The Watermarks We Drown In: Part I

The other night I found out that my Great Grandmother’s brother was a hustler named Romalus. Heard he was the man when it came to running numbers in New Orleans and that nothing moved on Rampart St. without him knowing about it. Known for adorning both his hands in diamond rings and even a diamond or two in his teeth, Romalus used to pull his black Cadillac up next to his kinfolks’ house in the 7th ward, not too far from where I live now, step out his ride and stunt like the neighborhood superstar he was. All this told to me by my third cousin Pierre. When I responded to the breakdown Cousin P was giving me with, “Ohhh so he was a gangsta!” he kind of shyly waved the term off. “No, no, I think he would’ve preferred — more like…” “Businessman?” I finished for him. He laughed and nodded it off a bit. No matter. I had heard enough to confirm all I needed to know. After some 30 odd years of questioning my blackness as defined by the obligatory parameters of street cred, I could finally — finally… albeit a bit too little too lately — claim some real nigga in my blood.

African Boy by Merriel Tyus Books

I grew up feeling like a fish out of water. My precocious, cartoon and action figure loving, sheltered Christian American boy was the fish. Blackness was the water. Blackness as defined by 1980’s New York crack epidemic standards. Which is to say Blackness was certainly 6:00 evening news famous every night. Was usual suspect. Was therefore most often black and male. If woman, it was woman as defined by male. So even though my single mother raised my two brothers and I in a circle of other single mothers, I learned early that the phantom presence of the men absent from their lives — from our lives, somehow framed our existences in invisible borders. Borders drawn by money — or the lack thereof — as we waited on child support checks that sometimes came late or not at all.

Other borders drawn by socio-emotional lines bolstered by a power we only fearfully imagined. Like the one that sealed the room in silence that night when Jenna’s ex-husband called my mom’s brownstone apartment looking for Jenna and I watched the prayer meeting come to an abrupt halt, as the circle of women went quiet as a herd of prey, preparing to bolt from their potential captor. Or like the silence that lined my mom’s angry mouth when some random nigga in the corner store followed up a casual pinch on her butt with a slick smirk. Or like that one dark skin muscular brother who seemed to always show my mom so much affinity when he’d see her walking her three boys home through Fort Greene and greet her with a “How you doing ma’am? Taking care of them boys huh? Hope you’re well today,” or some such hood pleasantry. Until the days he was drunk. Then he’d usually be in the presence of other brothas who had drowned their miseries in a bottle and they all cheered him on like the soloist of some hood Greek choir as he’d catcall my moms with language I didn’t yet understand.

Which is all to say, black men controlled or contained a lot without having to be very present to do so. And where blackness was concerned, served as spokesmen for a narrative they hardly ever wrote themselves. If blackness was framed in its maleness, black women were at once its architects and the tillers of its soil. Black women were the land and black maleness the fence… usually girded in barbed wire. Which is to say if blackness was male it was also aggressive, was violent, was menacing as that red skinned thug dude Fred spazzing out in the McDonald’s in downtown Brooklyn when I was six and I learned for the first time what it felt like to be afraid to move. Blackness was danger as close as the crackhead calmly descending our brownstone’s fire escape with stolen goods — my mom and little brothers staring at him like a ghost they were afraid would see them back. And yet for all it made painfully close, Blackness was ineffably distant… like my dad’s apartment… on the other side of the city. As much of a mystery to my young mind as was my dad himself. Blackness was dense, was impenetrable, was callous, was threatening, was endangered and danger. Was street smart and too cool for school. Was after school detentions and suspensions for the fight at lunch. Was suspect line up the police would put you in at twelve and the principal would put you in at five.

I’m five years old in my first year at school when the Assistant Principal Ms. Wolf, a tough old New York white woman who would spoil my fragile innocence the following year when I caught her smoking a cigarette in her office, sullies it in ways less obvious but way more revealing in the long run in my kindergarten year. With her gravely voice that sounded like she gargled slabs of concrete for breakfast, she orders me and five other black and brown boys to stand on the wall of the cafeteria for some alleged grievance of which my five year old head in the clouds was absolutely oblivious. I didn’t know what in the world had been done or what I had to do with it. But I somehow intuitively knew that I wasn’t one of “those” boys. Not even sure how I got a notion of “those” boys in my head at five (perhaps somewhere between the recurring tape of “Jesus loves the little chiiiildren” and my white best friend Clifford who lived on my block). All I knew was that this feeling of being accused of a kindergarten crime didn’t seem to fit me. And yet somehow, perhaps somewhere in the same part of my brain that understood “those boys” to be a thing (that I was not), I had somehow made room in my brain for the notion that there was a certain kind of black boy worthy of this treatment.

On an even less detectable, and more complicated level that would ripple out a decade into my future and splash in the face of my teenage self, I would low-key revel in the experience. I would not resist or protest. Instead I would quietly indulge in the temporary escapism of feigning sullenness as I blended into the characterization of the moment. As I allowed Ms. Wolf to wrongly typecast me. Maybe it was the role-play of it all tugging at my nascent thespian heartstrings. Maybe it was the sense of belonging. Of, if for only those brief minutes, blending in with a demographic whose name I did not yet know, but whose presence I had sensed and subconsciously registered as different than mine before I could yet put it into words. Or maybe I was just too shy — too scared to speak up for myself.

I was five. I liked He-Man and Atari. My pops had recently divorced my mom and moved to Harlem where Rich Porter and AZ governed the world that sponsored the long pinky fingernail on my dad’s barber Danny. On Saturday’s that we didn’t spend in the shop waiting to get our hair cut, we’d wake to cartoons only to have them cut off soon after as Dad forced Black History flashcards on us with grainy old black and white pictures of people we’d never seen before but would quickly come to know as Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Fredrick Douglass.

I was years away from understanding the mysteries of my dad’s world. Like what he and the barbershop fellas did when they disappeared into the back room of the shop with small glasses of Ginger Ale and re-emerged later all pink eyed and mellow. Years away from understanding who the true villains would turn out to be in the Central Park Five’s abduction after years of having nightmares about characters that looked like them. I was five and too young to realize all the danger I could have been in. But not too young to report Ms. Wolf’s actions to my mom that night. By the next day mom dukes was up at that school to set the record straight. From that day on, I was somewhere between teacher’s pet and crown prince until I graduated from 6th grade as valedictorian.

I’m laying prostrate with Frederick Douglass hovering over me something gruesome. His wild mane is waving back and forth and his usually stern face is now contorted into madness, wrinkled into outrage. He’s got his hands wrapped around my neck. He’s trying to choke me to death. I wake up.

I’m ten years old when my 5th grade not-so-secret admirer Toni gifts me a Valentine’s Day package. In it was a white teddy bear holding a stuffed heart between its cotton paws, MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” tape and a red beanie with the infamous “Brooklyn Bad Boy” imprint on it. My mom only let me keep one of the gifts. I was still four years away from smuggling rap tapes into her house like so much kilos through Miami customs. But as it stood in 1990, I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music in her house. As for the beanie, moms said in the most Sesame Street sacrosanct Christian summer camp counselor voice you can fathom, “You’re not a Brooklyn Bad Boy. You’re a Brooklyn good boy.”

I’m scurrying desperately to get inside a Brooklyn brownstone. The doors are up one flight of outdoor stairs. The sun is glowing bright enough for me to see every living thing on the block from end to end. I have to get inside immediately before Mr. T pulls up and shoots me. Six o’ clock nightly news man says it’s called a drive by. Mr. T is trying to catch me in a drive by. As always, he’s angry. I don’t want to be the fool that he pities. Before his car makes it to my stoop, I wake up. It’s time for school.

A few years earlier I’m sitting on the concrete base beneath the fence in the schoolyard. Me and a couple friends roasting in the glaring sun. My best friend DayShawn is running the convo. We call DayShawn Day Day for short. Day Day is street. Street like moms hangs in the streets more than he does. Street like his grandma be in them streets with him too, and she looks and sounds mean as MumRa every time she fusses at him — which is to say every time she speaks at him — but goes soft as Bambi soon as she sees me. That old Brooklyn Good Boy affect I suppose. Day Day is a basketball head. Plays on like eight teams and stars on all eight. I once saw him and his little brother Ian play circles around one of my fellow Boy Scouts and the kid’s dad. Had a grown man twisted up enough to trip over his own feet they ran game on him so bad.

We’re eight years old. Day Day’s telling us about the and the Autobots. Not the Transformers. Apparently these are a lot more local and accessible. Apparently they’re all black boys that you might see in Brooklyn. Whose names are spray painted on walls and who, if they see you, might ask to ride your bike or hold your new jacket or sneakers and if you you weren’t so kind as to acquiesce to their requests they might employ more aggressive means to secure the desired items. Apparently there were a lot of these niggas. As Day Day ran down the biz on the Decepts my heart fell into my stomach. It cooked in the residual nausea posited there from all the nightmares of Mr. T and Frederick Douglass trying to kill me. Seasoned by a suddenly pressing memory of the “Wanted for Murder” signs I remembered seeing on my dad’s apartment lobby doors. My guts bubbled. And for the first time I realized how close all those 6:00 evening news stories actually were.

It was 1988. We hadn’t learned to “keep it real” yet. But I was learning how real shit was. The word nigga wasn’t in my vocabulary yet. But I suppose the Decepts formed the embryo of what would one day constitute a real nigga in my mind. All the bravado and all the fear. All the menace and all the heroism. All the age old myth steeped in falsehoods reborn as untamable lies that even its vessels didn’t believe. Even when they did.

That weekend my mom drove my little brothers and I to Teaneck, New Jersey to visit her good friend Jolene. The whole Greyhound bus ride there I couldn’t stop imagining Decepts jumping out of the bright green foliage roadside tossing grenades at our windows, fictive as little army men straight out a video game.

There’s a bad guy from this Wes Craven movie called Shocker. He ain’t Black in the movie but when I fall asleep he is. He red like that thug dude Fred that was spazzing in McDonald’s. The man that lost me my feet to walk. That made my bones tremor to dust. Bad guy in the movie looks like Fred supposed to be going to the electric chair. Except he don’t. He escapes. He’s coming for me. I wake.

Watermark — a faint design made in some paper during manufacture that is visible when held against the light and typically identifies the maker

The Ellisonian Basement is a collection of my writings on Blackness & visibility in the post-modern world, OR Duboisian double consciousness under surveillance.

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