This birthday I’m thinking of the frat boy in my grandmother’s living room room talkin’ shit with his frat brothers. Pretty Tony what they called him. I’m thinking how he would one day fall in love with a girl who would give me his name. But how first, she would stand in her mother’s kitchen, shaky hands fumbling through suds and dishes, as her love interest and his boys make noise in the next room. How he would take her on a date and she’d notice how his eyes drifted with every fine woman that passed by and how they rarely met hers as he talked up all his friends at the party. She’d notice how the FAMU drum major, SGA president candidate, Que Dawg chapter head, was really just a shy boy beneath it all. The same one who graduated high school at 16 and got on TV for being able to read so young a decade and some change prior. But how the fashion model running at the speed of life that she was — away from her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s abandonment and those crazy niggas and racist white folks in New Orleans — always wanted a black man she could meet the next president with and since this one wanted to be the first black president, he would do just fine.
This birthday I’m thinking of how both those people seeped into my veins, how they live in my bones, still shuttle their weight through neurons and synapse, how I am the water from their ever hovering cloud and will never be without them though one is long gone and the other is distant even when near. This birthday I’m thinking of the space between us all, how a life sentence of silences can fracture a family into broken ellipses with so much space between them they can’t even form a paragraph worth of conversation. With one brother in Cali, another in Miami, and me in New Orleans not far from my mother but a canyon of years and unspoken truths between us all. I’m thinking of how my youngest brother could post something on Instagram that could breach the space of that canyon in a literal instant but how much deeper the work will be to mend the gaping holes that have grown between us, to bridge the ineffable gap.
I’m thinking of social media and how scary it is to be loved. The vast swath of open air that is vulnerability and the way the need for love thrusts you into it, pushes you off the ledge of your comfort zones into fly or die territory. How I tossed and turned over what to say in return to the 100+ Facebook comments and the Instagram likes sure to follow and the Medium claps and shares (hopefully) to come. How corny all this is and how human and necessary. How it is such a privilege to deliberate, much less complain over being overwhelmed with attention and how lame I am for whining like a pissy ass disgruntled celebrity over something I have so actively sought at times.
But how more than I’m like Eminem complaining about his fans haranguing him at Taco Bell, I’m the same 10 year old boy who passively sat on his dad’s couch with eyelids swelling to the brim after Daddy had dragged us all around Harlem that night — from the barbershop to the Pizza shop to the bootlegger to cop the new Ninja Turtles movie and finally back to the crib to catch the debut of the Moonwalk video without once having acknowledged my birthday until just as the tears were about to spill over in front my little brothers and all my dad’s friends, he emerged from the kitchen into the living room with a cake full of candles and began singing, “Happy Birthday to you,” and I knew that he hadn’t actually forgotten. But how after that I didn’t know what to do with all the eyes on me. Which was the same sad boy drama I served moms that year when she said, “Oh Mike doesn’t want anything for his birthday, we’ll just get him a card or something” and then watching my face droop in response and then a few days later opening the Brooklyn apartment doors to a “Surprise!” from all of my friends. And again, I almost shrunk in the face of all the eyes.
This birthday I’m thinking how social media aside, more than likes it’s about the milestone that is 38 years and how worthy it is of celebration. How life is a thing to be celebrated and stories and the truths they incubate are made to be released. How judgment of over-sharing is corny because that shit takes courage and deep down inside we all want — need to be seen and to feel free and if releasing your story into the open air is what liberates you then do that shit. How long before Facebook, or Instagram, or Tumblr, or whatever, there was Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer, and Montel Williams and Donahue. And before that, when the radio and the TV didn’t program us with their stories, we had the dinner table, and the front porch, and the barbershop, and the spiritual, and the soul clap, and the drum circle, and the fire circle, where we literally spoke our dreams into the open air amidst the intimacy of close knit community. I’m thinking how human that is. How physiologically necessary it is to share stories. How without the release, the muscles tighten, the bones fall fallow or too dense, the blood burns or thins, the whole body contracts and shrinks.
I’m thinking of Henry David Thoreau’s “most men live a life of quiet desperation and die with their songs still inside them.” And how by “most men,” though I’d like to think he was speaking of the white hetero-normative lens he was born into, there’s no escaping that diagnosis even for the rest of us because ain’t we all born into it at this point? Ain’t that the weighted gaze that dwindled Dr. Ford’s voice down to a tremble as she testified against the senate committee of the traumatic story still trapped in that fancy part of her brain she called her hippocampus?
This birthday I’m thinking of the trapped stories. How Maya Angelou said “there is no greater agony than living with an untold story.” How I’ve endured that agony longer than I can bear. How at the darkest, heaviest moments, after the fear of a nervous breakdown in broad daylight shoved me behind doors I dared not open, the fear of a silence so heavily weighted in darkness made me fear that the pressure of it all could literally crack my heart to pieces. So it forced me back to the door.
I’m thinking of the several cracks that broke me open. How precious and valuable the break. How the light seeped in and the flood came out and how beautiful the gorge. How the eyes open with the flood. And how the lens is only as big as the wound that opened it. How all that cracked me open probably started before my time but quaked and crept into my life nonetheless. With a storefront preacher great grandfather hauled off to an insane asylum. A grandfather fleeing that shame and the rejection of being the less favored of his mother by chasing the bright lights of showbiz, opening for Sinatra and the Rat Pack while his precocious son wondered where daddy was. Till that boy grew up with the same sense of abandonment his father had, met a girl whose wounds matched his and made me.
I’m thinking of Pretty Tony, Michael Anthony Moore Sr. sitting outside my Brooklyn brownstone home in 1985 after the first visitation, his shoulders slumped over and heaving like a mountain in avalanche, his eyes cast towards his feet which had now grown into his own father’s shoes. I’m thinking of my father’s shoes, funky ass purple and gold Magic Johnsons, $800 gators (when he wouldn’t buy me Reebok Blacktop Pumps cause they were too expensive) and the dozens of pairs in between. I’m thinking of the Black Joneses with more money and suburban homes that Daddy along with his new wife tried to keep up with while his sons just tried to keep up with his shadow.
I’m thinking of how his shadow faded into the eternal dark — opium in his bloodstream his dad would tell me a couple years later — and how that dark would claim my heart. How my 12-year-old fingers would point towards my mother’s pale god and demand retribution the way her god always had for our sins. How for the sin of hypocrisy and neglect, of ignoring our prayers for our father’s salvation, I would quietly decide that god owed me a life. And though thank — ahem… god that never happened, my rage would lead me to plunge a knife into a black boy’s back eight times a couple years later after he tried my gangsta one too many times.
How I perceived my gangsta a necessary thing because crack vials in front mom’s house in Brooklyn, because wanted for murder signs in front daddy’s apartment in Harlem, because my mother’s old student Denny became a leader in the Deceps and stabbed my old football mate Eddie’s brother to death on the same grounds of our elementary park where we used to play football, because my mother’s New Orleans — that her god told her to move back to after my father’s death — was the murder capital of the world and the heroin capital of the South the year we came home. Because I was a scared, sheltered Christian boy who needed a new mask to survive. Because there really was a war going on outside that no black boy was safe from and what I made some think was a monster of me was really just a scared dog trapped in a corner fighting for his life. I’m thinking how I knew so little of the boy I stabbed others than he was two grades above me and a bully who “had it coming to him” like everyone persisted in saying months after our fight. But 38 year old me knows we were both just traumatized kids made into scared animals in an unrelenting jungle.
How I’m not sure when and where the jungle ends cause wasn’t that a scared boy testifying on the senate committee the other day placating the ways of his savage youth in fragile white boy cries? And wasn’t that a scared girl tugging at the vocal chords of the brave woman hauling both of their stories (and so many others) in front the whole world while the people afraid of her flood tried to dam her into silence?
This birthday I’m thinking release and how my stories can’t die inside of me. How there’s much more to let go of than I’m presently ready to but that for the sake of my sanity and health EVERYTHING MUST GO! I’m thinking of all the brave hearts and minds and movements that moved me to this moment. How a frank superstar of a boy parted an ocean of hetero-normativity in hip-hop culture simply by taking a leap on Tumblr. How I watched a brilliant poet named Danez Smith come out as HIV positive on the final stage at the 2014 National Poetry Slam in front of 2,000 people while I was too busy in the midst of a meltdown to even perform a duet poem about racial micro-aggressions. How I watched Danez’s repeated courage on so many platforms push me to release some of the locks on my own closed doors. How Kiese Leymon hauled all that Southern black boy heavy into literary America’s living room like a bloated carcass and made us all inhale the stench of what’s been cooking beneath the Mason Dixon line for centuries. How my own comrades and fellow organizers have pulled back the sheet on some of those systemic injustices of age-old American racism forcing some of the symbols that represent it to topple before the world’s eyes. I’m thinking of personal friends like Sha’condria Sibley and Honey Sanaa and how I’ve watched them shed dead skin and get free from the page to the stage over the years with poems that treated their wounds and so many others.
I’m thinking — and my heart and eyes are heavy with — all the traumas linking many of us right now in this healing moment. How hurt people hurt people. But we could stop that cycle if we could find the courage to look at our wounds and treat them. Look at the source of our wounds and confront them. I’m thinking of people I’ve hurt. Particularly my distant brothers. Particularly the women I’ve loved and been loved by — even when I was so underserving. I’m thinking of the wounds I’ve inflicted in them — and how they perhaps mirrored the ones my dad left in my mom and how the after effects of those wounds were born in me. How we only project what we know — only give what we have. But how there is a necessary lesson in the pain.
On my left arm is a tattoo from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet that reads, “pain is but the breaking of the shell that encases your understanding.” Life has taught me that pain comes in waves. The initial impact is like a tidal wave strong enough to tear the skin. The mind tells the body to go into defense mode: exclusive audio, numbness, as endorphins rush to distract your senses from fully experiencing the sensation of the developing wound. With the next wave, awareness settles into the flesh like a salty brine. Shit stings. You realize you’ve been hit and that it hurts. This is when the healing process begins. With the waves that follow, the body acclimates itself to a climate of pain. But learns from the actions that lead it to hurt in the first place.
Last year I got jumped in a bar and when I threw my fist into one of my assailant’s heads for a third time or so, I felt something go numb that wouldn’t let me fully feel the sensation running through my right hand but nonetheless informed me that it was swelling with pain. It wasn’t until two metal spikes down my hand later to prop up my collapsed 5th metacarpal that I fully realized the full extent of what had happened and felt a pain more excruciating than anything I had experienced in life. One that lingers in the toughness of the muscle in that hand even as I write this.
When I was 14, as I stabbed that bully, I stabbed myself once in the left arm too. I remember the rage that seared through me at that moment much like it did last year when I was jumped. It burnt through me, fraying my nerves till I was impervious to any pain that might visit me. It wasn’t until I walked away from the bloody scene that I’d left in the hallway that I began to feel the weight of my entire arm throbbing like it was somehow someone else’s arm. A numb detachment and a literally pulsing full presence at the same time. The same thing my hand felt moments after I broke it. I think my mind played a similar trick on me the day ________ told me never to talk to or contact her again after she was officially done with my shit and I wept like a baby right there in my classroom then sealed everything up before my students and other teachers came.
Or the time the umpteenth homophobic comment had me leaving the local Hotep event heavy laden and depressed and my girlfriend at the time told me I looked like I was about to cry before I ranted for an hour about the hypocrisy of such rampant, stubborn homophobia amongst a people who simultaneously fought against a system of oppression rooted in the erasure of bodies both black and queer. And somewhere in the midst of that I told her that I probably wouldn’t remember half of this later cause that’s what the pain and subsequent repression makes me do: forget things. And I can’t recount how many girlfriends and friends have chided me for my shitty memory cause yeah… my shitty memory.
And that’s the power of pain improperly dealt with. As Baldwin said, “the mind repudiates trauma.” An ironic mechanism if ever there was one, because that process of repudiation can also render you blind, forgetful and numb to what happened to you and thus more susceptible to it happening again which equals more pain. How do we break the cycle? For that I return to Gibran and remember that the purpose of pain is not to repudiate and ignore its presence, and in doing so, miss the lessons that it has to offer you. But quite the opposite, to learn from the wound inflicted and thus increase one’s knowledge and awareness of how to move through life. The purpose of pain is not to contract but to expand. Not to shrink due to the power of its impact but to be made greater by the absorbing of such a blow and glean from it the understanding that you must indeed be bigger than the force of the pain if for nothing else but the fact you survived it. If pain hits like a tidal wave, telling its story is how you learn to ride it out.
A few years ago, after the flood of bloodied black bodies slaughtered at the hands of state sanctioned violence became too much for me to bear, I took to the streets as an activist. I allowed the mind numbing pain of the murders of Trayvon, Ayanna, Rekia, Renisha, John, Tamir, and most specifically Mike Brown to propel my body into the fray of direct actions and protest completely impervious to whatever danger may have lurked. (Think Tré and Doughboy storming the streets after Ricky got killed. Or better yet, my fist storming into that random assailant’s head, or my buck knife plunging into my own flesh, right before I continued moving despite the trauma. Think: fighting for your life with no fear of losing it because in so many ways it’s already been taken.) My cohorts and I engaged in a sort of capture the flag antagonism of the system by demanding a sacrifice to counter the black bodies it had left lifeless.
Which is to say when we marched for Mike Brown, we simultaneously demanded the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument (and ultimately all symbols to white supremacy) in our city of New Orleans as an access point towards demanding more ultimate socio-economic and racial justice in our city. We bypassed the pulsing fury of racist cops and vigilantes and the judges that let them get away with murder, and reached for the beating heart behind them all. Since then we’ve born the profit of our own rage and watched not just Lee, but four monuments to white supremacy fall in our city. And then, like dominoes, we’ve watched some 110 monuments fall around the country since.
Three years, several public and private death threats, David Duke twitter shout outs, two mayoral confrontations, community in-fights, fallouts, co-optations of our work, betrayals —when I was jumped it was by a former member of my coalition who tried to steal our work for a grant and failed — personal meltdowns, breakthroughs, and a breakup later, and I’ve slowly come to accept that all my raging against the machines of systemic oppression will never entirely quell its force. Much less, make life that much less painless in the short term at least. I’ve finally learned to sit my ass down and accept what the universe was trying to show me all this time. Pain comes in waves. And fighting the violent tides is no way to get beyond them. One must learn to sit still and learn the rhythm of the waves. Learn to swim. Hell, swag surf once you get really good. But blindly clashing with a raging ocean will not subdue its force. Only submission will set you free.
Which is to say there can be no liberation from (the cycle of) pain until I sit still long enough to accept what has happened to me. Until I understand what’s taken root in me, when, where, and how. Only then will I understand my triggers — what sets me off and causes my anxieties. Only then can the tangled tendrils of my past that shackle my present be transformed into intricate roots that braid me to my beginnings.
I’m 38 years old now. I’ve feared this day of reckoning my entire adult life. But known all along that I’d never see my future without it. That without it my future would be as stillborn as so much of my adulthood has been, crying and fighting though I may have through most of it like a baby that’s been snatched away. This birthday I’m thinking of my poetry students — mostly black, beautiful young girls with unscathed infinities of possibility before them but often a weighted history within the proverbial baggage of poverty and hood shit they lug into the classroom everyday.
I’m thinking of how their eyes — many of them — light up in joy when they see me in the hall. How they told me they missed me and wished they could be in my poetry class again after administration shut it down. How just as much as they love me — they were equally as joyed and opened by the sheer opportunity to come into a class that invited them to be themselves and tell their stories. To disentangle the knots of trauma they no doubt carry in their young bodies, and weave that into wonder with words. And the weightless joy that lifted their mouths into smiles when the poetry sharing was all over. Despite the trials that still await them outside the classroom. How after sharing, their faces often told only a story of light and freedom. I’m thinking how one day soon that could be me. And I’ll share that face with the world.