Saturday, December 08, 2012

Being Human/ Being Black/ Experimental Essay

This is an experimental essay and is still under works. Or maybe not.

My cousin,  five-years younger,  always knew what buttons to push to irritate folks, especially mine as we lived in the same building until I was thirteen.  He was like water, searching for a minute crack to settle, awaiting a freeze, to expand, causing the concrete to crack. Coming up he had it rough but grew into a good man.

I hadn't seen  him in years. As we sat around my dinner table, he surveyed the room and asked, as always  slightly mispronouncing my name, "Why you the only one in the family that lives up here on the north side?, raising an unspoken issue between my family.  My Mom always told them, I'd move back south once I settled down, like my older cousin who lived in Lake View for a year. 

Then I brought my home.

My Front Room

Refusing the bait, I responded with the first thing that came to mind, “Because I’m a vampire”.  

My much younger cousin(A) whispered to her strict Christian mother, "is that why we hardly get to see cousin [me] ?"  Her twin, cousin(B) jumped in the fray, "don't you have to be the devil if you're a vampire!  Her mother, looking at me with rusty daggers said,  "Your cousin's just demonstrating that even in the eyes of the Lord, adults often behave as children”, while rolling her eyes like back-in-the-day, when she'd falsely accuse me of tracking dirt on her parents white carpeting. Their home had plastic coverings on the living room furniture.  

My mother excused herself, asking  if any one needed a Mimosa?" I said yes, knowing she wouldn't bring one back for me. Her "ask" singled to her brother and his wife to join her in the kitchen. None of them would drink in my dinning room in front of the Christian Moral Majority, after my Christian cousin -who asked her mother to say grace when I wouldn't- had left a message on my answering machine- one week ago-  hinting It would be appreciated by her,  her children, and her mother, if  I didn't serve wine or beer, so I served Mimosas.

Kitchen Window

"I was joking, I'm not a vampire” I said. Cousin A, didn't seem convinced as she stared at my African masks covering the dining room wall.  I turned to my cousin who started this mess and said "First of all this isn't the north side,  this is west. And I like Logan Square because it has more restaurants than out south.  My uncle, a retired cop, with a strong Black nationalist bent, excused himself, his wife had immediately followed my Mother, but not before lobbing a Molotov cocktail, not because he particularly cared, but because he's my late Grandfather's son.  "I patrolled  the west side for ten years and this aint the west side" he said innocently, as if we were arguing simply over geography.  But I understand you liking different restaurants, that's why I love visiting your momma in Hyde Park because they have all those restaurants, and it's only ten minutes from Englewood where every one from this table is from. My cousin (B), came to my defense by saying where is Englewood?   

Frustrated I said o.k. I'll sale my house tomorrow and move to Mississippi.  Cousin-B who's actually fascinated by my masks, she questioned me about each one, asked "what are you gonna do in Mississippi?" My favorite teacher is from Mississippi and she taught us how to spell it "M.i.s.s.i.s.s.i.p.p.i." I want to go there, but Mommy said they're ignorant down there and don't worship the Lord properly.  Mommy says you don't believe in god, is that why you're going to Mississippi? "  I heard my Uncle laughed in the kitchen and his wife "hushed" him.   Can you ask my Mommy if I can come visit you in Mississippi?" "I certainly will" I said "and you can help me pick cotton on a farm just like the good old days". "I can, she coed in delight, "can I Mommy, Can I go pick cotton in Mississippi? 

Tiss the season and thank god for alcohol.   
The real reason why I mentioned vampires is because I'm caught on a TV series called “Being Human”, which to me is a pop culture parable of myself and most Black Americans. 

"Being Human" is about three people fundamentally transformed by violence, into a ghost, a vampire, and a werewolf.  Considered monsters, particularly the vampire and werewolf, they're actually deeply humanistic because of what they've experienced, more so than the rest of the "normal" characters. 

Slavery and then Jim Crow racism was violence in it's purest form which transformed the Africans who survived the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, into Black Americans who for the majority of our time in America, were considered subhumans and monsters.  Deep Humanism keep us going through the deepest depths of white supremacy and violence.  The three characters in various ways, resist their slated roles, arising from their violent histories, by separating themselves from their "tribes" in an attempt to fully explore their humanity by situating themselves outside the burdens which transformed them.

This is the tricky part. 

During Jim Crow Segregation, certain light skinned Blacks passed for white, not to explore who they were as humans, but to be released from the stifling and constantly oppression, and the violent burdens of Blackness. Then, when progressive Black activism significantly beat back legal segregation, too many Blacks with economic means abandoned their communities out of an inferiority complex, because living amongst whites was and still is a status symbol. This abandonment began the deterioration of the Black community.  My family know me as a long term activist and a radical "race man". But my leaving the south side, lingers in their minds as a betrayal, especially because I am a Black male.

 I was born and grew up in four different south side communities, which I still love. Some of the most majestic architecture is in the "hood". Also Chicago's history is far more palpable there because endemic poverty has left historical spaces visible as oppose to the white neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Wrigleyville, and the Gold Coast, where most of the "history" has been coated over by both consumerism and commercialism.  

But, the good and the bad must be equally measured. Much of my childhood was immersed in violence. Looking back now I was a south side child soldier.  My summers were defined largely by fights, as rights of passage,  tests, and entertainment.  I was a good fighter, so I established rank, but lots of kids were good fighters and wanted to move up. So we fought each other to maintain our precarious positions or move up the chain. The better fighters suffered far less abusive and generally no serious abuses came to us, unless we got caught outside our territory alone. During the school year the same held true, which made concentrating on academics difficult. 

It was only in college, on the east coast, that I experienced a nonviolent environment for the first time.
Physical safety allowed me to greatly expand emotionally and intellectually.
A few times, I did seek out trouble because of a bad bout of home sickness and alienation. I was real lucky that my dorm resident assistant looked the other way. But I knew, at this school, violence was considered aberrant behavior and would not be tolerated. Especially from a Black kid with no economic or political standing. 

The conflict of the show, centers on the appearances of the main character's supernatural tribe  

who pull them back ( often with violence) into violence,  preventing them from completely disconnecting, combined with their struggles to mitigate the damage of their original trauma that changed them. The ghost is visible only to other creatures that go, bump in the night, yet can make her presence felt to all humans. The vampire works as a hospital orderly, comforting patients in their last hours before death, to atone for his killing spree spanning over hundreds of years.  But he fights against drinking human blood ,stealing his nourishment from the hospital’s blood bank.  Yet the urge to kill for fresh blood shadows him always. On the monthly full moon, the other character’s body violently reshapes, his bones breaking and resetting, into a four legged beasts that indiscriminately destroys all in it’s path. They therefore live always on guard, prevents them from fully living “normal lives”. They managed to find each other and like post college roommates, set up house to balance each other in a semblance of normality, which includes helping the ghost pass on to were ever she’s suppose to go.    

I graduated, and after a while returned home, moving in with my aunt and uncle who helped raise me. They lived in a big corner house with an apartment for me in the attic. The neighborhood was always   
 hard and mostly poor, but when I previous lived there, it was stable. I had two good friends, one's brother was a governor in Black Gangster Disciples, the other's brother was a governor in the Black Stones. The brothers didn't associate, but they respected each other and my friends had been tight before I knew them. We all lived in a four blocks radius and our blocks were quite. Now the older brothers were in prison along with a lot of the gang leaders swept up in the war on drugs that was the response to the 1990's crack pandemic. The gang hierarchy crumbled and a new crop of "young-uns" lacking maturity and credibility in their organizations, rushed to fill the void. Soldiers basically became  free agents with out rules, selling dope on any territory they could claim with a gun. My precollege past combined with strong unresolved feelings, including cultural and intellectual vertigo I still experienced from my very tumultuousness years away at school, made the New Jack City lawlessness and depravity in my neighborhood, oddly welcoming. I felt like a prince returning home after a long battle and some of my older friends had situated themselves quite well in the neighborhood.     

A friend from college came to Chicago and greatly exaggerated his tour of my neighborhood and classmates began to call wanting to visit just me.  I bumped into one at the Artful Dodger in Wicker Park who was from North Shore. I only vaguely remembered her just because she was also from Illinois. She flirted and brought me drinks, and while we danced she hinted that she knew what I was up to.  Finally she said she heard I was part of a drug empire. That night I was with an acquaintance recently released from prison for violence and a petty drug dealer who actually lived in Hyde Park didn't help.  She said she had a lot of friends who would be interested in a steady line on coke and invited me out for drinks to talk.  I never took her up on it, but because I never categorically said no, the rumor continued.  

 I was both working with undeserved youths, while dancing around the edges of criminality. 
I occasionally carried, mostly unloaded, a small handgun to the neighborhood bars like the Tropical Den who's working class clientele was much older than I, yet coke was still sold in the bathroom. There the owner, a damaged Vietnam Vet who always wore dark sunglasses, buzzed you in the door,  
But other bars like the Bird Cage and Lou's were straight dangerous and I liked those best.  

Two other school friends visited and got the full treatment by staying with me. I generally refrained from drugs but could easily get weed from an assortment of contacts and friends.  

For them I used my older friend who always looked after me, but didn't mind playing the part of hard drug dealer for my out of town female guests. One of my visitors was Palestinian who's famous father had been my professor. She got the full treatment. My older drug dealing friend took us to a reggae club owned by his more powerful supplierm for the VIP treatment. 

At some point,  my uncle ( who attended my dinner party got warning (probably from a Black cop who worked internal affairs and hung out at the Tropical Den) that I was crossing the line. Over beers he convinced me to move to Hyde Park. All it took was for him to tell me " If something ever happened to you, your Mom would never smile again" And some of the things I was doing started to scare me 

In Hyde Park, I felt like a Black South African from the Bantu areas crossing into the prime segregated land of the elite whites. Politically and socially Hyde Park is first and foremost designed for the University of Chicago which is more of an all white colonial occupying power.   I still have problems with this and the fact that  it goes largely unchallenged by Black people. 

The Point

That summer my best friend from grammar school who still lived in Hyde Park with his parents got shot (I bumped into him at a liquor store moments before), over a gold chain, at a popular Hyde Park gathering place on Lake Michigan called The Point.  He died in the ambulance racing to Northwestern Hospital's Trauma Center on the other side of town, because the University of Chicago keeps contacts with the Black natives to a minimal, by refusing to build a trauma center.  I moved to Wicker Park and never looked back. Finally I was free to able to explore my humanity outside the hyper segregation and violence of the south side and out of the context of an elite bastion of white wealth and power where I attended college.   

Lit X, Tina, spoken word artists, Kendal( owner) "Mario", spoken word artist  
Unlike Hyde Park, Wicker park in the 1990's was gritty, artistic, and culturally diverse in an organic and unplanned/ unsupervised way, which reminded me of New York.  I felt lighter. I discovered a Polish bar on Division Street that not only didn't mind me as a Black man, but the owner sold me  bundles of thick wool socks for cheap. The best part of Wicker Park was unlike college there was a radical Black Hip Hop culture centered around an Afro-Centric book store named "Another Level  Literary X" ( Lit X) in the center of Wicker Park, located in a windowless basement where now a Starbucks sits. Several nationally renowned poets like Chuck Perkins regularly preformed there along with some local legends like Marvin Tate who's then widely popular funk band played across the street at the Hot House. The Hot House was an international music space with a bar in the front. There was no cover to sit at the bar and it was always packed with radical activist drinking. 

There was also a professionally crafted zine published by a Black women named Kellie Curry called The Freedom Rag. All of these people were my age and this culture was equally embraced by the whole community. I remember giving my gun back to my older friend who loaned it to me and changed my personal narrative fixating myself deep inside Chicago's Hip Hop/ radical Black Intellectual Movement. I also became a lot more open minded.

In Being Human, the werewolf and vampire are white. But the show is filmed in Canada and the writing is strong so they don't come off as silly white dudes, but characters that Carson McCullers would have dreamed up. They wear a melancholy shroud, bearing it with stoic gallows humor,  while walking on unsound ground that might give way at any moment, looking around every corner for impending disaster. They talk about scar tissue and often lose those who become close to them. They are not dressed in ways to create American fashion trends.

 In fact, it seems their wardrobe was an after though gathered up at the last minute from a clothing bin at a church in a poor neighborhood. The ghost ( a Black women) is trapped in warm up cloths for eternity. They often make vicious jokes at each other's expense. Yet they cling to each other because their dreams of community are so fragile as to where victory is shared delivered pizza (only the werewolf can eat it, but it's about the ritual ) on the floor of their inherited house, that the ghost was murdered in at the hands of her abusive boyfriend who the three of them drove insane to where he confessed to her murder just to "escape" to prison. 

Wicker Park has throughly gentrified now and the old landmarks that embraced me are long gone
 And after bouncing around the area. I know reside in Logan. I'm much older now and find myself, because of home ownership, more involved in my community than I'd ever expected and sometimes I'm conflicted about this. But home ownership has always had special meaning for  a people who often wear easily erased from the American land scape. Be it the Rosewood Massacre in 1923, the ethnic cleansing of whole swarths of Black housing, under The Chicago Housing Authorities "Plan for Transformation 2000" to the Financial elites looting of the economy, that caused the current economic collapse. 90 precent of Black wealth was in home ownership, which is now significantly reduced.  But I'm still here. And me living in Logan Square and being involved, I think is a small step in Black folks expanding our boundaries as a people.  And frankly the more boundaries and cultures I've crossed, the more insight and love that I have for the Black Diaspora as a whole.   


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