the marathon continues…

A patient reflection on my past year: my brother, the loss of a friend and how the 50th Anniversary Cone’s “Black Theology, Black Power” gives me hope again.
(TW: n-word)

Here’s the thing about losing Nispey Hussle: when our niggas make it out the hood, we expect that they have made it. When we lost Nipsey, it was a harsh reminder that that’s just fantasy. We never make it out. We’ve just escaped it for now. I can only say a few things about Nipsey because I confessed that I missed the rise of Nipsey. I went through a rejuvenation the past four years and stopped listening to hip-hop for a while. The last time I heard about Nispey, he was making DatPiff mixtapes with Curren$y and Wiz. I missed when he started dating New New from ATL. And definitely missed the Vogue covers. Most significantly, I missed the uplift work he was doing — the businesses, the foundation, the peacekeeping work– the good stuff. Not that it was all that public anyway. The realest ones do their best work on the low. But, I would have missed it anyway. 

Then a couple months later, I lost my dog Joe Brown. It was crazy how it felt like my classmates and I lost our own Nipsey Hustle. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I can make a case for it. The irony of Esquire trying to get into and Ivy League school from the hood. New-New’s dad being a millionaire that made it out of the projects. I missed the rise of Nipsey, but I certainly didn’t miss the irony of how familiar losing Joe felt. This is the fantasy. We just one false step from ending back up in the hood. the truth is, we are all Ant. 

My friends at Dartmouth and I used to make jokes about collective burden to “get our niggas out the hood.” We joked, but we were also very serious. Of course, not all of us or honestly, most of us came out of the hood because not that many kids like that go to Dartmouth or have even heard of Dartmouth. I mean, it’s the best kept secret in the League.

But, also we were never that far from it either. We’re all less than six degrees of separation from a sibling, an aunty n’em, a cousin n’em still trappin out they mama’s house, serving time for something wack/unnecessary or struggling to get bills paid with a fresh mani/pedi. We never forget where we come from for real. That small college in the middle of the Granite State off the Connecticut River was never truly a bubble for us.

A few times I explored this.

One time, after I graduated, the Black Alumni Association celebrated their 40th anniversary and asked me to do an oral history with the muralist, Rev. Florian Jenkins. When I met with him, he talked candidly about his inspiration for the Malcolm X murals which don the Black affinity house. They had been like a backdrop to our most black moments at Dartmouth, from community (GB) meetings to chilling from too hot parties down in the basement. It was a place of refuge. He reminisces how inspired he was about the students having such a strong commitment to uplifting their communities back home when they approached him for the commissioning of the mural.

In fact, there’s a whole long narrative I encourage everyone to read to explain how Dartmouth’s black students made Dartmouth College more black. Read about their campaign to bring more students like them into their privileged world in the late 60s. I encourage you to read about a program called A Better Chance. Without being too formal, the point I’m making is this: they went to get their niggas out the hood.

I wonder if I’m coming off as facetious here. I’ll go a little deeper. The Civil Rights Movement pushed white people to confront their privilege on massive levels. It got far enough North to make them realize how out of touch the Ivy League was. Their last bastion, the final fort: Fort Dartmouth, the northernmost point on the Ancient Eight map, was penetrated. They had no choice but to open the gates.

For black studies historians, it’s no surprise that after the large influx of black students at dartmouth, the co-education policies were passed. Yes, while Dartmouth is collecting  million dollar commitments from its newly-established alumnae group “Women of Dartmouth,” they may have waited a much longer time and lost an entire decade of women graduates had the black men of the 60s classes not committed to get their niggas out the hood. The early 70s brought in the floodgates of change–bringing their niggas out the hood was a watershed moment.

But that was the second time I unpacked this feeling. I used my professional archival work, and historical research raing to contextualize and intellectualize our late night jokes. But, the first time I unpacked this was photographing Josef Brown. That was my dawg. Josef was already intimidating. He was 6’9 with glorious chocolate skin covered in tattoos. And he was quiet and full of swagger. I can only think of a few things more upsetting to the idyllic Hanover scene. But, that was the mission Joe came on: the mess up your idea of what you thought was possible.

Let me be totally transparent, there’s two things working here that make this story kind like Nipsey. One: Once you make it out the hood, you should be good, right? 

The murder of my dawg shows us that structural inequalities are just that: structural. In the Trump era, we almost forgot that racism has nothing to do with specific individuals, or groups of people with stupid swastika flags, red baseball caps and hate speech websites. It’s structural.

I almost forgot that my Ivy league degree wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card. I almost forgot that I was black and from a poor neighborhood. I almost forgot that tokenism can’t save you. And I especially wanted to believe it, now that I had moved back home.

That’s point two. The murder of Joe reminds me that the streets is relentless. That’s why this thing messed me up. Joe had all the parts, right? He did all the “right” stuff. He made it out. Then, gave himself and his gifts and talents back to the hood. The streets had to honor that, right? 

Something about Joe’s presence bristled me when I first met him. It was like he wasn’t supposed to be here with us. We were the talented tenth. We were the exceptional few and he had slipped through the bougie cracks. We knew “the formula:” attending the best schools, having the best grades, using the best vocabulary, coming from enough wealth… And here he was with us–pants sagging, a little “too thuggish” sometimes and completely not caring what anyone thought about him.

That sort of thing messes with your exceptionalism.

So, how did he get here? I’d always wondered, but never really knew the answer to that question until I did his portraits for my photography class. I was studying light on melanated skin using black and white film. I’d always thought his skin was gorgeous from afar.

I’d read 50th Law (WorldCat) that Curtis Jackson wrote with Robert Greene for the first time the summer before Joe started as a freshman. When I heard Joe’s story, it was like the 50th Law in practice. Joe was the word made flesh.

As I did Joe’s portraits, I learned that he was deep. Very deep. I mean, a lot of us had good stories and some of us even had tragic stories. But the story of Josef Brown is story of both survival and triumph and one that I could not do justice to here. It’s the story of a true born hustler how figured out the “right” hustle, a story I wished he’d had the platform to tell himself.

Joe generally kept to his few friends and a few events, but not a lot of other stuff. He was, of course, very kind-hearted and fun when engaged, but he didn’t make a scene of himself. He didn’t really need to, though. He was noticed as soon as he entered a space. Thinking back, I can’t imagine what that must have felt like. I can’t imagine if he felt out of place or foreign or nothing at all of any of this. 

Still, I’d like to comfort myself by thinking we protected him as a community. He always felt like immediate family.  He was like a reminder of where we came from. His presence demanded of us not to let the streets down. He grounded our hind-minded aspirations in realities only faced when we went home for breaks. He poked at our bourgeois dreams.

At least, that was my experience.

Then two years ago, I came back home to Florida. And I stayed. I told Joe about coming home and how he had inspired me to go back and do the work. He laughed and told me he thought for sure I was on an island somewhere with no cell reception being a monk. He always had the jokes. 

But he kept up with me and I kept up with him. I was grateful for that because ultimately, I was overwhelmingly proud of him. He didn’t talk about it, unlike most. He just was about it. He was starting the business, going to his little nieces’ birthday parties and hosting folks when they came through his city, New Orleans.

That’s what I wanted to do. That was the real goal. After all, isn’t that what we went away to do? To gain a leg up on the system then spread the knowledge to the people. Surely we knew that when we go up when should all go up. We knew we’d be better off not just as a family, or as a block, but as a nation. There’s security in numbers. That was DuBosian thought in praxis.

We couldn’t just be comfortable being the token, we had a responsibility.

Having lunch with a friend a few weeks ago who’d just moved to my hometown for work after Wharton, he reminded me of this. I expressed to him the burden of having gone away only to return to the same old struggle.

He said to me with wisdom that seemed to superseded the moment: “to whom much is given, much is required.” He wore it like a coat at the time when he said it. And I could tell its gravitas was definitely palpable resting in the middle of the table we were sharing.

I, too, had just learned that lesson, but on the 101 level this past summer. My brother, my best friend, my other half got sentenced to prison. I had done all I could think to do to keep him from the streets, but he could see nothing else. The streets were pernicious.

He was one of the brightest students of his high school and had turned down many college offers to enter the workforce. But he never really got off the ground. He ended up getting into trouble. Then getting into trouble again. When he didn’t get a light sentence, it broke all of our hearts. 

But, it really messed me up.

Still, as I write this, I think about how I felt when I read my brother’s first letter to me from a jail two hours west of me. I think of this in light of Trayvon Martin’s murder five years ago. The facility where my brother was living is one hour from the gated community where Martin was shot.

I wish deeply that he was here with me. But most recently, when he was here with me, he was sleeping on a pallet of my yoga mat and a not-quite-long-enough knitted Buccaneers blanket. I myself had only my comforter and a blanket underneath since I’d just recently moved into my studio. We were hustling.

I urged him to stay at our parents house where they had a guest bedroom. But, I knew he had already tried that. I had gotten in the middle of his quarrel with my dad enough times. I had to face it: he was homeless. I had just moved into my studio and had no furniture. He was staying with different friends every night. That had been the case for a couple months.

Thinking back those tumultuous four months, he had no choice but to get arrested or be killed. My dad says that sometimes. I did my best to be compassionate, but responsible. I mean, who can fight a system alone? Collectivism seemed like a good answer. The “Right” answer.

But, these days I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe it is enough. I mean, who can loose you when you are born trapped? Our mental slavery started as soon as we realized we were “the other.”

In these moments, I looked to my faith and my hope in Resurrection–both physical and spiritual. These days, I read the Gospels of Jesus Christ, then I read James Cone then the gospels again.

I read the following once and I loved it:

“…if the gospel is a gospel of liberation for the oppressed, then Jesus is where the oppressed are and continues his work of liberation there. Jesus is not safely confined in the first century. He is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebelling against all who silently accept the structures of injustice. If he is not in the ghetto, if he is not where men are living at the brink of existence, but is, rather, in the easy life of the suburbs, then the gospel is a lie.”

That’s Cone in his work Black Theology, Black Power (WorldCat).

In his letter, my brother tells me prison isn’t as bad as expected. His handwriting and prose are better and tighter than I can remember in a long time. The letter reminds me that I sleep better at night nowadays. I know where he is and that he’s alive.

Before, he would call me everyday–from any friend’s phone he could borrow. Every once in a while, he missed a day. And admittedly, it sent me into a frenzy.

I might call any number of random 20-year olds from my call log looking for news from him. Sometimes, I’d just missed him. Other times they hadn’t seen him since yesterday.

Panic, until an unsaved number calls – his voice on the other end: “What’s up, Nana?”

Relief. “You ok?” I ask. “Yea. Always.” I love him. He was born a hustler for sure.

In his letter, he continues, telling me that “You know, Nana, it’s not as wicked as TV and films portray it. But it’s still sh*tty.” I believe him. And, honestly, I am grateful to the prison system for it. Somehow, I feel slightly more confident in my tax dollars…

But, that doesn’t bring me comfort for Joe. I can’t text my dog anymore and ask him “whaddup, Judge?”- a reference to the black TV Judge Joe Brown who also escaped a troubled past only to be able to be the judge helping young black men like himself make better choices. He usually replied with “What up Three Stacks” or “What up Shan” or “What up Gudda Gudda.” I laugh cuz I still have no idea what the last name even meant. But I won’t get those answers. No letters or check-in calls from unknown phone numbers. His portraits from my series still adorn his mother’s wall, something like a memorial now, I guess.

I’m sayin’. Who can bring back Joe Brown?

No one.

It’s a wrap. They ran up on my dog. At his house.

And they decided his time with us was done. The audacity.

They’re not the only ones to make those decisions while screaming quoting Tupac: “only God can judge me.” Everyday cops in uniforms continue to do what they’ve always done: disregard black lives. So many slain young black men. All killed too soon, shot down in these streets like beautiful soaring birds. 

These are the thoughts I can sometimes not sleep with. 

I worked really hard to find a conclusion for this post. I don’t really have one. Is there a conclusion to the cycles of violence that plague our communities?

Or even a conclusion to the cycles of violence we inflict upon ourselves? I’m not sure. 

But, I am sure in my faith. I have no choice but to believe I’m going to see my dog again. I must believe in the resurrection. I know that my brother will come out free one day. Isaiah 55:12 tells me so. I must believe in God’s timing.

And, I must believe in the God of Cone’s work: “But for the Christian, there is only one interpretation: [our] rebellion is a manifestation of God himself actively involved in the present day affairs of men for the purpose of liberating a people. Through his work, [we] now know that there is something more important than life itself.”