I was doing family mediation at a youth residential facility in North Carolina where my duties included supervising a staff of college graduates interested in pursuing a career in counseling hard to reach young men and women. But that’s going too far into the story without beginning where this essay couldn’t have been written had certain events not take their places. I had just ended a six-year stint as a writing and general life skills instructor on Rikers Island, after deciding that my salary being dependent on how many new inmates came through Intake didn’t sit right with me. Doesn’t lessen the tremendous value of and rewards from teaching the incarcerated. But I was at a point in my career life where alternative education and family mediation were crisscrossing, and I hadn’t yet figured out a way to bring them together.
Plus, Harlem was burning again. My popular 125th strip was changing from being a cultural walkway to a gentrified boulevard. Mayor Giuliani was inciting racial tensions. Black officials with no solidarity to their own people were helping him push out or displace any and all resemblance to African-centered businesses that had made Harlem so unique. Crack cocaine had hit Harlem bad. The way heroine is now hitting rural America. There were rumors of beautiful condos and townhouses soon to come, along with big name businesses and park improvements. But that translated into White people are coming. And the resentment from Harlemites was that it took White people for Black people to get quality services. Then you had them two popular shop owners on 125 prime who’d been feuding over space and one of them decided to end the fight by torching his side, and the women and children in it. That’s when I knew Harlem wasn’t mine anymore.
“Kid likes to wear black clothes, color his nails and lips black and listen to electric rage music. I don’t yet know what gothic is. All I see right now is a young dude who enjoys standing out in the most morbid ways. And he doesn’t say anything except hello and goodbye. His parents want me to make him stop wearing black; and they consider Manson the culprit. Working with Black and Brown youth is my main gig. A White upper teen who relates more to Black, that’s another ez. I live around that. But this is new territory for me.”
And then I started noticing some curious things. A car would cut in front of me and right after cussing out the driver I’d notice his North Carolina license plate. A travel commercial saying Come to North Carolina. Meeting a total stranger who tells me he and his wife are moving to Charlotte. This year’s Christmas tree came from North Carolina. Or this young inmate who’d sit quietly in the front row, speaking up only when he felt a need to and with a southern drawl. When I asked him where he was from, he said Greensboro, North Carolina. The ancestors must’ve grown tired of my procrastinating, because a sistafriend said she had a job interview in Durham and asked if I could make the drive down with her. School was out for the summer, so we made the 13hr drive together without a hitch; and I tell you, I’d never seen a pretty blue sky until I saw North Carolina skies! This isn’t magic. Anyone can take a moment out of their busy lives to notice how we co-create with the universe. I was supposed to leave what was left of my Harlem, in order to fulfill yet another purpose. I see that now. I also see how my work with young inmates prepared me for my work with youth whose iron bars were in their minds.
So back to the beginning of the story where I’m now helping parents and their grown children get along; and supervising newbie counselors at a youth residential facility in Winston-Salem, my new favorite city. It’s my very first case. A redneck family who hardly ever interact with Black necks. They tell my White supervisor that they want a different family mediator because they believe I’m racist. This after noticing on my office wall a picture of Malcolm X smiling. I expected this; and as quick as my Haitian grandmother’s look when she’s not pleased with you, I say no problem and tell my supervisor to give the case to a White counselor. Because the process is already tainted if my skin color is in the way. But my supervisor tells them if they can’t do business with me, they can’t do business with the agency. I didn’t see that coming either. Now we’re stuck with each other; and my clever team leader is making me visit emotional places I never had to before. Not only am I ‘too Black’ for this family, I’m also a yankee and a foreigner because I speak Kreyol (Don’t say ‘creole’. That’s a Louisiana dish.) And they’re from a place that’s called Forsythe County where Oprah Winfrey gets her first lesson on the hatred of Black people at a televised town hall meeting. How do I go about helping these parents reach their unruly 17yrld son, and who the hell is Marilyn Manson?
Kid likes to wear black clothes, color his nails and lips black and listen to electric rage music. I don’t yet know what gothic is. All I see right now is a young dude who enjoys standing out in the most morbid ways. And he doesn’t say anything except hello and goodbye. His parents want me to make him stop wearing black; and they consider Manson the culprit. Working with Black and Brown youth is my usual gig. A White upper teen who relates more to Black, that’s another ez. I live around that. But this is new territory for me. My team is divided. Some of them grew up seeing kids like Kid in high school. The Black staff think he crazy! Because he comes to the dinner table looking like Marilyn Manson as a priest. He’s as pleasant as a sitting bomb, one of them warns. In his chart is violent outbreaks, but we haven’t seen any yet. Failed all his classes, but he’s straight A here. Kid had a home and he had homework. But how do you finish your homework if your home doesn’t work?
Kid changes back to normal whenever he goes visits grandma. But soon after being dropped off for another month of not-home, he’s in his room transforming back to himself. The long black wig is so that he stops dying his natural auburn hair. It’s hanging off a chair, against the window where it can air out. His door stays open, and I was already checking rooms. Kid and I found out we both like poetry. That’s how he got to learn how to say, If we must die. That’s also how I learn how to sing,
“Jimi Hendrix was a nigger
Jesus Christ and grandma, too
Brian Warner, what a nigger!”
Takes a rebel to know one. I saw that when Kid was telling another resident young man that the confederate flag needed to come down. So I understand when his superhero says we’re all America’s niggers. I got thru Kid by going thru Marilyn’s Mechanical Animals album— Great Big White World…The Dope Show…Rock Is Dead…Disassociative…The Speed Of Pain…Posthuman…I Want To Disappear…I Don't Like The Drugs (But The Drugs Like Me)…New Model No. 15…User Friendly…Fundamentally Loathsome…The Last Day On Earth…Coma White. It’s round this time that Kid’s parents realize that I’m not interested in making Kid the family punching bag, but instead just observing one of the players going through a family crisis. Marilyn Manson had another persona called Brian Warner, and personas were all the family had for quite some time, and nobody was willing to talk about it, until now. Calling it acting like a mechanical animal to make different feel different is calling on none of my team to make different feel crazy. That’s how my guys earn best team this year. As a thank you for helping them reach their son, Kid’s parents invite me to their home off city lines to have dinner with them. Part of me imagines a scene where I’m beaten then lynched to a tree that already saw hangings and hangings of Black people. But I think if I go, they won’t be able to ever say nigger again...maybe. So I leave a few witnesses behind in case no one can find my ass! And the first thing I see driving up the road is a confederate flag waving over their house and gardens. It’s an outdoor dinner, under a big apple tree and that amazing blue sky! I get to meet Grandma. She seems fascinated with me. This tells me Black folk don’t come in these here parts. I’m eating tough meat. Like when I thought I was cooking chicken but really fowl. It’s got a fancy name, venison. It means deer meat. I don’t eat deer. But I eat deer now. Then Kid’s father places a jug on the table with two shot glasses. That’s how I learn the word moonshine. Twenty years from now South Carolina will be the last State to bring down the Confederate Flag. But I would have shown Kid and his family the one picture where Malcolm is smiling.