before i sleep

sometimes i feel haunted.  by all of the stories and images and memories that fight for attention in my head.  and more than the stories and images and memories are the sweet shadows of lost relationships.  tonight pax and i watched west side story and, after brief distress surrounding maria’s disregard for her brothers death at the hands of her lover, we talked about what draws people into gangs.  pax remarked that the movie didnt make a strong case for being a shark or a jet.  i, ever argumentative, had to disagree.

there was a time when i wanted to go into “gang intervention and reinvention.”  it’s in quotes because i made it up and created a degree program all for myself in the University of South Carolina’s honors college to support my fully uninformed dream.  i’d been working for several months in a poor, black community that i could walk to from my freshman dorm.  i was volunteering with an after school program that worked out of a dilapidated building, trying to force kids to do homework for an hour with the promise of playing in the lot across the street afterwards.

on my first day at the waverly center i unsuccessfully tried to work with a young boy named william.  he insisted he didnt have any homework and didnt offer much else to me.  when it was time to play he became slightly more animated.  without seeing how it began i suddenly noticed william in the center of a circle of boys older than him.  the older boys closed in and started hitting him; i panicked.  running into the center of the circle i forced the boys to either hit me or stop hitting anyone at all.  they stopped and william looked at me with fury in his eyes.  he spat some angry words at me and stormed off.  i was baffled.

one of the older boys took pity on me and explained to me later that william was having a hard time at school, that he was being picked on.  and that i had interrupted his initiation.  his initiation into the creighton crew.  william was in 5th grade, the boy explaining this to me was maybe in 7th.  william had been close to initiation into the middle school gang that would offer him protection, that would give him his door into a type of manhood and i’d gotten in the way.  literally.  open your eyes, white girl.

the next time i saw william we didn’t mention it.  he was sullen and i was mostly silent.  i didn’t really know what to say; i could throw empty words at him about doing his homework, but i knew that they’d be just that: empty.  instead i sat close and watched him.  he liked to draw.  its what he did whenever he told me he didnt have homework.  its what he did whenever he told anyone he didnt have homework.  instead of asking him about schoolwork, i started asking him about his drawing.  one day i goaded him, telling him i didnt have anything hanging on my fridge.  that afternoon he handed me a drawing, it was a young black man in profile and it was stunning.  i hung it on my dorm fridge with pride.  by then i’d been working with william for over a year.

when i started they told me we never kept any of the older boys.  that by the time they got to middle school most of the boys dropped off, stopped coming and didnt show up to hang out on the weekends when we would knock on doors and see who wanted to go to the park.  after a year we were keeping more of the older boys.  i worked hard, mostly just paying attention to them, discovering who they really were and not who i expected them to be.  and they opened up to me in startling ways.  i remember one day in that second year, a group of older boys crowded anxiously around me to show off their interim reports (pieces of paper with stupid letters on them that these same boys had previously denied receiving), they were all eager to show me their columns of D’s and C’s and B’s and A’s.  i felt proud then, and a little devastated now.

we teach children that there are very specific ways that we measure them.  these kids were told all about that pretty faced delusional american dream we’re all taught we can achieve if just we work hard enough, while simultaneously being taught in school and in the media and in their social interactions that they were expected to become nothing.  young black male nothings.  and for a few hours each week i gave them the space to be something different.

but i abandoned the idea of “reinventing gangs.”  after remembering that first day with william i realized that i would never really get it and that i could never be at the forefront of radical gang revisioning.  because as much as i love those boys and as much as we helped each other grow, i was always going to be something like inaccessible to them.  they looked at me and i made sense, because i was exactly what they expected to be coming from the university: i was a middle class white girl.  i could love them but i could not shatter the internalized oppression that they carried with them at such a young age.  i could not prove to them that the self fulfilling prophecy society had created for them was untrue.  i did not look like them so i was free to be whatever it was i wanted to be.  they needed strong black men who were challenging our violent racist dogma.

i cant sleep tonight.  because i am back in the sunshine of south carolina springs, walking through streets listening to the echoes of those days when i got to play and love the kids with the waverly program.  and i feel my heart ache missing those hours together.  i wonder where william is, where the others are.  i just went to a group facebook page and saw some of those boys faces, even older now, still hanging around at that totally uncool after school program.

more and more lately my defining experience is one of rage.  i remember fearing anger as a little girl and maybe i am only now healing my relationship with that once “dark” emotion.  but there is so much to be angry about, y’all.  and alongside the ache in my heart i feel a steady beat of rage pound with it.  rage for a culture that continues to inflict this violence on people who arent white, male, middle class or more, able bodied, heterosexual, christian, etc and so forth.  rage at the many many people it takes to support that oppressive system.  rage at our fear, or whatever, that blocks us from standing up and tearing that shit down.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. paxus
    Jan 15, 2012 @ 13:08:43

    Now while you sleep on the other side of the room, i will comment on your thoughts. What the movie did show was that it was cool to be in a gang and that it was a way to claim ownership for your little piece of turf. And in the character you identify with (Anita;s) song there was the call to remain true to your ethnic/racial grouping (“stick to your own kind”).

    But what felt missing was the gang as replacement to family, the source of meaning in a culture bereft of options and since there is often no way out of these situations, the only :safe: way in.

    It surprises me that after two years of being together so regularly and deeply that this was the first time i had heard in depth about your efforts to reinvent gangs. And while the specifics are news, there is nothing surprising about you taking on seemingly impossible challenges.


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