Judges declare Foxy Brown has innocence. After deliberation, the judges stated clearly that there was no flailing of the nails in the Chelsea, New York nail shop. Enough is enough says
--Afaa Michael Weaver
After plopping down twenty-five dollars for Juan Williams' new book entitled Enough, I quickly discovered that it is a book by a journalist. It lacks the hard information of something done by a specialist, but it does what a journalist does in generalist writing, which is to stir the emotions around key images and current issues--words being slung across the wires. Wired we are, these days, for sure. For my money the book The Covenant by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West is much more useful and practical, full as it is with definite plans, complete with examples for each plan. Theirs are plans for action. Again I come back to the middle class vs. working class, and I have a little to say on that by way of my own experience. However, I make no claims to being a sociologist or a psychologist. I am a poet, pure and in no way simple.
But I do have one suggestion about the problems African-Americans are facing today, and I would like to present that before I go on to tell you what it was like as a child growing up working class and somewhat poor- one biographer has described my childhood as dire poverty, which ain't true. A whole lot ain't true when folks try to figure you out in some "objective" way. But to the point. It might be a good thing to have a decentralized/centralized coordinating system linking all the various experts- and they are of many racial ethnic backgrounds - who are working in and with the black community as social workers, therapists, community organizers and activists, mental health workers, and so on. If there were one data bank linking everyone maybe that would help create a greater sense of people working with people but more than that actually get something done. Decentralized/centralized is my appeal to letting go of egos. I know. A poet said that. Likely thing, right? Well, it doesn't hurt to suggest it. Now what of my growing up working class with parents wanting and working to launch me into the middle class? Hmmm....
I was eleven (11) years old in the fall of 1963, the September following the March on Washington, which I watched on television, the black and white television we had at the time. Up to this point I had always been in all black schools in my black neighborhood, and here I was entering Herring Run Junior High School, a new facility. Going from a black world to a white world in those days was a shock today's younger generations can only imagine. Herring Run was over on the other side of the border between black people and white people, about two miles from my house and fifteen minutes on the No. 5 bus, but it was also a journey into another universe. The school was white, and we were the integrating children, or troops was more of what it felt like. Children were front line soldiers during the Civil Rights period.
My mama made tuna fish most of the time, which was fine with me because I hated bologna. If anything made me feel poor it was bologna. It really made me feel poor when other kids could buy their lunch. Man! They could go through the line and like buy stuff. I had my budget. Once in a while I could walk past those shiny pots and the ladies wiping perspiration and proudly pick out a hot plate. That was nice. All in all, lunch was not so bad, not as bad as the playground.
There was the penny pitching. I guess it was because some of the white kids thought we were all so super poor. Anyway, they would throw pennies at us to see if we would pick them up. There I was trying to be cool and look cool with my Sears & Roebuck blue khaki pants my mama pressed diligently, and a penny came rolling by. I pretended not to hear it, most definitely not see it, but then there was another. More pennnies would come, and the white boys tried to see how close they could get the pennies to us. After a while the bell would ring and it would be time to go back inside, and I felt so relieved.
At first I hung out with Donald Jewell because we were both in the accelerated program, which meant we would never see the 8th grade. We did junior high school in two years instead of three. But the black kids started calling me a chump for hanging out with the white boy. Donald was a cool guy, I thought. We enjoyed talking, but I had to go back home to my neighborhood where being shamed was a bit much to deal with. I mean after all, there was all the algebra and French homework to do with no help. I had two sisters at the time, and I was the oldest. One sister was only four years old. What did she know about imaginary numbers? My mama and daddy did not finish high school, and they could not help. So I was upstairs studying the French tenses all alone. Donald was a kind of buffer, but I had to let him go. I had to be cool or get my behind kicked, figuratively or literally. Either way it was pain.
One day the bus was taking us back home, and we were about to make the turn to go by the public housing projects- which were white in those days -before heading to blacktown. There was an older white man in his backyard with his wife, and they were tending their garden. He lost his patience, grabbed a rake and started over his fence at the bus. I was sitting there, eyeglasses and all, wondering if mama had made hamburgers and gravy, and then there was this man calling us the "N" word and telling us to stay on our side of town. His wife grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him back down into the yard.
That came to no bad end, but there were was always danger in those days if we came out of our side of things, especially in the public parks as children. You had to know how to walk down the street. Lord knows you didn't want to have to walk home from junior high school.
Mr. Harple was my homeroom teacher, a very nice white man who gave freely of himself. We had to do a history project where we created an ancient neighborhood. Now you know I just had to do Egypt. I got my clay from the five and dime, and my father helped me get a piece of plywood for the base. I made what I thought was an average ancient Egyptian home, and I got a decent grade. How could I have gone wrong? I used Cecil B. DeMille's movie The Ten Commandments for my models for my ancient Eyptian house. I was authentic.
Mrs. Moody the Science teacher was kinda cool, but sometimes she was a little difficult to understand. She had this black snake and other "interesting" things in the room. Once she told me, "One day you will be a credit to your race."
With or without bologna.
It was a tough time, and it was only the beginning. Even then I realized the difference in preparation between my black classmates and myself and our white classmates. I had to catch up with the white students, especially in mathematics. This proved to be true when I got to college, even though I went to Baltimore Polytechnic, a good public high school. Five years after starting in Herring Run Junior High School, I found myself at the University of Maryland College Park in the engineering program. There were 300 black students and 33,000 students total on a campus that was so large it took a good half hour to cross from one side to the other side. Out there it was difficult to know whose side was whose. It had become an internal battle, one inside the heart.
In my last year of high school, Dr. King was assassinated. The city went up in smoke. There was fire everywhere, the sky filled with dark smoke. The army was in front of our house in jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns, and the police brought out these German Shepherds that were bigger than any dog I had ever seen. Then the sound of gunfire and the helicopters flying over. It was frightening to say the least, and I think of this these days when similar things happen, when the military launches invasions to put down rebellions or to take someone out, as we say in the vernacular.
Juan Williams starts off in his book Enough by citing Bill Cosby's now legendary speech he gave on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. Cosby, though a bit older, was a kid like me, but he made it in a big big way. As a matter of fact, he was a hero of mine when he was the costar with Robert Culp on I Spy. Each episode opened with Cosby doing a little judo, which really impressed me. Not too long ago I heard him say he took his children once to see the neighborhood where he grew up so they could have some perspective, and they didn't believe him. They said he hired the people they saw just for the day. I don't know if he was joking or not, but it is an insightful story, at least to me.
We make these leaps from class to class, but often we cannot fully understand the space over which we leap. It becomes a chasm, a dividing space, when we cannot adjust comfortably in the new space, not knowing how to be, and all the time we live in a society where material goods, things if you please, are paraded in front of us relentlessly. But what of the children in all of this? Well, they must have their innocence.
Foxy Brown is not a child, but she is less than half my age. So if I were a parent having to deal with a famous daughter accused of losing her temper in a nail shop, I might have some choice words for her. On the other hand, it might just be journalism looking to make something out of a very little thing, maybe an innocent little thing, which we all were at some time. But let me not moralize, Pious Pete than I am.
The other judge in the photograph is my good friend the poet Yu Jian, who lives in Yunnan province, which is in southwestern China. He often writes about children and innocence because he cares about them and is concerned about their lives.