The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, March 27, 2006

Die before you die

"When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world
and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as
if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and
others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some
strength of soul--and not just individual strength, but collective
understanding--to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are
thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard."

                                                  --Adrienne Rich

This is what happened to me as a child.  My teachers in elementary school—some of whom were black--described a world that excluded me.  I was placed in the slow reading group, based on my skin color alone.  My mother and father were divorced, and without a man in the home, I had no mirror to see myself—and saw none in the culture as a whole.

Desperately searching for some role model of masculinity I sought out The Saint, James Bond, Conan, Mike Hammer…you know the spectrum. And everywhere I looked, I found images of wonderful white men, and servile, stupid, weak black men.

My mind spun.  My sense of self withered.  In black culture, I simply did not register.  The girls were interested in larger, stronger, more athletic or aggressive guys.  I was a “Poindexter”, a weakling, a nerd before the term gained currency.

And a creature alone is in terrible danger.  I remember living so much of my early life just wishing for a place to belong, and feeling as if the world was telling me there was no place for me, anywhere.  I went to church, and except for a few services at the Science of Mind, never felt the touch of God.  Alone.

That was the beginning of my search.   Fear, and loneliness were the motivator. 

I remember a kid named Rudy who was a thug.  Pulled a pair of brass knuckles on me in elementary school, to take my lunch money.  In Junior High School he got it through his head that I had narked on him, and followed me home, accompanied by a cluster of brothers and friends, beating me up all the way.

I felt myself dying inside.  All of the abuse, all of the daily reminders that I was undesired, alone, strange, weak…something collapsed within me.  I knew that if I didn’t do something, and right then, that I would lose some essential part of my being.  Something I could not afford to lose.  Something I would rather die than lose.

But I could not beat him.  And even if I did, his friends would finish the job.  But I couldn’t let the humiliation continue.

So something snapped in my head.  I put my books down, and walked out into the middle of Washington Boulevard, standing on the double yellow line with trucks and cars whizzing past me  on both sides.  I looked at him, and in the coldest voice I had ever heard, said: “come out here and do that.”

I was going to push him in front of a truck.  I was going to kill him, or die in the attempt.  He looked in my eyes and all the bullshit went away.  He KNEW that he was looking at serious injury, or death. Playtime was over.  He blinked first.  Turned to his friends, and said, “aw man, this nigger’s crazy.”  And they walked away.  And never bothered me again.
I began my search that day.  I believed that there was an answer.  That there was a way for me to find peace.  Joy.  Tribe.  That I was not the ugly, twisted thing that I had been told I was.  I had spun into the abyss, and realized that there was nothing there but death, and was happy to find it.  Death was better than losing my soul.
I feel so sad for that boy.  What was he, twelve?  To learn a lesson that grim, at such an early age.  So alone.  To feel no protection, no welcome, from anything, anywhere.  To be driven within himself, searching for decades to find some truth, some rock on which to stand.

And yet, ultimately, fear pointed the way.  Death pointed the way.  There are limited options in a Newtonian universe.  There is fear, and there is love.  There is death, and there is life.  There are lies, and there is truth.

I feel sorry for that boy.  But that boy does not feel sorry for me.  He is proud of what I’ve made of myself.  He knows that I’ve failed at so very many things, but is proud that I’ve picked myself up and kept going.  And he knows I love him, more than life itself.

He is my integrity.  My soul.  He was there before I was born, and will be there when my flesh has turned to dust.  I decided that day I would die to protect him. 

And the only moments of failure, of cowardice, of dishonesty I have experience in my life are when I have forgotten his face.  When I have left him, standing in the street, trucks passing to either side with tears streaming down his face.


Anonymous said...

That's right, my friend!

Wonderful, true words, out of the wound that is healed.

I hope your life continues to be an inspiration to all you meet. At least, it has been for that 12-year old boy.

I was moved when I read your blog, since I was that boy, too, and my actions were not too different. But more, because of those actions I, like you, have discovered the secret of, "dying before you die."

and that has made all the difference, mmm?


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