So many times this year,
I have found myself in heated arguments with fellow Harvard students
about what can be done for the problems of the "ghetto."
In too many of these arguments
about welfare, social security, and other social programs, I
have become so frustrated at the broad generalizations and snap
judgements people make about things they don't know about. People
think they've seen it all. The fact is, we haven't seen anything.
I try to make them see that they haven't lived the life of the
ghetto and that they don't understand what life in the ghetto
is like. The fact is, I really can't say that I truly understand
it either. That's why I talk to "Mike."
Mike is a 19-year-old senior at Snowden International High School in Dorchester, MA. A few random lines from the impromptu rapping that he likes to do so much reveals a lot about what he's seen:
Especially getting caught with assault and two nines
Plus my probation is an ill violation
How the fuck can I escape this type situation?
He comes to our interview, clad in brand new Adidas sneakers, an Adidas jacket, and an Adidas t-shirt. The brand name Adidas has come to stand as a form of identification and status for inner-city Boston youths. They have adopted the convenient initials of the brand to spell out a carefree credo: "All Day I Dream About Sex."
Mike works at the Boston
branch of the ACLU with me. He goes to high schools in the area
and speaks on Project Hip Hop and the Civil Rights Movement.
Project Hip Hop is a program that takes inner city youths, people
who often find it difficult to relate to the goals and achievements
of the movement, on a 17-day trip that traces the historical
path of the movement. The object is to have the students return
to their respective high schools and disseminate what they have
learned about the movement to their classmates. Mike hopes to
go to college next year.
The following is a transcript of a small slice of a conversation that we had. It is representative of some of Mike's experiences and insights.
Mike: The people who be living in the ghetto are caught in this cycle. Alls'us want to make it. We're kept wanting to get up, get higher, but were not given a way to do that. We're kept lower that way. For example, I got my bills. Now, knowing all my life all the places and ways to get money, you think I'm going to get kicked out of my apartment 'cuz im broke? 'cuz i couldn't get a job? No. Hell, I look out and see all these opportunities; I'm going to take one of them.
Marco: You're saying you'd be driven to steal or deal.
Mike: I'm in that situation. How am I going to deal with it? The gap is big, man. Either you drive a bucket or a Lex'. I'm reared wanting what you got. All my life I've been trained to want. I mean, I can say -- and I have said -- this ain't going to work. I'm going to get shot and killed if I keep it up. Still, I need to figure out how to get what I need to get over. "How am I going to get what he got?" That's what I still have to ask.
Marco: Why? What is it that keeps you having to scramble, always scrambling to get more? I know that's really part of a larger cultural ethos--to accumulate--but the drive sounds more intense in the ghetto. Is it a consequence of the conditions people are forced to live in?
Mike: Know what? It's a fear of having to worry bout poverty. Your whole childhood, you poor. The dope dealer on your street corner turns you on, jus a lil' taste of money. Now you can see a better life than this poverty you can't get over. You be so afraid of returning to poverty, that you'll do what you have to. Remember, CREAM: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
Marco: There is no alternative, no other way to get over?
Mike: Yo, if my lil' sister be looking like a bum, I don't care, I just want to get her some clothes! And I can't blame whoever if they be doing what they need to. That's all they know. See, when you were young, the older people you looked up to did that. All my life I been watching people living good without working. I'm thinking I can get what they got just as easy! Go stand out there, pumping, and make $600 - $800 easy.
Marco: The conditions in the ghetto create a culture that's closely connected to the drug culture. People do what they have to to get by. There is a sense of fatalism saturated in the streets.
Mike: Everything's messed up: home, school, and your experience gets skewed too. So when people don't see a way out, they create their own way out. Drugs is a quick resolution. I mean, have you ever been so depressed and angry that you just didn't want to think about your situation no more? Yeah, so it's cool to drink and smoke and pump if that's all you've seen. Yo, man, people be getting raped, shot, and killed -- it's crazy! Crazy! It's terrible, man. You never know what's going to happen. People be dead -- it's a regular thing. People aren't scared no more. Yo, there was a dead body my way, and people be congregating. No one goes and calls the ambulance, just be watching his brains or guts spill out. It's a regular thing! They all seen it before.
Marco: It seems there is a sense of the absurd in that environment, an acceptance of the outrageous. What is it a kid in the ghetto wants out of this kind of life?
Mike: They want success. They desperately want success. They are afraid of dying, being forgot. They don't want to be nobody. All they want to be is someone. Why then, you ask, do they live so dangerous. It's cuz that's what they got to do to get over. It's the only way they know. They desire so much: the cash, the look, the status--all them things it seems everyone else has. So they be struggling: to get the phattest car, that Lex', the right gear. I want success.
Marco: So it sounds like youth growing up in such an environment don't feel as though they're "someone". Now, to what extent is the larger society responsible for instilling this sense of worthlessness? There is no doubt that we live in a very materialistic society; we're being inundated with signals to consume, to accumulate. Society defines success as one who has many material possessions, one who has status via power via money. Ghetto kids then, on the brink of poverty, feel the need to counter that sinking sense of nobodyness that society transmits to them. It says, "since you dont have this and this and this, you are a nonperson." and they cant have this and this and this because the same society denies them access to the resources which have historically, for reasons of race and class, been restricted to only a few select hands. There's a conflict then, eh? These kids feel that to be someone they need to be successful, yet the keys to success are strictly off limits to them. So they're driven up and pushed down, the result being intense internal conflict.
Mike: I know in the suburbs they do mad drugs, but when it's time for the bust, it's in the 'hood. So you're a kid in the 'hood, if you're broke, you go and sell drugs. To do so, you got to stand at the corner day till night. You got no cellular phone to call your customers. No one's paging you. You ain't drivin' a Lex' to go get some more money. Nah, it ain't like that for the ghetto kid. The other guy's transaction ain't seen. No one sees that exchange. The ghetto kids out in the open.
Marco: So the kid sees the man in his Lex. He wants to be that. He wants out of the ghetto. He can't get out. He's systematically denied access to the resources. He's caught in a mire. That's an incredibly frustrating situation, I imagine. There must be a sense of being manipulated; that one is at the control of an invisible puppeteer tugging at social, economic, and political strings.
Mike: Yeah! The kid gets the chance to see the something different. The suburbs, let's say, with all them pretty houses and nice cars. It's all good, right? "Hold up," he asks, "How he get that? Yo, I got to get some of that for myself." He wants that. No way is he going to want to go back to the bricks, to eating with roaches, to fearing stray bullets.
Marco: Can this kid "get over"?
Mike: Some don't believe they can legally. "You a fool if you think you can get over in this society playin' their game," they say. If you're a black man in the ghetto and you got no skills in football, basketball, baseball, and you can't sing, then what are you? To whom can you say, "If you can do it, so can I?" Instead, the kid will be asking, "Am I destined to live in the projects the rest of my life?" Now, let me ask you: kids in the suburbs, if they can't sing or dance or play sports, they gonna go pump dope? No. So what do kids in the 'hood know? I'll tell you. They know how to hold their own, work the graveyard shift, sling them rocks and all that. They do what they know.
Marco: What about you, Mike? You know what's up.
Mike: I've seen the other side. It's like the QB whose coach makes him watch the replays in the locker room. He watches the game and learns from it, so when he returns, he knows what not to do. It's like that. I've been to the locker room, and I've seen the game. I've had the chance to be apart and see it and, for that moment, not be a part of it. If I didn't get that chance, I'd be in the game and think it's life. As it is, I know these things, but I still have to live in that world.
Mike has tried to school me in the art of free-flowing -- impromtu rapping -- though as yet it remains an art I haven't mastered. Free-flowing is a source of joy for Mike; he often jams to break conversation lulls. His free-flows are well crafted and insightful; the following is a poignant example:
I'm going to court for three cases.
I'm in two places:
One in Roxbury,
The other out in Brooklyn.
The way that I see it I'm going to see central bookin',
Facing two three to nines
Is mad time,
Especially getting caught with assault and two nines.
Plus my probation is an ill violation.
How the fuck can I escape this type situation?
You know moods I never fake,
And fuck the jake, they can catch me at my wake
When I die burn a bag of blake,
Put the lie in the air.
Sometimes I just don't care.
I'm talking power movements,
Get on some rude shit --
I keep going this way I might lose it.
Cause stress on the brain
Can lead to a motherfuckin' suicide thing.
Special thanks to Mike
and by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo
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