That ghetto embodied all that was biased and cruel – a demographic of people born into a nearly inescapable cycle of poverty, abuse, addiction and untreated mental illness. It was an impoverished part of the city that had been swept under the rug.
We were new to the barrio. I remember the first time my seven-year-old ears heard the words “drive-by shooting.” I was not frightened by those words; I just couldn’t comprehend their meaning. However, I was inquisitive and wondered what that meant for us. My mother explained their meaning to me as if she was describing a baseball game, without any emotion. Drive-by shootings were simply something we needed to be prepared for.
It didn’t occur to me to be afraid of these drive-bys – fear that I was no doubt entitled to in those moments. “We all need to sleep with our mattresses on the floor,” my mother would state. “There was a drive-by last night, and there will probably be more. If we’re on the floor, we’re safer from bullets.”
That ghetto embodied all that was biased and cruel – a demographic of people born into a nearly inescapable cycle of poverty, abuse, addiction and untreated mental illness. It was an impoverished part of the city that had been swept under the rug, ignored and blotted out by the rest of the community.
These ghettos, hoods and barrios still exist. It was then, and is still, easier for most people to look away because these ghettos appear to be too far gone to be helped. Taking a hard look at what is going on in these neighborhoods might mean they, too, must take responsibility for a broken system.
To look might mean to witness the way children in these neighborhoods become broken adults. To look might mean to identify what happens before the onset of mental illness, before addiction. To look might mean to witness the cycle of broken hearts meeting broken spirits and becoming broken minds – and in the end – becoming broken bodies, broken people and a broken nation. Our nation.
I’ve witnessed the confinement of this turf, and with it, the mentality of frustration and complete concession of any hope that anything could be different.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t just war on the streets; there was war within the walls of the house I called home. There was no reprieve from the violence, alcoholism, anger and grief. These were the pressures in that ’hood; these were the unresolved ailments of the people forced to call themselves adults. These were my parents.
For me, the war that existed on the inside did not go away as easily. To this day, it is alive and well in most of my family members. Its affect on me was profound.
The wars that raged on the outside were dependent on the wars that raged on the inside. The wars were united. There was a symbiotic relationship between those hard streets and the hardened hearts and souls living within them.
I never did become afraid of those drive-bys, but I did become afraid of my lack of choices. I had to take a long, troublesome journey into the abyss to discover my choices. I searched for them down dark roads and nearly lost my life. In the end, my family and I did make it out. We are among the very few exceptions.
There are many measurable reasons why my family made it out while others don’t. We were not among the generation after generation of people born and raised in those ghettos. We temporarily ended up in the ghetto; we did what we had to do, then got out.
As soon as I stopped self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, I began to suffer all-encompassing anxiety attacks that would last for weeks. It was as if my body had become permanently accustomed to feeling under attack; the feelings of panic were an integral part of me on a cellular level. As an adult, I learned that this phenomenon is very difficult to treat and often impossible to eliminate completely. Nevertheless, I moved courageously into the most compelling and full life I could create.
Two years ago, I visited that street again for the first time in 20 years – that street where the drive-bys and the wrongdoings took place; where we slept on mattresses on the floor; and where we learned about gangs. The street where we learned, purely by accident, whose turf we were on and how to stay alive because of it.
This was the street where my sister and I were hurt as children of six and eight, harmed by those to whom we looked for protection. The street that made two young children into adults. The street where the light in my eyes was taken away – where my innocence was taken, never to return again.
I visited that ghetto. I wanted to see where my apparitions had begun – the demons that breathed inside of me. When I arrived on that street, everything was gone.
At first, I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. I looked all around – there were only dirt lots where our decrepit house used to sit. Bewildered, I thought that perhaps I had hallucinated this street, my stolen childhood, this horrific neighborhood. Then I realized the street had been bulldozed to the ground.
Anger welled within me. I was startled at its ferocity. I was angry that I wasn’t able to see with my adult eyes this barrio I had called home. I was angry that I wasn’t able to stand before the house and weep over that battlefield, angry that I couldn’t see it in the present to make it right-sized in my memories.
I wanted to stand before the house and see it as it had been – to see it as a woman, not as a child. I wanted to scream and sob. I wanted to throw stones and look the devil in the eye. I wanted to look that desecration in the eye and scream in its face. I wanted to curse it, then make peace with it. I wanted to show the seven-year-old me there was no longer anything to fear. I wanted to hurt again without the fear, without the undertaker present. I wanted to move that house out of my nightmares and into something more manageable. I wanted to know it was real and wasn’t real, all at the same time. I wanted closure.
Instead, I just wept. I got in my car and drove away.
The peace I have sought has come in different ways throughout the years. But gradually and tenaciously, peace has found a home in my heart. Gratefully, my son does not have to live on a street where there are drive-bys. There are no wars in my son’s home.
If I do nothing else with my life, that gift of peace for my son will be enough.
“Housing projects were designed as “housing experiments” (thus the name “projects”). They were used to see how poor people would respond to living in cramped conditions. As the author of the important book From Niggas to Gods says, ‘. . . there are obvious natural consequences to putting hopeless creatures into conditions so cramped and desperate that few have enough resources to survive. Studies show that if you put enough rats into small boxes with nothing else to do, they’ll have babies, but then they’ll run out of room. Eventually they’ll begin killing each other, and even eat their young. And that’s what the projects, the ghetto, the hood, and the TRAP, are all about!’”
—Excerpt from Rap, Race and Revolution by Supreme Understanding Allah