I never heard the gunshot, but when Vicky told me what happened I could hear the echo of the bullet in her voice. Biko. An extraordinary kid. So many of these kids are. They all are. But, Biko was the first of all the boys at the Sanctuary that I made a bond with. We met two years ago, when he was much smaller, but still very much a man in the making. His father had passed away recently, and the burden of being the man in the house was heavy on his shoulders. With 6 brothers and sisters, Biko had lost a part of his adolescence when his father took his last breath.
Biko’s family had immigrated from Africa two years before his father’s death. When I met Biko I asked him if he spoke any other languages. Away from the other kids he told me he spoke three languages, English, French, and his native African tongue. It excited me, that one of these kids in the middle of the hood with trilingual, but Biko would have none of it. He didn’t want to talk about it, and definitely was not going to speak in a different language around the other kids. Assimilate, fit in, don’t make waves. I’ve often wondered about his parents. Who are they? What did they think when they landed here and America, the land of milk and honey, to find themselves in the ghetto? What had they left behind? Was it worth it? Maybe it was.
Listening to the rhetoric on the TV and radio stations although out America in regards to the question of immigrants, you would think these people land in America and right away begin living the lives of the rich and famous. Magically they appear in work places, through up a sign that says “IMMIGRANT” and the employers start lining Americans up, and kick them out. When I think of immigrants, I think of people like Biko’s parents, people with nothing, struggling to get something. Why do we criminalize the poor in the country? Why does the religious right seem to be on the wrong side of every question? What would Jesus do? Would he persecute the poor, or would he kick the money changers out of the church? I know the question of immigration is more complex then that, but somewhere in the discourse about it all, there should be room for compassion.
Back to Biko. Though he tries his best to hide it, Biko is one of the brightest kids I know. The older he gets though, I can feel the hood, wrapping it’s tentacles around his soul. How could it not? In places like the Eastside of Jacksonville, where the murder-rate is ridiculously high, AIDS is rampid, and drugs are the cash-crop that fuels the economy, only the strong survive, and survival demands payment. This year Biko was a little more detached. Even less interested in living up to his potential. I could see it, the black octopus-like digit wrapping itself around him. The land based-kracken of the hood had it’s many arms wrapped around most of the kids at the Sanctuary. Sooner or later the monster would flex his muscles, and no matter how hard the child, the tentacle, would pull him in to the maw of monster.
America always eats it’s young.
I wanted to help him. But there is only so much I can say or do without putting myself in the category of adults he just didn’t have time for. So I watched. Talked, and tried to be a positive example. It was no surprise when Vicky told me about the incident of the gun.
Walking down the street Biko and a friend ran into some guys ruthlessly beating another kid. Trying to do the right thing, Biko and his friend tried to break up the fight. The kids that were fighting went inside and got some other people. The men that walked out of the house where around the same age as Biko’s father, strong angry men pushed down so much by life, they saw no other choice but to push other people down. They walked out of the house with a gun in hand. Biko could have run. But that would have been punking out. I can imagine him, seeing the men walk up to him gun in hand, fear pattering in his heart but refusing to give in. An argument began, and one of the men shot at his feet. Biko and his friend were both smart enough to walk away, but the sting of it all was still with him the next morning. It didn’t take long for Biko’s hothead brother Patient to find out about the incident.
Patient has always been extremely quiet around me, the kind of quiet that makes me nervous. Like he’s thinking of something, and the outcome may not be positive. This summer in the time I spent with him we’d begun to build a relationship that was founded on mutual respect. I know Patient is a child of the streets the way his brother will never be. Patient knows, that I’m not judging him. With that understanding we respect each other and mover forward. The worse thing that could happen is Patient finding out about Biko being shot at. When they are together at the Sanctuary, they don’t seem especially tight, but they are brothers, and Patient is lives by hard rules. Someone disrespecting his brother is grounds for immediate retaliation. Before they kids arrived at the Sanctuary everyone knew what had happened and several of the kids there were ready to strike back.
Biko is fourteen. Patient is sixteen. The man who shot at him was in his 30’s.
Vicky was sick with worry. She loves these children deep. Four years ago, she attended the funeral of a kid that she was extremely tight with. The day he died he had just turned 21 years old. The bullets that riddled his body where sent in retaliation to something that had happened in his hood weeks early. It’s the old testament cycle of justice. Injuring someone because they have injured you or someone you love. The problem with that rational is that it never stops. Someone kills you, you’re boys kill them. Their boys, come kill one of your boys, one of your other boys kills another one of theirs, and before you know it a whole generation of black men have died in the streets of America. Or end up in jail, or wheelchairs, or someone elses child gets killed in the crossfire. It never stops.
If this was a Spike Lee flick, I’d run up to Biko and hug him tightly and scream in the middle of the hood “WAKE UP!!!!!!” The credits would role, and you the audience could go back home. But there are no credits. There is no quick out. There is only this: fourteen year olds contemplating killing someone who shot at them.
Vicky told me all of this on Thursday. The next day, I was going to Baltimore for a gig at the Creative Alliance. This was a gig that I had thought about canceling. I was writing a piece for the gig, but then got caught up and never had a chance to finish. I kept the gig, only because I felt obligated, even though I was not going to do the show I was originally asked to do, I’d put something together with the incredible Poemcees out of DC. This gig was going to be a wash. I knew they would not get tons of people out to the show, and I had to pay for my own way there, which meant I was going to take a loss. But, I gave my word. So I was going.
When Vicky was done talking about the incident, I reminded her I was going to be out of town the next day, and a light bulb went off in her head. She asked, “What do you think about taking some of the boys with you?”
The next day, Vicky, seven boys, and myself started driving down I-95 destination Baltimore.