Dastardly Vandals Who Do Not Shoot the Fair One

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I'm doing my last public reading of The Beautiful Struggle this Friday at McNally-Jackson. All week I'll be running excerpts from the book. The Beautiful Struggle is, at its core, a comic book. A self-aggrandizing comic book--every man is Odysseus in his own mind. At any rate this excerpt picks up where yesterday's left off, and describes my attempts to navigate West Baltimore. It is my my Flash Thompson moment, though darker. There also a hint of the radioactive spider-bite.


It ends with the most shameful thing I've ever done. I always thought I'd do something worse as an adult. I never imagined reaching my moral low at 12. Meh. There's still time. Come out on Friday. We'll try to go lower. 

Big Bill's logic was taken from The Great Knowledge, the sum experience of our ways from the time Plymouth Rock landed on us. To this compendium, each generation added their volume. Our addition was the testament of these broken cities--West Side, Harlem, the 5th ward. The Knowledged Man knew that death was jammed in us all, hell-bent on finding a way out. So he never measured his life in years but style--how he walked, who he walked with, how he stepped to Jenny, where he was seen, where he was not. 

The Knowledge was taught from our beginning, whether we realized it or not. Street professors presided over invisible corner podiums, their faces were smoke and obscured by the tilt of a Kangol. They lectured from sacred texts like Basic Game, Applied Cool, Barbershop 101. Their leather-gloved hands thumbed through chapters, like The Subtle And Misunderstood Art of Dap. There was the geometry of cocking a baseball cap, working theories on what jokes to laugh at and exactly how loud, and entire volumes devoted to the crossover dribble. Bill inhaled The Knowledge and departed in a sheepskin cap and gown. I cut class, slept through lectures, and emerged awkward and wrong. 

My first day at Lemmel I walked to school alone, a severe violation of the natural order of things. I got my first clue of this standing on my front porch, my canvas bookbag slid across one shoulder, watching as small groups of kids made their way down the green hill that sat at the end of the Mondawmin parking lot. All the way to school, everyone rolled like this--three deep or deeper. There was a warped affection among them, the kind born of shared enemies. They constantly looked around. They tossed ice-grills like there was no other choice. They exchanged pounds with each other frequently, as if to say I am here, I am with you. All their Starter caps were cocked at the appropriate angle. Everyone moved as though the same song were playing in their head. It was a song I'd never heard. I shrugged my backpack a little tighter on my shoulder and made my way.

Later I'd understand that the sub-audible beat was The Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against the fear. I was afraid. And confused. I felt it but couldn't say it. I paid little heed to great injustice, despite my mother showing me blueprints of slave-ships, and children's books tracking the revolution of Dessalines and Toussaint. Still I could spot even small injustices when they shadowed me personally. I knew that to be afraid while on the way to school was deeply wrong.

I emerged into a morass of numbers and bureaucracy. Lemmel was partitioned into three grades, four tracks, and 16 classes, ranging from special ed to gifted. Each track was then given the name of a champion--Harriet Tubman, Booker Washington, Carter G. Woodson. My class was 7-16. We were one of six gifted classes on the Thurgood Marshall Team. I don't know how gifted any of us were--more likely we had parents in the race, mothers who worked for the city, got their degrees from Coppin State. 


But the many problems of the city came to rest at the Lemmel's door-steps. Kids hailed from the projects, foster-care, from homes without lighting, from parents who still shut down Odells, while their children ran the streets. Lemmel stood out, because all the chaos of West Baltimore swirled around it, but never inside. The school's guardians believed in the vocabulary of motivation and self-help. Their favorite phrases featured words like "confidence," "push" and "achieve." They saw Lemmel as a barracks, themselves as missionaries called to convert us to the civilized way. 

There were any number of crews like them, carving up Lemmel into fiefdoms. They were assembled by shared neighborhoods, classes and elementary schools. Their minds were made small by scrambling at the bottom. So they stood on bus stops, in subway stations, flocked to sidewalk sales, tipped drunks for fifths, and flocked to the Civic Center bumrushed the show. They would lamp outside Mondawmin Mall, between the Crab Shack and Murray's Steaks, attempting to invent a rep. 

I was raised on the struggle of elders--iron collars, severed feet, the rifle of Harriet Tubman, and down through the years, the Muslims and regal Malcolm. But mostly what I saw around me was rank dishonor: Cable and Atari plugged into every room, juvenile parenting, niggers sporting kicks with price tags that looked like mortgage bills. The Conscious among us knew the whole race was going down, that we'd freed ourselves from slavery and Jim Crow, but not the great shackling of minds. The hoppers had no picture of the larger world. We thought all our battles were homegrown and personal, but like an evil breeze at our back, we felt invisible hands at work, like someone else was still tugging at levers and pulling strings. 

The vagueness of the struggle made most of these kids barbarians, but there were a few like myself who were still noncombatants. My cheeks were fat. I talked a lot, laughed in such a way that I gave the hardest kids around me permission to laugh. That same easiness made me soft, and as I bounced awkwardly through the crowd of ungifted kids on my way to class in the morning, I became a confirmation of all the most dangerous rumors about The Marshall Team. 

Most of the Marshall Team were from further south, where the new nastiness of the city had already settled into a natural and unquestioned state. They understood their place in this new ecology. But still they would not play dumb. They were sharper than their friends, uncles and cousins. And a couple of them even combined that with the grace of the street. Charles Davis could glide into algebra, a leather bomber on his back, with perfect rhythm. He knew how to carry a textbook like in fashion. 

But most of these kids learned early that they were not funny or fast. They might have a jumpshot, or a spin-move when running back a kick. But their talents were mostly elsewhere, and the other boys and girls gave them no respect. But somewhere about third grade they got the message, that fists could equalize it all. It did not matter if their jab was wild or the headlock was no more than a firm hug. That they stood instead of ran made them hard targets and more than lunch money.  

Now they'd survived the early battles of elementary school and were here at Lemmel, in the midst of a bad combination. There was the bubbling pubescent machismo that under most circumstances eventually resulted in blows. There was the absence of men and fathers, men who could teach nuance and intelligence to boys. There were the girls, now sprouting attitude and curves, who we all desperately wanted to impress. And then there was class 7-16--the Marshall team--the school nerds, easy marks. 

By then almost every boy in my class had heard the talk in the halls--that 7-16 was soft, that it's boys could not hold their hallway down. So my classmates rolled a little thicker than usually required, since sooner or later, one of them was bound to be touched. This is how, the Marshall Team--Lemmel's best and brightest--became a gang. They assembled in their own area before school. They had their own table at lunch. They would throttle one another at random moments, testing for a weak link. In bathrooms and at lunch tables they'd beat on each other and critique the response, because all of this was a dry run for what we faced outside. But I was straight peace peace pipes and treaties, talk and duck. It was a mark of a unKnowledge, a basic misreading of nature and humanity, and it was dangerous to anyone who walked with me. 

I date back to my man Fruitie, awkward like me, and out of sorts with the Lemmel ecology. His handle on the rock was questionable. His choice of fashion was wrong. He had the sort of easy temperament that most of the other boys tried to cover with armor. His slave name was Antwan Smith, but the Marshall Team addressed him as Fruitie because he laughed at anything, told bad jokes and cared nothing for the mask and shadows seemingly necessitated by the street.

I lost count of how many times Fruitie got banked. I never saw, but it came back as oral history. The accounts were variations on the same heroic theme: Frutie stood at the base of the school steps, surrounded by dastardly vandals who would not shoot the fair one. Fruitie's axe was invisible, and all you saw was the whirlwind of henchmen hurled away. He repelled hardrocks in whole waves, and with each telling the deeds became greater, the villainy swelled in number, their methods grew in atrocity. They came from Douglass High School, damn near grown men. They lumbered out the woods by the score. They pulled up in paint-splattered work-vans. They wore hard hats and steel-toe boots. They swung 2x4s, pipes and brickbats. 

Not once did Fruitie prevail, and yet for the sheer will to war, he was John Henryed and the Marshall Team conferred on him a sort of respect that no jumpshot or dime-piece could give. The Gods of the Avenue mocked him. The time and the era outmatched him. But he would not be contained. 

Out on the bus-stop, where Garrison and Liberty meet, he revealed the source of his power while I stared on, unbelieving. We were cattycorner from a fire station, and across the street from Jim Parker Lounge. I was shivering in the winter, having just had my sky blue Nike skull-cap snatched. There existed a Baltimore where school is for school's sake, where kids greatest worries were spelling tests and the first awkward juvenile crush. Neighborhoods like Rolling Park had bullies, fat kids and rich kids in rebel. 

But down near Mondawmin, the vultures among us corrupted everything. They were not growing into something better, they were not finding their deeper selves. The Knowledge was a disease. Some took to it faster than others. But eventually, we all got it. We all grew tired of getting touched. We were just like boys everywhere, dreaming of model trains, Captain Marvel and chemistry sets. But there were orcs outside the door, blood in their teeth and always waiting. At some point we grew tired of crumbling under their boots, and embraced the Knowledge, became like all the rest groping for manhood in the dark. 

Each black boy must find his own way to this understanding. Fruitie was a blue-jay in the meadow, and that made him remarkable, because even he had come to know. That winter afternoon, while the vultures swooped in and took off with my hat, all I had to do was whistle and Fruitie would have been at them. But I did nothing. After they had gone, Fruitie stepped into the awkward air and dropped a jewel. He confessed to me that he was afraid, but when surrounded by henchmen, he'd quote a line from Rakim Allah and he was harder than he'd been in the moment before. I nodded, but pushed his words into the back of a basement. 

Some weeks later, on the field across from Lemmel, we were shortcutting to the M-1 bus-stop--he was headed home, I was off to see my grandmother. And then here these mutherfuckers come, with more numbers than us, running across the field between west of Dukeland and South of Liberty. I've forgotten how they looked on purpose, but I remember that again they grabbed for my Raiders fitted, yet another hat, and then snatched something from Fruitie that I didn't see. 

They offered to let us go with no further damage. I accepted. But Fruitie had grown tired long ago. There is no other way to say this: I walked away. From the safety of the bus-stop I watched him. He was not Thor. When he swung his long arms, nothing shook on its axis. Within seconds he was on the ground. It was horror. They were on top of him, wailing away. Fruitie was gone. He thrashed wildly, kicked his legs. How could this sight, him helpless on the ground, pinned in a one on six be poetry? I was a boy like all boys, selfish in my own particular way. What I could not understand, was something that seemed elemental to everyone else around me--that a kid who lost his heart was worthy of nothing. 

The next day at school, the whole affair, like always, had gone around the Marshall Team. Someone approached me in Science class-- Fruitie should fuck you up. But that was never my nigger's style. He gave a pound when he saw me, and kept joking like nothing had happened, like nothing had gone wrong. His kindness wounded me. And I knew then that I was alone.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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