By David E. Kirkland
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“Git over here punk. We gon’ whoop yo’ ass, talkin’ all that shit in class. Now what’s up?”
“Hey man, catch that nigga. He gittin’ away.”
“ Git him man!”
“Where did he go?”
Those were the last words I heard those boys saying. The last I saw of them were the cloud of fists, raining upon my head. The storm of violence had become too routine in my neighborhood. Every day a “posse” or gang of boys at my school would choose someone to assault. That day, I was their choice. But I was running, and the three large boys didn’t catch me.
This was the single code of living on Detroit’s East Side — that is, do whatever it takes to survive. I didn’t understand why those dudes were chasing me. I heard one of them say that day that they were going to “get me” for “showing off” in class. All I had done was answer a few questions our teacher asked. For that, they teased me, calling me a “teacher-pleasing nerd.” Here I was again running. It became all too common. Whenever I was afraid, I ran. Whenever I was in any trouble, I ran. Now again, I found myself running.
Running was my way of coping with the brutal situation of a depleted city. I hadn’t witness the fall of Detroit. It probably took place years before my birth; yet I live daily in dust of its decay. I attended its funeral. I was a bearer for its tomb.
By the mid to late 1980s, Detroit was anything but a Mecca for the economic upliftment of Black people. By this time, the City had been transformed into a dark urban dungeon that fettered people to an existence comparable to slavery. All of the days that I lived in Detroit, I felt enslaved. The event of being jumped and beaten for no reason was an example of my thralldom. Running was my attempt to find freedom.
That day, I ran home to my mother. She is a beautiful woman with blazing brown eyes. Her complexion is as sparkling bronze, and her features wear what the Bible terms strength and dignity. Standing no higher than four feet nine inches, to me she is a giant. Looking into her consuming eyes is like looking into a mirror. Many times I had been told how much I resembled my mother. She alone cared for my sister and me, but she had our company in her suffering.
The City did not deal well with single mothers, especially those like my mother — untamed and somewhat possessed by wild spirits. For this freedom, she didn’t work a job. Instead, she was demoted to social patient status, victimized by the cruel asylum of the welfare program that the state afforded many of these “unfortunate” cases. Every year that my mother participated in that unforgiving program, her conscience shivered like a junkie’s and her soul bled red like burning embers of coal. She became somewhat of a dependent child herself on this program, and then on others.
When I returned to her home, I found my mother standing by the time-beaten screen door that hung before the front wall of her house. She was standing there, shouting those words, screaming them, as she argued with one of her friends.
“Motherfucka, get the hell out of my house. If you ain’t got no money, it ain’t shit you can get here. I’m tryin to raise two kids and don’t need some lazy, no good muthafucka sucking the life out of me.”
“Leana, why you trippin. I don’t need to take this shit from you, you silly bitch!”
And then he slapped her across her beautiful face. It seemed as though he had slapped away some of her beautiful features. Portions of the gold and bronze dulled in their splendor. Standing there, I was angry but afraid. I ran into her house to my room. I could not understand why she had let him slap her. I could not resolve why my seven-year-old manchild-self could not protect my mother.
I could not resolve why when he slapped her, I felt the blunt force behind the thrust of his blast.
I could not resolve why the sound of the slap was magnified as though the echoes of the three large boys beating me in my head had reached my mother.
I could not resolve why all of this was happening, why it seemed to happen so often—so abundantly.
As I sat in my room alone, I began to cry. As I cried, I wished that someday there would come an end to the strife that chased me as ran. Thus, I created a world of my own in room. It was a place that only I understood. It separated me for the rest of the world. More importantly, it separated me from the violence of the outside world, if only temporarily.
I had a bed in my room that seemed to get more comfortable as each night passed. It was given to my mother by her sister who recently bought her son’s new beds. My mom gave one of the beds to me, arguing what I had suspected about the floor—that it was no bed. I took the bed that my mother gave me and transformed it into a vehicle that allowed me to travel in my sleep. Here, I dreamed of peace and happiness. I explored moments of solace—times when children would compliment me for being intelligent instead of beating me. I bore witness to the freedom of imagination. The still scene of this concept—freedom—which was so vivid to my mind became my destination. Although I ran still, the barb of my knees now pointed in this direction. I knew from my dreams that freedom was far from where I stood. It was hidden in a place where only my imagination could take me. It was in a place buried deeply within my dreams. It was not in Detroit.
As I sat in my room, I heard a loud cry. It was my mother. She was running through the house as if someone was chasing her, and screaming that unfulfilled question, why? The depth of her tears was as oceans, touching skies, surrendering rain. Each teardrop was like a small image of hope that baptized her troubled soul and cleansed her naked spirit. I watched my mother from the door of my room. I watched her, and a tear passed by my eye. She looked at me. I think that she saw the bruises barren upon my forehead. She began to walk toward me. She came into my room, sat on the side of the bed next to me, and continued to cry. I grabbed her with all the sympathy in my arms and held her there. She lay there crying like a baby in my arms and fell asleep. I held her until she awakened.
While she slept, I discovered the imprint of a man’s hand on her face. It was an awful bruise that now made me ask, why? I was then reminded of what she once told me about living in the City: “You in the ghetto, boy. Don’t nobody care about how you feel. You have to do what it take to survive.” But I did care about what others felt. More importantly, I cared about how she felt and wondered why anyone had to live in the ghetto.
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* This excerpt is from a chapter in my unpublished autobiography Echoes of a Song.