For Black Boys Considering Suicide
We ordered cheeseburgers. My brother ordered a beer, and over fries and loud ’80s music, I told him I was molested. This story has always been the one I have been scared to write the most.
But I’m not just writing about that one dinner. No, this is about the after, because there are levels to my detachment, to my distance from the past. The elephants in the rooms I inhabit, and the cobwebs on the skeletons neatly tucked away and compartmentalized in closets. Still, there has always been the incessant nagging, the sense that there would be no unity in my heart or spirit if it stayed where it stood in my mind, far off in crevices collecting up the pieces of me I seem to leave behind wherever I go.
The first draft of this story got deleted, by accident, on a train ride in Brooklyn. I always questioned if that was the intervention of Jesus or Selassie or whoever the spirits may be, keeping me from issuing a digital recording of my experience. At first, a little piece of me flew away when the text was scrubbed. But I’m a Capricorn; I tend to push through my emotions, even when pushing seems like the last thing that is needed.
I told myself that my brother, D, would know first. He would find out before mom, for sure. He would know before Skee, who was locked up during the incident. The conversation I initially planned with D would have started with small talk, light circles of dancing around dad shit, life shit, art and love shit — the things you share with your bigger brother and best friend. I would jog around the central issue, the issue he would not know existed until it left my mouth. I transformed into five-year-old me, who always felt too small to carry all the feelings of the world, trapped inside of wishes and dreams. But, I told him before I told you.
We start here: I was five years old. I was the victim of the younger brother of a friend of D’s from around our way. Their family would move away a few months after the incident. I will trust that I had nothing to do with them moving because that makes it easier to digest, easier to throw away.
Did I make this up? Was there blood? If someone steals your innocence, does it return in the form of an angel, or a hallucination? Did you want what happened? Did you want your innocence stolen? You remember things. You remember the open window on the third floor. You remember our fire escape in our two-bedroom apartment, which was heatless in the winter. You remember him climbing through the window because he could, because you knew him and his face and his smile, because you are five and you remember faces and people.
You remember whispers. You remember a finger to his mouth, mouthing “shhh.” You remember your pants. You remember sweat and a drinking glass falling off the top bunk and breaking. You remember your mother waking from her early-evening, before-work couch-sleep, walking into the room after things had already broken, and the ghost of a teen boy had already climbed out of you, out of sight, down fire escape steps, exiting. You remember your mother asking, “Is everything alright?” You remember sobbing after she left, more about the glass than about the other thing that shattered. You remember the air, and how it sat against your small skin, and how everything would taste different.
I was five years old when it happened; I was also five when I saw my first porn. I would sneak out of the bedroom I shared with D and enter the living room to see Black bodies gliding, sweaty and slick against one another, the groans and sighs and breathing eating the couch. Later, I would take the Penthouse D had hidden in our barely-there dresser, stuck underneath T-shirts. Mom would find the magazine, question D, and D would find the lie stuck between his teeth and say, “It was there when we moved.” When the house was quiet enough, I’d find the pages with the women warriors clad in armor, each subsequent page turn leading to the shedding of pieces and the showing of nipple and breast and lips of mouths on lips of vagina. I would rub my soft thing on the pages, waiting for something to happen. I had my first wet dream in third grade, with Kelly* and I having sex on a cloud high up in the sky.
My G.I. Joes would use one of the Bionic Six female characters for sexual favors. I would find the Ice Cream flick hidden underneath my mother’s bed, and put my hand in my pants, grabbing onto the flesh, feeling the blood inside rush, waiting. I would fast-forward the bootleg VHS version of House Party 2, past the Chinese Super Ninjas film it was taped over, to the soft sex film that would appear at the end, waiting. I would spend hours fast-forwarding all VHS tapes after, waiting. As boys in elementary school, my close friend and I would spend days at his house pulling out our soft penises, and rubbing them against the door of the refrigerator, calling out the names of the women in Hollywood we’d want to place ourselves inside. Suzanne Somers’ Ab Isolator infomercials would allow me the opportunity to put my flaccid, younger self against the TV screen and imagine what the feeling would be to take thighs and let myself linger in between them. I ordered countless pay-per-view movies and lied to my mother, with the exasperated exaggeration of a pre-teen — “Psht, I dunno… someone must have falsely charged our account, Mom.”
I learned about sex this way, about being a Black teen discovering the world with hands and penis and bodily violence confused with touching. I saw my first drive-by when I was eight years old. These things correlate; these things matter. How we see and relate to the world starts early, sooner than grade school will allow parents to know.
Deny, deny, deny. She would believe me. Who wouldn’t believe me — a happy-go-lucky, cheerful, outgoing 18 year old?
As boys, we never spoke about these things, especially Black boys. The boys become men, who may eventually raise other boys, quiet boys, too afraid to break their silence. As one watches the Harvey Weinsteins of the world wreak havoc on bone and matter, we are to realize that power has a face and a tongue, has a mouth and lips. But it’s not confined to Weinstein: It is the neighbor, it is the nanny, it is the math teacher, it comes in the form of bullets in Vegas or bombs in Somalia. The violence we attempt on others — the violence we attempt on ourselves — eats at things much like caterpillars to leaves, holes wide and gaping, leaving nothing but memories bitter, a heated soreness that lingers and moves through communities, until nothing is left but empty.
During my freshman year in college, I desperately sought out anything that could be tied around a neck — a rope, a cord, anything strong enough to carry a body. I placed a chair in the middle of the room after my roommate left for class, and placed the cord of my Andis T-trimmers tightly around my neck, trying to get all the blood out. I moved the lone chair to the center of the room, measuring the distance between ceiling and floor, feet to dangling. How do I do this? It felt too hard.
I dumped my head in a sink full of water in our bathroom. My ex-girlfriend would call our floor’s resident assistant, who would proceed to knock and call on my door, and I wouldn’t answer, but then I would. And she would mention a phone call from a young lady who sounded very frantic. The young lady had mentioned the possibility of me “harming myself.” I would chuckle. So would the resident assistant. Deny, deny, deny. She would believe me. Who wouldn’t believe me — a happy-go-lucky, cheerful, outgoing 18-year-old?
These thoughts of ending my life followed me long after college ended. The summer that my daughter still sat in the womb, I walked through St. Mary’s Park during the workweek, contemplating how to leave. Should I jump in front of a car, or a train? Should I take pills or a bullet, start a fight I would plan to lose? How would I create enough pain so that the pain would no longer be? Where do you go when the pain of staying is stronger than that of leaving? I started by poking my stomach with the tip of our kitchen knife, me wanting to find a way to dull whatever felt like too much. But I would never cut myself. I was too scared of the marks. The fear of leaving would always be the strongest.
Art would save me in the moments when it felt like the world and the bones inside me would collapse under the weight of it all. It was after that walk in the park that I would begin writing the pieces that would make up the bulk of my soon-to-be one-man show “Jamal Wanna Build a Spaceship.” Art was my savior before Mary’s son was. Writing has always been easier than death. Performing has always been better than breathing. And so, here I am. I am trying to heal me.
This story is about healing the “me” who recognizes the tears of a Black boy who grew up in the spaces I grew up in and could be chased by gangs (that happened in eighth grade), or robbed (that happened in sixth and seventh grade), or made to feel hunted like prey. I have always wondered if what transpired on that top bunk was the catalyst for the shame about the feelings, the need for want, the desire for more than whatever I held and had, because those things were always too small, never enough to keep the empty from devouring my whole.
I am a man now, but my five-year-old self is still with me. He is here, along with the names and bodies and people seeking closure, or redemption, or a hug. He’s not so far removed from the adult me. Adult me still chokes and suffocates and wonders why I cry so easily and break so hard. Adult me wonders and prays and hopes that he can protect his child. There were no missteps in my upbringing. My mother did not fail me, nor did D or Skee, nor did relatives or friends. God did not abandon me, I have learned. I have leaned on shoulders and arms and hearts, on words and books and lovers, and the quiet clanking chains of my ancestors, at times weeping at their feet, looking toward skies, pleading for answers that may never come. We want to tie up loose ends, but that is Hollywood fiction at best. Sometimes, the ends remain just as loose and tangled and as dirty as when they first arrived. This story is about all of these things.
*Names changed to protect anonymity