Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl – Age 14
I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with black boys dying in the late 80s and early 90s. It could’ve been the Philadelphia and Baltimore newscasts my family watched to supplement the local WBOC news. WBOC talked mostly of soybean crops and the “Delmarvalous” people and places along the Delaware/Maryland/Virginia pennisula as narrated by slow talking Scorchy Tawes. The “no-news” my grandmother called it, we watched it religiously if only to get a local weather forecast.
News from the larger cities seemed to always talk of murder and mayhem. Like watching a train wreck it was hard to turn away from the images and stories.
As a child of hip hop, the trajectory of the music’s themes was almost parallel to my understanding of the world around me and my place in it. Around this time, “conscious” rap was on the rise. This era would see the rise of A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, X-Clan and Queen Latifah decorated in African medallions, sampling jazz in their singles, and discussing issues that were destroying the Black community.
“Self Destruction,” a collaborative effort of rappers that weren’t necessarily from the conscious set–Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Daddy-O of Stetsasonic–was my favorite of the era’s tomes.
I created “Blueberry Square,” a hood reminiscent of my own in some ways: I knew drug dealers and had seen drug transactions; teen parents and poverty were not wholly unfamiliar. But young people–black boys–didn’t die where I lived. The one shooting I remember was when two boys argued and one pulled the trigger on a gun that grazed the other dude’s elbow–yes, at close range he only managed to graze his elbow. Gangsters we were not though trying to get a rep was a dangerous Russian roulette we played too many times.
“Blueberry Square” gave me a chance to record the dreams I would have after those broadcasts. In my stilted, preachy language, to make sense of an epidemic that to this day I worry bears some responsibility for the “shortage” of black males in the American population; is why a generation of men has been so depleted that there are fewer of them than women. I don’t deny that it’s a far reaching claim, but this much I know: the refrain I used to hear when I talked about them–that those people aren’t me was never and still isn’t enough to pacify me. “Blueberry Square” was my 9th grade attempt to articulate that.
Blueberry Square, the northern Jersey ghetto, blazed in the summer night. If it were ever true, it was sure true now: the freaks come out at night.
Teet and Craig sat on the front step of their tenement observing the finely dressed drug dealers and sweet young mothers with admiration. One day, Teet said, when he was sixteen, he would have a Volkswagon Jetta like his cousin 5-9’s. Craig expanded on the thought, adding that he was going to have pretty girls and a couple of babies too.
Bored with the action and false fantasies on their corner, the boys decided to walk down the street. On the corner, in front of the local crack house, an argument between a basshead and a dealer ensued. Suddenly, two shots rang out. The blue Trooper sped off and the crowd dispersed silently.
The basshead laid on the ground, the trickle of blood from his mouth staining the pavement. The boys stood on the other side of the street in front of the small grocery store. About an hour later the police and ambulance came up, sullenly, as if in a funeral procession. Another victim of the ghetto. The remainder of the night was pretty boring, which was unusual for on Friday nights, but there was a party over in Northtown, the local projects.
The next morning, Teet turned on the television to watch Rap City. After about half of one video played, the credits began to roll. Angry that he had missed the show, Teet went into the kitchen to get some breakfast. He saw a note from his mother: Teshawn, I have to work until 5. I left money for your food in the sock under the sofa. Love, Mama.
Teet crumbled the note, threw it into the trash, and went down the hall to take his shower.
After he came out of the shower, he put on his clothes and went back into the living room He laid on the floor and clicked the t.v. on. Kwame was on some show amongst a group of teenagers. After his mind set got past the novelty of one of his favorite rappers being on t.v., Teet began to listen and observe carefully. The teenagers were discussing the drug war and their outlook and participation in the combat.
He was skeptical of all these high class African Americans who had long since forgotten their brothers in the ghettos and projects; where upward mobility was limited to the surroundings. How could they ever know? They weren’t there. They were in the suburbs–chillin’ back. Then, a pretty toffee brown girl stood up brushing the silky black hair from her ebony eyes. Kwame placed the mic before her her. “I’m from NYC,” she said, “and I’m from the projects, but I’m not of the projects. I feel that it’s all in here,” she said pointing to her heart in reference to how one avoids getting included in the drug world.
Teet grew more interested finally hearing someone from his own background. Finally he could see African Americans, in the age bracket from which he chose role models, who weren’t gun-wielding drug dealers or welfare spending teenage mothers.
When the show went off, Teet went into his bedroom and put on his sneakers. He pinned his keys t o the inside of his sock and went under the sofa. He got out a ten dollar bill and shoved it [sic] back between the coils of the worn spring. He left, locking the door behind him.
Teet’s first stop was Craig’s apartment down the hall. Then the boys made their usual visit to the corner store for Snickers candy bars and store brand ginger ales (they were a whole quarter cheaper). Finally they reached their destination, the playground.
They sat on the swings, across from the courts. Meesha sat atop her Jeep talking on her cellular phone. She bounced with the beat that evolved from the system in her Jeep. The sand was littered with plastic syringe cases, beer and liquor bottles, and empty crack vials. There were even sneakers and socks scattered under the jungle gym.
Teet told Craig about the show he’d seen on BET earlier. “Ah man,” Craig said, “that’s just noise. You ain’t never leaving the hood!”
“Well I’m sure gonna try. Just watch me.”
“If I can get paid and respect here, it doesn’t matter how I get it.” anyway, gotta stay loyal.”
‘Stay loyal and be dead.” Teet answered getting up to leave.
“Whatever, man, whatever,’ Craig mumbled as he got up and went over to the courts to hang with the big boys.
*I totally remember a section detailing the shooting of 5-9, but can’t find it in my “archives.” When I find it, I’ll add it to this post!