Praise and thanks to the Creator. May Allah raise the status of the blessed Messenger Muhammad and protect his followers.
Author’s note: Currently I am in the seventeenth of my journals. The objective of this introduction is to summarize what has been recorded in the previous journals.
“I could have gotten a grade in English class for this,” so begins my Journal. “I feel really depressed. I am such a pessimist,” I write. I am lost and adrift in Springfield, MA. We are finishing up finals. High school graduation is in about ten days, and I have no idea about what I am going to do with my life. One of the salient features of my early Journals is the level of negative internal self-dialogue going on. I think it is hard for the average white American or immigrant Muslim to fathom the degree of negative self programming that is in the typical black male’s psyche. Now just for the record before anyone thinks that In this Journal is a screed about black victimization, far be it from reality. Anyone who knows me, knows that an apologist for African-American pathology, I am not. Explaining is not the same as excusing. And the fair-minded person will not confuse the two.
It is the tail end of the B.C. era in Springfield (“B.C.” meaning “Before Crack”). There were drugs around in high school, but crack was not. Crack would change the street game with its arrival, and I started to see its effects in the years before I left Springfield to go away for college. I had attended a good city school. This is not the tale of the impoverished black kid who attended (when he chose to) some bombed out, violence ridden, drug infested detaining center that played pretend when it came to education—that was the high school a couple of blocks away where you could sometimes smell the reefer (or “cheeba” as it was called then) wafting through the hallways. My school was the college prep high school of the city. My class was probably about 65% white, 25% black, and 10% Puerto Rican and “other.” Race relations didn’t seem particularly problematic, and I remember the rare after school rumble was typically between the Irish and the Italians kids—not between black and white. There was, no doubt a racial divide, but there were plenty of whites who were pretty cool with the black students, and vice versa.
Nonetheless, that didn’t mean that the black kids performed on a par with the white kids. The advanced classes, they were still disproportionately white, and the “general diploma” kids were disproportionately black (and Puerto Rican). The white kids lived in the nicer parts of the city… the black kids the not so nice (and the Puerto Rican kids in the very not so nice). Some of us, meaning my black male peers, went off to the nearby state colleges or community college, others talked about “going down South” to a Negro college; we had one black male brainiac who went off to a top tiered institution. Some others went ahead and joined the military or got a job.
As for myself, I had had a couple of years in which I had done moderately well in high school—and I had a couple of atrocious years, especially, my junior year. Working after school and just a general lack of direction had caused my grades to falter. I loved reading and learning but I detested high school. College seemed like a far away fantasy. The know how to prepare me for college didn’t seem to be there in the family, and there weren’t particularly high expectations for me to continue my education.
It was the 80’s and the Ray-Gun military industrial complex was in full E-F-F-E-C-T. If you were an aimless black kid out of high school, you went ahead and joined the (military) service. You could do your four year ho’-stroll for the guy in the star spangled pimp threads, and Uncle would promise to pay for your college education. My senior year English teacher had made that a non-option, however. He was one of those teachers who makes all the difference in young person’s life. I believe he had come from a humble working class background, but he had received a scholarship to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Brown is one of the perhaps lesser known Ivy League schools, but it is Ivy League nonetheless. He told us of the culture shock he experienced when he arrived—the level of wealth his classmates had. He tried to use this to bring to life the “old money” characters in the book, The Great Gatsby.
Furthermore, he had been an ex-hippie—a conscious ex-hippie—and not just an acid dropping pot head. He broke down Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, explaining that Orwell wasn’t just talking about the Soviet Union, but he was talking about American society as well. He broke down the issue of class and the concentration of wealth… and of power. He said that you couldn’t have a fair society when something like 2% of the people control 50% of the wealth. And it isn’t only the money, it’s the level of influence the wealthy have through their domination of the media and other institutions. He broke down the racial thing in a way that I had never considered before. He said that racism is perpetuated by the ruling elite to keep the common people divided amongst themselves. I think probably before that, I thought black folk were pretty much on the bottom of the social order… just because.
He explained how the military industrial complex works. Something like a quarter of all tax money goes to weapons that can serve no other purpose than to cause destruction and death. In order for the military industrial complex to justify the billions (or trillions) of dollars it spends, it has to keep the American public in a steady state of fear of external enemies. And of course, the media are controlled by the same elites who make the insanely high profits from the military industrial complex. He was breaking all this down to high school kids twenty-five years before the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. He was a dangerous teacher… I liked that dangerous teacher.
After hearing all that—and he gave us this breakdown at the beginning of the school year—my fantasies of joining the Marines and becoming an F-18 fighter pilot or at least an AH-1 Huey pilot were obliterated. I didn’t regret it. It was because of him the seeds of an incipient intellectual life were planted. Going into the military was out of the question.
He was also a fan of Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—and he was a big rugged German guy who kind of favored Hemmingway, at least in temperament. I ended up buying, Fitzgerald’s book, This Side of Paradise (TSOP), during the summer after of graduation failing to realize that this was the book that he was talking about when he was describing his own experiences at Brown. Odd as it may seem that a lost black kid would list This Side of Paradise as one of the most influential books on his life, that was the case. I read it, I believe three of the four summers (if not all four summers) prior to going away for college.
What I took from TSOP in those earliest reads was the desire to go away to college—to, as some of the Brothers would later joke, have those “Celestial Seasons Tea” sessions where we would talk until 3 AM about how we need to change the world (and I don’t mean anything cynical about that). I could be around people like Amory Blaine (the protagonist of TSOP), who would spend his time talking books and philosophy. I wanted some kind of intellectual stimulation that I couldn’t get from most of the people I was associating with in high school. Also, Amory was a hopeless romantic and so was I. My early Journals are filled with the latest “crushes” on females I was in pursuit of. In particular, there was the “fly” Puerto Rican trophy girlfriend to be sought. By the Mercy of Allah, those (trivial) pursuits were in vain, and I didn’t end up become a teenage father without the financial or emotional wherewithal to take care of a family.
Above all, what I took from TSOP was the desire to be a writer. TSOP is semi-autobiographical. It’s about Fitzy’s youth, and in particular, his time Princeton. Fitzgerald eventually drops out of college and writes this book when he’s about 20 years old, and it comes to define the “flapper age” of the 1920’s. I, too, wanted to express my thoughts with the written word. But what would I write about? I was too intellectually intimidated for anyone to read my thoughts (that’s the main reason why I didn’t do the journal assignment during the last marking period of senior year English). Also, there was the “black thang.”
I had no models before me. I knew of no black writers—or intellectuals for that matter. There was Martin Luther King; there was Rosa Parks; there were the dogs and the fire hoses; there was Roots (which I hadn’t yet seen) and slavery. And ya, I did a presentation in fourth grade for black history month about “Deadwood” Nat or something like that, a famous black cowboy. This is not to say that there was no black history offered to us in high school (I believe there was a class), but I felt only tangentially connected to traditional black culture. I never had been to a black church (or any other kind of church for that matter). It seemed to me that one of the problems with black folks was that they were too emotional and the church only encouraged that emotionalism. When it was election season, some black preacher, who had difficulties conjugating the verb “to be” would be rolled out to represent the black community in Springfield.
To me, the whole church thing was just a big embarrassment, and this had nothing to do with doctrine or the history of Christianity at the time. It just seemed that the black church perpetuated a culture that was keeping black people behind. Where were the black intellectuals, the black politicians (not affiliated with the black church), the black statesmen… the black writers? I wanted to write, but I knew of no black examples before me.
Of course, what I call “black traditional culture” (BTC) did produce its share of writers. I didn’t know about them at the time, but even if I had, BTC was rooted in the South. My family—at least what I am familiar with, that is, the maternal side, came out of the New York/New Jersey area (with roots going back further to Virginia). I didn’t grow up being terrorized by white folks—I had a few racially motivated fights with white kids, we fought, and things after that were cool. As for the hardcore racist types, I didn’t have anything to do with them and they didn’t with me. I was usually one of the top students in my class, at least until I had my reverse “Mr. Ostroski Moment” in junior high, so I didn’t feel intellectually inferior to my white peers. I enjoyed learning; I worked hard; I behaved civilly; my (mostly white) teachers seemed to like me with a few exceptions. And I didn’t feel in my younger years that race was an impediment to what I could achieve. I didn’t grow up feeling like a victim. This thinking did not seep into my mind until my adolescent years.
I was also clearly the product of the hip hop generation. Southern black culture—Traditional Black Culture seemed “whacked” and stilted and out of date. TBC had nothing on the youth culture coming out of New York, or as we used to call it, “The City.” Run DMC (…Jam Master Ja-a-a-a-y), Whodini, Melle Mel, the Wild Style movie and Krush Groove, Schooly D., Rakim, L.L. Cool J., and a legion of one 12 inch wonders were from where we took our inspiration. Now if you had asked me about inspiration to do what, I couldn’t have begun to tell you. In retrospect, it was for the most part nothing more than “mindless music for the masses,” but you couldn’t have told me that back then. All I knew is that rap much more embodied what I felt than Smokey Robinson or Teddy Pendergrass–or that stuff that was played on our local black radio stations on Sunday mornings.
Rap, and these are the early years, prior to the “conscious era” or the deplorable stage that came after, spoke about the topics that were relevant to us, if it was nothing more than “hanging out,” going to parties, playing basketball, or pursuing members of the fairer gender. I also liked rap—although I couldn’t rap—because of its lyrical nature. I wanted to listen to rappers who had something to say—even if it was what I would’ve considered good story telling.
There was also the mystique of the Big City and all that was New York. The street life of New York was so much faster than that of Springfield, and that was intriguing. As I write this, I think one can say that hip hop, as much as it was a youth culture, it was a fatherless culture. And it was a culture that was disconnected to tradition. As rabid as we were about rap in high school, I don’t think we knew anything about its origins other than it came out of the Bronx. It wasn’t until years later when I was in college that I actually learned about the history of rap.
Nonetheless, rap pretty much formed my psyche and the black guys I knew. But one thing that did make a difference in my life was that I loved to read. As a result, just from reading—and this wasn’t “black conscious literature”—I knew there was a world beyond our little Springfield universe. It made want to get something more out of life… whatever that may be.