Ignorance

And all your little kids is doing, is getting bigger

You trying not to raise em around these wild niggas...
--Mos Def

As the hood heats up so does the ignorance factor. In the past week, I've seen at least three people loudly cursing each other out and/or physically threatening each other. The other day I saw two 6'5" identical, skinny as a rail, twins, both dressed alike, cursing out the train conductor at 135th. When the train pulled off they had the nerve to give each other dap, on some "We just let motherfuckers know" shit.

When you're conscious and  live in a neighborhood with higher than normal poverty, you learn to  cope with certain things--a lack of decent produce, a dearth of good schools, an abundance of crime. But you generally find ways to work around these. If you're in Harlem, you Fresh Direct, or you go to the 96th street Whole Fields and pay the eight bucks for delivery. You may not find the school with the greatest test scores, but you find one where the principal and teachers are heavily invested. When your kids decides to show his ass they call you right away, because they know you don't play. 

You learn that much of the violent crime that happens isn't random--the innocent bystander isn't so much a myth, as a rarity. Criminals like to shoot at other criminals. For the rest, you learn what streets and corners are hot, and which ones have the kind of block association that will call 311 over busted streetlight. That's all fine for me. I love living in cities and I love being around black folks (White people, you're growing on me. Or at least your music is.) That means, there's a good chance I'll be living in a hood. I've basically lived like that all my life.

What I'm finding harder to contend with is the kind of ignorance that you get in summer--a dude on Lenox, old enough to be my uncle, yelling at some girl a block away, "You fat ugly bitch." The ignorance is really starting to wear on me. People talk a lot about kids and how wild kids are in the ghetto. But the kids don't much bother me. Maybe it's because I see myself as a kid in them. I don't know. But watching people who are older than me act like they're kids kills me.

I did my share of ignorant shit when I was young. After my son was born, after me and Kenyatta hooked up, the amount of ignorant shit I did slowly declined. I'll be 35 in September and I've basically cut my "ignorant shit" down to one night a year when I get totally hammered and stumble into a cab. I suspect that there will be less and less of that. I think it's because the older I get, the more I have to lose. I've been blessed and constantly supported, so getting older has meant a better career, starting a family, having great friends. I think I've felt like cursing someone out a block away relatively recently--but I have so much to lose if it goes bad. 

It's not that the hood is, itself, ignorant. In the main it isn't. It's that in every community there is a minority that feel, and act, like they have nothing to lose. In the beautiful Harlems of America, poverty is greater than normal, and thus that minority is greater than normal. There's also nothing particularly black about. By now, I've been around enough hood-ass white people to know that.

When I was young this sort of thing was cool and funny. We used to stop, laugh, gawk and, if bold, yell, "Fight! Fight!" As late as 2001, I remember riding around Bed-Stuy with a friend in early April and us joking that "today was fighting weather." (A long winter. A lot of people. A sudden heat.) "I bet we can see a good fight today," my buddy said, laughing. "Girls. Those are the vicious ones." Sure enough, a few minutes later, we pulled around a corner and saw two girls fighting, with a mother about to jump in. We thought it was hilarious. 

Fast forward two years--my kid is three, and talking. My spouse has a job at a fancy magazine in Manhattan. I'm no longer netting $5,000 a year. I'm riding through Park Slope and see two girls fighting. I park my car, jump out, and break it up. That was pretty stupid. But I did it again with two boys only a year later. What changed? I think, in 2001, there was something of the barbarian in me, something rootless and nomadic. There are men who stay like that well into their 60s, and some days I think all of those men live in Harlem. You can't blame that on hip-hop.

It's been like this my whole life. From my folks driving to the Food Barn out Liberty Road, or Pops dragging me to the Farmer's Market below the Jones Falls. From having to troop to William H. Lemmel, ten-deep, ice-grill in effect, to hearing about my son's friends getting their bikes stolen. But "Shorty, lemme see your bike," is no longer a cute rite of passage. I'm not chuckling anymore. I love my people. But the armor is getting heavy. And I'm getting tired. And I'm getting old.

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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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