My fingers scour the keyboard, frantically searching for my inner voice, the voice I can use to reach people with words on paper or in electrons and photons, in order to find the foundations of my first flawed gem.
As I type this, a dam ruptures in my head and memories and nostalgia effuse into my consciousness from unknown recesses. The nostalgia is potent; the memories, however, are faint, nebulous, and disjointed, but I sew them together, like a makeshift afghan with patches made of different materials, and try to recapture to the reality of the past: I fail, as I’m destined to, though not too miserably, but what results is a frame of reference adequate enough to share with those who care – maybe even dare – to read it. This patchwork quilt of my memories contains some words – profanities, racial slurs – which Muslims, which anyone really, may find offensive and anachronistic, so if your religious or otherwise sensibilities would cause to be offended or would behoove you to reproach me, then I humbly suggest to you do yourself a favor and refrain from reading it and do me a favor and spare me your admonishment because I don’t really care, and, quite frankly, I feel you shouldn’t care either. It’s my story and I’ll tell it as I see fit, Insha’Allah. Besides, if all you get out this are a few bad words then perhaps you’re better off not reading it anyway.
I’m a candid young man who was raised by a candid woman, who herself was raised by a candid woman, and so on and so forth. It’s in my blood. I can’t help it.
It is a hot summer Saturday back in Pensacola and the devil is beating his wife: a sunshower bathes our shoddy little shotgun house both sunlight and rain, split right down the middle, and I, a child, perhaps no older than six or seven – Allahu’Alim – stand across Intendencia Avenue, the dry red clay road of which ran in front our house, looking at the scene, confounded that such an odd event could even take place. My feet are bear and the loose soil filled the crevices between the my toes; my pants are dirty from picking up rocks, dirt clods, and sand spurs in the field in front of our house; and my shirt is dirty from climbing the old the tree in our back yard, the one my mother and grandmother caution me and brothers against jumping of, the one next to Old Man, a seven-and-a-half legged daddy long legs spider which nest on the side of our house; and my nappy hair, coarse and curly like the wool of sheep, is dirty from crawling underneath our house, no doubt looking for sticks to sword fight with or looking for my grandmother’s one-eyed cat. I’m happy because I don’t have yet a reason not to be. And I’m dirty, but I don’t care. I’m a child. Children are suppose to get dirty.
The people in my area don’t have much. We have shacks, projects, and shotgun houses, broken down apartments, and crack houses. We have wild-berries and pecan trees. We have nice old, White ladies with warm smiles and butterscotch candy and peppermints. We have rotund Black ladies with big smiles and colorful church hats. We have Mister Charlie, mean, ignorant, delusional Confederates, racist crackas, the good ole’ boys. We have Creole uncles and aunts who aren’t blood relatives but can still whip us if we misbehave. We have drug-thuggin’ niggas, gangsters, derelicts, pimps and madams, and whores, both male and female, gay and straight. We have drug dealers, hustlers, thugs, and killers in our family trees. We have old rusted sheds, bicycles, cars, and shopping carts filled with aluminum cans and plastic bags. We have dead beat fathers, or no fathers at all, and hard-working mothers. We have pit bulls and rottweilers and German shepherds because we fight them or because we can’t afford ADT and don’t trust the cops. We have crack-cocaine and crackheads because of Ronald Regan, and we have marijuana and potheads because everyone has marijuana and everyone is a pothead. We have gun stores with cheap guns, liquor stores with cheap booze, and Churches Chicken with cheap, mutant chicken, but failing schools with caring teachers. We have the laughter old men playing dominoes and the prattle of old women cooking collards with fatback and corn bread in the kitchen. We have plenty of churches, Bibles, crucifixes, and hymnals but no salvation. We have basketball courts and broken dreams of stardom. We have back flips off of trash cans. We have leather belts and switches for discipline since everyone believes in the Biblical adage “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Right in front of my house, across the field, seemingly endless in my puerile eyes, and across Government Street, the great asphalt divide, we have the towering behemoth and bottomless cesspool, the dreaded ECUA Sewage Treatment facility, so eloquently christen by mother as “the shit house.” From it, we get polluted air, sickness, death, and the perennial, putrid stench of defecation and harsh chemicals.
We have all these things, but above all, we have dignity. “We may be poor,” says Gloria Johnson, may grandmother, my Allah have mercy on her, “but we damn sure ain’t gotta be nasty.”
This is Tan Yard, the place of my nascency.
My mother, may Allah have mercy on her, steps outside onto the front porch, looks at the sunlight and the rain, lights a cigarette, and takes a drag of it, inhaling toxicity, tar, and cancer and exhaling the stress of being a Black single parent mother of three boys in the South. She has a grimace on her face and I know exactly why: the shit house is active today, and the stench is stronger than usual, perhaps because there’s a big football game or basketball game going on and people are partying, eating, drinking excessively, and flushing their toilets without giving a second thought as to the final destination of their bowel movements. She sits on the decrepit porch swing, hung aloft with two rusty chains, and sways to and fro. I run across the dirt road and run up the steps stairs to meet her. I trip in the process. My mother always tells me stop running, to watch where I’m going and not to go where I’m watching, but I don’t listen, not too well anyway, because I’m a boy, and young boys seldom listen when their mothers tell them not to do something.
“Looks like the devil’s beating his wife again,” She says.
I look at her, a quizzical expression on my face. “You mean the devil’s gotta a wife, mama?”
She replies, “Of course he does, baby.”
I am young but not credulous. “Mama, who would want to marry the devil? He’s BAD!” My credulity will come much later when I begin to hope and trust in people.
She takes another drag of her cancer stick, blows the smoke into the already polluted air. “Well, there’s somebody for everybody, including him.” She finishes her cancer stick, chucks the bud into the bushes. She should quit smoking since by this point my grandmother already has lung cancer from cigarettes and the fumes from the shit house. My grandmother hides it though, as most strong women might do; my mother, though, won’t hide her cancer when she contracts it, and it will kill her, much in the same way as it killed my grandmother.
She relinquishes the rusty chains and swing from the light burden of her weight and heads back into the house, but not before issuing me a command, which I will eventually break. “Now, you stay your little ass away from the shit house, you hear me?”
“Don’t let me catch you over there, or I’m a beat your ass. You understand me?”
She goes back inside, the screen door slams behind her. My eyes follow her. I wonder about my father and why he isn’t here. I haven’t seen him since I was two years old and I won’t see him again until I’m twenty-one. That doesn’t bother me though. My mother serves as my father and she plays the role pretty well.
I hop off the front porch, run to the back yard, towards the rusted shed, passing Old Man and his intricate gossamer web along the way, passing the clothes line where we dried our clothes since we didn’t have a dryer, to retrieve my most prized possession: my black and orange eight-speed bicycle. I’m running so fast in my ebullience I’m having trouble stopping when I reach the shed and my body hits it, making a loud, resonating “thong” like that of thunder. I’m not hurt though, because I’m a child, and young children bounce off almost everything they hit. I fiddle with the lock. It falls to the ground. The shed doors make an eardrum scathing, teeth-clinching screech, a sound which, I believe, must be similar to the shriek of the extinct pterodactyl, a sound that my bones remember, as I try to slide them open. The doors are off the track, but I manage to pry them open. Inside are shadows, roach carcasses, rat dung, a rusted law mower and some other things I can’t recall. I hear the rain drops pelting the metal roof of the shed as I navigate through the darkness and shadows in search of my bike, hitting random paraphernalia from bygone eras, tripping over this or that. A large roach scurries in front of me and I freak out: I’m scared of them: they crawl over me and clumsily flutter around my room while I sleep. I try to squash it, but it runs underneath something. Good riddance.
I finally find it, an elegant contraption of gears and wires with an ugly paint job, hidden amongst the shadows behind old tool cabinet. I pull in out with haste and close the shed. I mount my metal steed and proceed down Government Street, towards downtown Pensacola.
The streets are bear, with few cars and no pedestrians, as if the people knew I was coming. They cede the roads to me this evening, and I take them with all due alacrity.
I’m passing St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a large beige edifice with green tile roofs, beautiful, chromatic stain glass images of the Biblical adventures of White, Fabio Jesus, and a large crucifix atop of its belfry, and I make the sign of the crucifix on my body as I pass it, just as the priests, the nuns, and old ladies at Sunday school had taught me: the sign of the Father on my forehead, the sign of the Son on my chest, and the sign of the Holy Spirit on my left and right shoulders. As I look at White Jesus, I wonder if he really looked like that. I wonder how come he doesn’t get sunburned like all the other White people I know and how come a church full of Black people is praying to a God-man who’s White, the same color of the people who, although they wear big golden crucifixes and say we’re all brothers and sisters in White Jesus Christ, call us lazy niggers, look down on us, wave Confederate flags, and clinch their purses and wallets as we walk past them in the supermarket. I don’t ask these questions though. I keep them to myself.
I’ll ask them aloud when I bigger, stronger, smarter, and wiser. Those questions will make all the difference later on in my life.
My favorite spot in downtown is an open field next to an abandoned, dilapidated project close to the bay. Particle wood boards decorated with graffiti covering the missing or broken windows. The field isn’t tended to, so the grass is as tall as I am. Where poor Black and Creole people live, the environments don’t get tended to; rather, things just fall apart, like Chinua Achebe, except not all the way in Africa but right here in the States.
The devil stops beating his wife, which is good because I figured by now she must be tired of bearing brunt of his fury. I think she should maybe just shoot his ass dead for beating her since that’s what my mother would probably do if she were in her situation. The sunlight wanes behind dark clouds. A storm is coming, and there is calm in the air.
In a few years, this area will be gentrified and the abandoned projects will be torn down to make way for rich White people and their big expensive houses and their big expensive luxury BMWs, Mercedes-Benz, and Infinitis. For some reason, rich White people love living near the water, even though, when the hurricanes come, their houses get destroyed or severely damaged. I smile, though, and bask in the calm before the storm. I’m a child: I can’t see future and I don’t know yet what the word “gentrification” means.
Now, I break my mother’s command. I come back and peer into the cesspool. She never finds out though and I therefore never get a beating.
The chasm is deep and lined with pipes and tubes. Brown slurry percolates below. I ask myself, “How do they take this stuff and make clean water out of it?”
I get an answer much later in life while studying engineering in college. The answer, however, has no real consequence because I can still recall the smell.
I’m staring at a portrait of a woman long dead: she’s my great, great grandmother. Her complexion is like that of an Arab or a Hispanic and she has straight, jet black hair tied in a bun. I don’t know what an Arab is or what a Hispanic is though, so I just assume she’s White because of her fair skin. But how is she White and I’m Black? I’m supposed to be related to her aren’t I? So how does this work?
I ask my mom. Surely she must know.
“Mama, how come Big Big Granny is White but we’re Black?”
“She’s not White, Anthony. She’s half Native American and half Irish. She was from the Ozarks. Don’t call her White or Granny will get upset.”
I don’t really know what a Native American is either and I sure as Hell don’t know where the Ozarks are. I just look at the skin color and the straight hair of the woman in the picture. It never occurred to me until this time that you could be mixed, be neither White nor Black or be both at the same time.
My best friend in Hallmark Elementary School is a White kid named Shawn who I think might be poorer than my family, which is hard for me to fathom since we are pretty poor. He is kind, aloof, and soft spoken and he is an excellent artist, even for his age. He doesn’t play basketball or kickball like others during recess or latchkey; he just sits and he draws.
We are sitting outside near the monkey bars when some Black kids, three or four of them I think, begin to make fun of him. They pick a fight with him even though he didn’t do anything to them. His White skin is turning red from fury and exertion as he tries to defend himself, but he’s losing because the odds are against him. I go to help him and the three Black kids back away.
I don’t understand why the kids did what they did. Here in the Tan Yard, we are all poor and neglected and dirty, both the White and the Black. We all come from fragmented families. So why did they do it?
My friend is crying tears of anger when all is said and done. I know now that Black people can be prejudice too.
Lightning whispers and our small house shakes with the wailing thunder. I’m in bed with my two brothers, all three of us, packed in one bed like Black sardines, but I can’t sleep. The noise keeps me up. I get out of bed and walk into the room where my mother sleeps.
My mother always tells us that if we’re scared, we should just say so. She says real men don’t hide behind facades; she says why tell a lie when the truth will suffice.
So I tell her, “Mama, I’m scared. Can I sleep with you?”
She sighs. “Yeah, climb your little ass up in bed with me if you’re scared. But you better be still or I’m a make you go back to the other room.”
“But mama, what happens if we get struck by lightning?”
“Well, if we struck by lightning and die, then at least we’ll leave this bitch together, won’t we?”
I climb into bed with my mom. I’m still frightened of the thunder and lightning but my mother’s words soothe my troubled self, and I sleep easy. I wake up the next day and the devil isn’t beating his wife like yesterday. The sun is out and everything is drying from the night before. I figured maybe she shot his ass after all.
I survey these patchwork thoughts as a man is his early twenties, picking out his burgeoning Afro, realizing in many ways I haven’t changed all that much, even fifteen years hence: in my mind, I’m still the dirty, nappy headed child from the Tan Yard I was all those years ago. The thought is comforting; it makes me both humble and proud: humble, because I spent my childhood in a ghetto juxtaposed to a sewage plant and proud, because I have a unique story to tell. I have something to share, something to contribute, despite hailing from the lowest echelons of this society. I can be a mirror for my peers, both Muslim and non-Muslims. I didn’t always have the understanding and appreciation of things as I do now, but that’s what learning and growing up is supposed to be about.
In our nascency, we don’t get to choose which stations in society we hail. We don’t get to choose our hair textures or our skin colors or our ancestry or our languages. We are placed in existence and we are told, by Allah, to do what we can with what we’ve got – to make the best of it. We learn. We grow. And we ask for forgiveness.
I thank Allah for the blessing of my childhood in the shitty, smelly, roach-infested ghetto. Al-hamdu’ilah, I learned so many lessons because of it. Al-hamdu’ilah, I’m strong because of it. I would not trade my upbringing in the Tan Yard for anything. “Never forget where you come from,” says my mother, may Allah have mercy on her, in the back of my mind, “Never ever forget where you come from.”