When my parents would come visit me “up north, ” the directional colloquialism for spending time in the various slave-holding facilities known as penitentiaries– otherwise euphemistically known as correctional facilities– they would rant about how the neighborhood looks so much different.
“Marlo, all de white people living in de building. They all up on Nostrand Avenue too. Dem fellas and dem caan’t hang on de corners no more because ah dem cops and dem white people.” Disclaimer: My family is Trinidadian, and I love it!
But, closed inside of those walls, and knowing my parent’s reputation for exaggeration I would brush off their stories of the white invasion of Crown Heights.
I just liked to see the face my mommy, who looks like my twin, and my daddy who usually just dozed off during our visits because of the usually long and uncomfortable bus ride from Brooklyn to Dutchess County, Orange County, Oneida County, Ulster County…you know, up north.
But, then I was released 10 years, two months, and seven days later on December 23, 2009. My ride home was nothing like I never imagined. Somehow I never thought about the first day, the ride home. I just thought about leaving prison, never about entering Brooklyn again. Does that make sense?
As I rode down Nostrand Avenue in the passenger seat of my sister’s then boyfriend’s car driven by my older brother, I saw much of what I left.
I saw the same guys that hung on the corners when I was home 10 years two months and seven days ago still on the corners, just a little aged, pot-bellies, baggier bags under their eyes, not so new Jordan’s, and I noticed a few stores that had signs with the words “organic” plastered on their awnings. What the hell was an organic?
But, then when the car parked in front of my building on St. Marks Avenue, coincidentally where police once stop and questioned me for standing when I was 15 or 16 with a friend and her young baby in a stroller. This is what I remember:
“Excuse me,” ever so politely the cop said as he approached me.
Continuing, “Do you have any weapons or drugs on you?”
“No,” I replied with every bit of pubescent sarcasm.
“Why are you standing here,” the cop asked. “Where’s your ID?”
“I live in this building. Why? Do I need ID? My window is right there,” I pointed up towards my sixth floor window. “I’m just getting some air with my friend and her baby.”
“Well, if you live in this building, let me see you go inside,” this 25ish white cop ordered me while his partner focused every part of his two eyeballs on me in my jeans shorts and t-shirt. Jeans shorts were in style back then.
But, it was to this memory that I returned to my building where I saw a white woman in her early 20’s walking out of my building. My big sis, who was in the car along with me, echoed what my mommy and daddy would say to me up north. “You see, we got white people all over our building.”
But, that would not bother me—would it? I met all of these wonderful, mainly white students from Vassar College when I was up north. I ran a program called Otisville & Vassar—Two Communities Bridging the Gap during the last five years of my time at Otisville slave…correctional facility.
Every Friday a bunch of students from Vassar College would trek into my penitentiary to co-learn and discuss social justice issues along with 12 incarcerated men. That program changed my life, man.
That program was my first real interaction with white folk that weren’t teachers, cops, lawyers, members of the Kingdom Hall, or random strangers in Manhattan. I loved the equity that was possible when white and black folks could bridge the gap between racial and socioeconomic chasms. Those students were my friends.
But, when I walked up Franklin Avenue months later I thought I was lost… I mean, literally. It looked like a SoHo. White people everywhere. On the corners. In the organic stores. On the benches. In the bars. In the bars. In the bars. On the stoops of buildings. In the Korean grocery stores. In the new burger joints.
Kids Day on Franklin Avenue: Photo: ilovefranklinave.blogspot.com/
My mommy and daddy weren’t exaggerating!
But, sprinkled about, but less in number, were young black boys on one or two corners, and sitting on a few stoops. Still in one or two barber shops. All of this happened in 10 years, two months, and seven days?
But, I would also hear the same gunshots at night. Perplexed.
But, inner city gun violence is usually the evident display of the underpinnings of trauma. Generational poverty is traumatic. Mass incarceration is traumatic. Despotic policing is traumatic. Selective policing based on race is traumatic. Terrible teachers are traumatic.
Bad sanitation is traumatic. Demonizing immigrants is traumatic. Demonizing those who access welfare is traumatic. Lack of decent affordable housing is traumatic. Gentrification is traumatic.
Then there was one experience that opened my eyes to my own trauma.