Here’s a lie you often hear:
“I grew up in the hood. And because I was smart, all the cool kids and the gangstas bullied me and beat me up.”
If you talk to anyone who ever knew me, none of them would describe me as cool. Even though I was the least intimidating person you would meet, I didn’t encounter much trouble because I didn’t live in “the hood.”
No one lives in “the hood” or the “ghetto.”It’s a fantasy of people who never lived in places surrounded by people of lower economic means. People who live in the inner-city apartments don’t think they live in “the ghetto.” Your home is your home. Your neighborhood is your community.
And usually, people who have been condemned to live in impoverished areas will try their best to help others escape that fate. They’ll try to prevent the star basketball player from getting involved in gang life. They’ll protect the smart, nerdy kid who reads encyclopedias for pleasure and never celebrated Christmas.
I grew up in a place where my neighborhood was an actual community. If you lived on my street and they cut your lights off, people would actually take up a collection in an envelope. I thought paying people to babysit was a thing only white people on TV did. I can’t tell you how many kids my sisters and I had to tutor for free when they were doing bad in school. When my sisters and I went to college, some of the local dope boys gave my mom a Piggly Wiggly bag filled with money to help her with our college costs.
In fact, because my mother couldn’t drive, my rides to and from college were mostly with “drivers” employed by local drug dealers. My college friends still talk about how I arrived for my first day at Auburn University in pristine 1964 drop-top Cadillac. That’s the kind of cooperative economics that were at play in my neighborhood.
The annual celebration took place every year at Young & Young Funeral Home, which was only a couple of blocks from my house. Each night, a different community organization was responsible for planning and sponsoring the celebration. One night was sponsored by the funeral home. One night was sponsored by a local church. The Eastern Stars sponsored a night. And one night, for every year of my life, my family would sponsor a Kwanzaa celebration.
I’m not just saying this because of bias but I honestly believe that my family’s night was the most-attended night every year. One of the biggest reasons for this is that my family owned a little soul food restaurant and loves cooking for people. It is still a thing for me. So everyone knew that Harriot night, usually the Sunday night of Kwanzaa, would have a big spread of food.
Another reason our night was always well attended was today’s Kwanzaa principle: Ujamaa, or cooperative economics. People in my neighborhood would bring a few dollars by to give my mom for the Kwanzaa celebration, even if they didn’t attend. Some people would donate small gifts to make sure everyone received something. Other people would bake cakes or bring a dish by the house. Again, most of these people never stepped foot in the Kwanzaa celebration. It was just what people in my neighborhood did during the holidays since I was a kid.
But the biggest reason why the Harriot Kwanzaa night was well-attended was my mother. Although I haven’t taken a formal poll, nearly 82 percent of the people who grew up in my neighborhood has referred to my mother as “ma” at some point or another. This was one of the reasons an awkward, nerdy kid like me could survive in my neighborhood. Everyone loved and respected my mom.
I can’t recall a point during my childhood where the residents of our family home were limited to my family. She collected stray kids like old ladies collect cats. She did the taxes for everyone in my neighborhood. She filled out the financial aid information for first-generation college kids whose parents didn’t know the ins and outs of the system. Local politicians would call her to get out the vote. The dope boys would even call her when they were in trouble.
I was required to invite all of these play-cousins, dope boys, neighbors and adopted siblings to the Kwanzaa celebration And she would lay one of her legendary guilt trips on you if you didn’t come to Kwanzaa night. She would ask people: “Why didn’t you come to Kwanzaa this year? You know that’s the only thing I’ll ever ask you to do. Oh, well…” My mama even got my entire basketball team involved. One year, they patiently sat through Kwanzaa service with me because they knew that I couldn’t attend the Sunday “black night” at the local skating rink (which was always packed during the
Christmas Kwanzaa holidays) unless I went to the Harriot night first. So they came with.
My freshman year in college, I came home for Kwanzaa break and decided to take advantage of the moderate Carolina weather and walk to the Harriot Kwanzaa night. In fact, everyone staying at my mom’s house decided to walk to the Kwanzaa celebration. The group was so big that it looked like the overhyped Central American caravan.
There was me. There was Sean, my oldest sister, who attended an HBCU about 50 miles away from our hometown and brought two of her college friends down for the holidays. My two youngest sisters were there also. My cousin Cicely was there (She lived in Jersey but attended the same HBCU as my sister and would leave the next day for N.J). My sister’s boyfriend Greg came. Two of my homeboys were there. The only one in the house who didn’t walk with us to the Harriot night festivities was an older cousin was also staying with us while he was going through a 12-step program.
Now the big Kwanzaa gift-giving hadn’t taken place yet but I already knew that my big gift that year was a Raiders Starter jacket. I didn’t even like the Raiders but during that time, if you were black in America, a Raiders starter was an essential part of the gangsta wardrobe. The 1990s were very coat-centric. Bomber jackets, lumberjack jackets, team Starter coats, Karl Kani jackets, customized airbrushed jean jackets and FUBU coats were all in during the early ’90s.
I knew my mother had bought me a starter jacket because I picked it out. I even knew where she had hidden it: In the closet near the front door where everyone hung their coats. That was where she always hid the gifts. And we always pretended that we didn’t know.
We celebrated Kwanzaa, ate and then walked back to the house. The caravan going back was even bigger. In fact, my mom’s house was filled with neighbors and people who knew there would be leftover food from Harriot Kwanzaa night. We were up until the wee hours of the morning laughing, playing video games, eating, competing in Uno, talking … It was all family and all good. You know how people do during Kwanzaa, right?
The next morning, people were strewn across the floor like the aftermath of a Snoop Dogg house party. My mom was already up cooking breakfast and everyone began the day. Around noon, as we were loading up the luggage to send my cousin Cicely to New Jersey, we noticed a problem
The coat closet was empty.
Everything was gone. The Kwanzaa gifts. The starter jacket that I pretended I didn’t know about. My sisters’ coats. Their friends’ coats. All the coats were gone.
As the supposed “man of the house,” I assumed it was my duty to find the coats. My investigation necessitated the involvement of a CSI squad, namely, my cousins Squeak and Fred.
For all intents and purposes, my cousins were what could only be described as “street niggas.” Even the most dangerous family in town, the Masons, didn’t fuck with them because Fred, who was only a year older than me, had famously earned his street credibility in a legendary manner that attached an honor to his name that never went away. People didn’t even call him Fred. His full street name was:
“Fred; the nigga who beat up two Masons at one time.”
Despite their insistence that all my nerdy jokes were corny, Fred and Squeak always had my back. During our investigation, we discovered that the coat thief was none other than our cousin who was struggling with drug addiction. He had emptied the closet and sold the coats for crack.
I don’t recall how, but we tracked most of the coats down. Fred, Squeak, and two other friends even got back some of the gifts. But we couldn’t find my Starter jacket. We had taken all of the coats back to the house and our final mission was to go to the grocery store to get some Sesame Seeds (Yes, I have verified all of these details). We were walking back to my mom’s house when, standing at the back of the IGA was the youngest and wildest of the Mason clan, Leonard Mason.
Leonard was the same age as me and we hadn’t been close every since I had pinned him in a junior high school wrestling match. This was a miracle because Leonard was built like a grown man when we were 12 and my stick figure-like body wasn’t athletic in any way. Leonard also had a beef with my cousins because, well … I was with Fred; the nigga who beat up two Masons at one time. We spotted Leonard and he spotted us. To be fair, he was easy to spot.
He was wearing a brand new Raiders starter jacket.
My cousins told me that I had to confront Leonard and I couldn’t say no because, as dangerous as Leonard might have been (he had already done juvenile and adult time), he wouldn’t kick my ass like my cousins would if I punked out. So we all walked up to Leonard and I spoke:
“Hey man,” I asked. “Where did you get that jacket?”
I distinctly remember Leonard smoking a cigarette. He took a long drag and answered: “I bought it from your cousin.”
“Yeah, Ok,” I responded. “Ummm … man, my mama bought me that jacket or Kwanzaa.”
“For what?” said Leonard?
And I don’t know why I did it, because I would be teased about it for years. But in the back of the IGA, I stood there and gave an entire lesson on the history, meaning and importance of Kwanzaa. I didn’t even know I had acquired so much Kwanzaa knowledge! And when I finished, Leonard looked at me, unzipped the Starter jacket and …
He showed me the gun in his waistband.
I guess that was the end of this conversation.
The coat posse walked back to my mom’s house, mostly in silence. Halfway there, in a desperate attempt to break the tension, I think I delivered the greatest one-liner of my life. It was the only time I have made both Fred and Squeak laugh.
“Man …” I began. “Some niggas just don’t understand Ujamaa”
Hearing both of them laugh gave me a warmth that no coat could ever provide. Later that night, we would witness a Kwanzaa miracle when we found an IGA grocery bag on my mother’s doorstep with a crumpled up Raiders jacket stuffed inside.
Apparently, someone who my mom had helped out, talked Leonard into returning that coat. I discovered years later after Leonard and I became friends. The last time I saw him was when I was home for my cousin Fred’s funeral. Or maybe it was when I was home for my cousin Squeak’s funeral.
For some reason, the men in my family die young. What’s weird is that those funerals were also the only time I have ever been in that funeral home for a funeral. In my mind, their funerals were held at the place we celebrated Kwanzaa.
I recently discovered that Young and Young Funeral Home doesn’t have a Kwanzaa celebration anymore. Perhaps that’s because the Funeral Home’s original owner passed away. Maybe it’s because my mother moved away when she retired. Maybe it’s because my old neighborhood isn’t a neighborhood anymore. It’s just a place where people live.
My grandfather built that house and my family still owns it. My aunt lives there now. And every so often, someone will stop by that house and knock on the door. Sometimes it’s a neighbor. Sometimes it’s someone who is just in town for the holidays. A few times it has been Leonard.
And when she answers the door, sometimes those people will try to hand her some money for the Harriot night celebration and she will have to tell them:
“I’m sorry … Miss Dot doesn’t do the Kwanzaa thing anymore.”