go to seminary. Still, I could not divorce myself from gangster rap. It wasn’t that I liked listening to words like nigga, bitch and ho, it was because I liked the direct poetry of it all. Rappers weren’t singing and rappers weren’t speaking; rappers were doing something else. And they were talking about social issues that the pop singers were not. I liked rap songs because they weren’t love songs. They were like movies. They addressed Rodney King being beaten, R&B singers and Gospel singers did not. It was the specifics that I enjoyed. And so after school I began writing weird, unpreachable, experimental sermons. I took what was in the Bible and made it as raw as a rapper would make it. Unpreachable sermons about God with R-Rated language. That was my budding literary style: a blending of the sacred and the profane. If Ice Cube wrote a sermon what would it sound like? Hmmm.
And then, a magic day came. February 17, 1993, I wrote my first poem in Mrs. Stevens’ high school English class. And the more I wrote poems, the less I wrote sermons. And the deeper I got into poetry, the less I was into gangster Christian fundamentalism. Poetry saved me from being a bona fide religious nut; and it wasn’t just the craft of poetry. It was The Path of Poetry.
September 13, 1998 – 21
I turned 21 in 1998, and Bill Clinton was president. I lost my enthusiasm for the movies: there were a lot of remakes. City of Angels remade the 1987 movie Wings of Desire. Godzilla was remade from the 1954 iteration. Psycho was remade, scene for scene, shot by shot, from the 1960 film. And of course, Less Miserables was being remade yet again. Anything rap or hip hop after 1995 I avoided—I’d become a hip hop snob. My thing was poetry. I had written over 800 poems. But only 6 had been published—two in my high school newspaper and four in the college journal. I was one year into having a poetry band and in ’98 we were still called The Maples because I wrote poetry under maple trees.
Two months after my 21st birthday a sheriff pulled over my grandmother and me. I was in the passenger seat and she was the one driving: a tail-light had gone out. His only questions, however, were to me: “Are you in trouble?”
“Are you on probation?”
“Are you on parole?”
“Let me see your ID.” I gave him my college ID to show him I wasn’t a nigger. “No, I don’t want that,” he said, “Let me see your driver’s license, the DMV one.”
He gave my grandmother back her license and a fix-it ticket. Then he handed mine back saying, “It’s a good thing no one in this car is wanted for murder. Have a nice night.”
When I was in kindergarten and Grandma taught me to read, because she said that Ms. Margaret didn’t want me to read because I was Black, I thought it was strange because I sort of liked Ms. Margaret. Sort of. But at 21, I didn’t like that cop. And for the next 10 years I would have run-ins with sheriffs who were far more aggressive. I would be stopped, thrown on top of cop car hoods, fondled between my legs by female sheriffs searching me for drugs; I was made to sit on the curb while people in their SUVs stared, some laughing at me, my arms contorted into joint locks and Jiu-Jitsu chicken wing holds. It was all due to false reports and mistaken identity. And each time I was let go with the words: “Have a nice night” or “Be safe.”
I never got an apology. Never a “We’re sorry.” Not even a “Thank you for your patience.” And far be it from the female cops to thank me for letting them grab my jewels. The fear, the anger, the embarrassment darkened my writing and I started touching on new themes.
September 13, 2005 – 28
I turned 28 in 2005 and George Bush (the son) was president. YouTube went online. Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. I developed a caregiving routine for my grandfather, changing diapers and distributing medication. After Grandpa died, Grandma was next to be cared for; her Alzheimer’s was progressing. I’d had a couple of poems published, but I was working in a library cubicle 40 hours a week to pay my student loan debt—six years after graduating. Caregiving necessitated I divide my writing time up with bathing, feeding and taking trips to the doctor. The same grandparents who had taken me in as a three month old infant had become my elderly infants.
There are two nests. The first nest I experienced as a child. My grandparents taught me lessons intentionally as they took care of me. The second nest, I experienced as I got older. My grandparents taught me lessons unintentionally as I took care of them. The first nest is a common one, the second nest not so much as it’s tempting to avoid the bondage associated with caregiving—so the nursing home can rob a child or grandchild of that second nest. But that second nest is where many of the spiritual secrets and wisdom lie, and I hadn’t learned these lessons from church alone. I’d specifically avoided becoming a teacher because I wanted to write and perform and not take my work home with me. Lo and behold, the duties of caregiving became a round-the-clock job I worked at home. Folks become caregivers at 50; I was 28. I had no wife, no girlfriend, no children, but my band was still live. We had four independent music award nominations but no record deal, no traveling tour—still chasing the dream.
September 13, 2012 – 35
I was 35 years old and my grandmother was 89. In 2012, the same woman who was born and raised under, and had suffered under, Jim Crow segregation, had lived long enough to see the first Black president of the United States. But Alzheimer’s had taken her mind. “Ain’t no Black President,” she’d say. “Ain’t no cracker gonna let us in office.”
“But Grandma, he’s already been President for 4 years. He’s about to be President again.”
“Shit. You talkin’ shit. Ain’t no Black President.”
“Okay. Whatever you say.”
Caregiving was one of the greatest gifts thrust on me: the greatest gift to build and deplete me, and because of that I needed therapy, so running became my therapy. By 2012, I had already run fourteen 26.2-mile marathons. There was freedom in running and the emotional high of just going none-stop. The same euphoria I got as a kid from sitting in a dark theater staring at the stories on screen, I got from running now.
Running also helped my writing. Maybe it was all that oxygen going to my brain, all those endorphins kicking in. I never listened to music when I ran those long miles, and because of that I was able to form lines of poetry, come up with dialogue between characters, restructure plots, and fashion imagery in my head along the way. Of course, I’d forget a lot of it by the time I was done but enough remained. As a child, the Bugs Bunny in me wanted to be an Olympic runner. I was already too old for that but nothing kept me from running for me, as in kindergarten when nothing would keep me from reading for me.
Six months and seven days after my 35th birthday, I watched Grandma take her last breaths in the hospital. While my relatives stood around her crying, I shed no tears. I whispered, “Get up, Grandma. Get up. Prove ’em wrong. Get up. You got more. Get up.” When the electrocardiogram went flat, I stared at the line like a hypnotist and whispering to it, “Move. Move line. Move. Move up. Move. Move.”
Mystical powers of suggestion are not strong enough to trip up a marathon runner; the willpower of a marathoner is stronger than words, and my grandmother had finished her marathon. 89 years long. I shed no tears that morning. I’d shed tears 19 days prior; when the doctor told me she only had four days to live. I cried that night. I cried and I thanked my grandmother over and over, “Thank you. Thank you, Grandma.”
For taking me in as a baby, for reading with me after school as a child, for praying for me at all stages of my life. And at that point I felt ashamed. Ashamed that after all of the work my grandparents did for me, all I did with my life was write poems and chase a music career. Sure I had gotten my master’s degree. I was the first in my family to attend a four year university and graduate. The first to visit foreign countries without having to join the U.S. military to do so. The first to be a published writer. The first to record an award-nominated album. But I was still poor. Still in debt, with new student loans. And I would go into further debt paying hospital and funeral bills. My other friends had families and careers that made money—real money. What material fruits did my English major give me other than a list of firsts? I had entered my own Gethsemane.
At a writer’s conference I listened in on a panel discussion entitled: “We Got Here as Fast as We Could: Debut Authors Over 35.” The words “as fast as we could” choked me up because I still hadn’t made it. 365 days a year, I probably worry 365 days that the mark I’ve left on the world really isn’t big enough.
Robert Hayden, in his poem “Frederick Douglass,” called freedom a beautiful needful thing. Beautiful and needful aren’t always pleasurable. I say freedom can also be a painful tugging thing, a painful pulling thing especially when dark forces come along.
Looking back on what I’ve walked through every seven years, I’ve discerned that I’m never really free. I’ve always had to go into some sort of bondage to liberate another aspect of me. It’s all currency. Trade this freedom for that freedom.
Although I haven’t lived long on this planet, I’ve lived some. Much of what we live through we don’t take notice of, till it has passed; or until, as with film, a crappy remake reminds you later of how good the original was. As a poet it’s a big no-no for me to take my moments for granted, but I am guilty of doing so.
A professor of mine in grad school, the poet Matthew Zapruder, once told me: “Getting published shouldn’t be the higher goal. The higher goal of a poet should be to obtain a certain consciousness. A wisdom. A freedom.”
I keep a piece of laminated paper in my wallet, with a passage from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole. I refer to it often to guide me through myriad Gethsemanes:
“About the only thing I haven't done in boxing is make money. But that hasn't stopped me anymore than not making money in writing has. Both are something you just do, and you feel grateful for being able to do them, even if both keep you broke, drive you crazy, and make you sick…Rational people don't think like that. But they don't have in their lives what I have in mine. Magic. The magic of going to wars I believe in…the magic of will, and skill and pain, and the risking of everything so you can respect yourself for the rest of your life.”
Fitting, isn’t it, that it’s only a myth that our bodies are renewed every seven years at the cellular level? Fitting that—for a child born into a newly unsegregated America, a boy who wanted to do it all, a ganger preacher, a target of the cops, an enriched, impoverished caregiver and a man mourning his first real teacher—the words that I keep close were written by a man who trains fighters.