So what is a Native Son anyway?

In order to answer that question I gotta go back, way back.  I tend to think of myself as the product of a hodgepodge of many, often conflicting, backgrounds and experiences. As a second generation kid to African….well, Ghanaian immigrants (I’ll explain why that matters later), but back when I was a young buck, I was just “African” and that was not the thing to be.

Grew up in the DMV, or what my generation called “The Area” (pronounced Urea) back in the day. And by “DMV”, I mean DC, “Murrland” and Virginia.

Things were different back then. During the 80’s (and early 90’s) there was a clear social hierarchy for those of us who lived in ‘urban’ areas. DC was, of course, the de facto gatekeeper for the areas inside (and just outside) the 495 Beltway.

Though not as well known as cities like Chicago, New York or Miami, Washington “Chocolate City” DC cultivated a proud and unique urban culture for decades. A culture, a style of music and that unmistakable DC twang, that eventually came to be emulated by portions of the two states surrounding it; namely Prince Georges County, better known as “PG County” and to a lesser extent Montgomery “Mo” County (both in MD). As Alexandria was just across the river, they held it down as best they could for VA.

Growing up in PG was like having an older cousin in DC that was a little bit cooler, pulled more broads, had better hands and ‘went harder’ than you. In fact, a lot of folks in PG actually had cousins in the city and wouldn’t hesitate to LET YOU KNOW.  Even so, the tension was real and sometimes spilled out into the mother of all social scene’s, THE GO-GO. A local genre worthy of its own write up, GO-GO music was as much of a social experience as it was musical.  Every week, without fail, crews from various neighborhoods in the city and PG would arrive at a Show en masse, prepared to rep their home turfs.  But lets backup for a second.

After a brief period of white flight during the late 70’s, the demographics of PG county began to change. Within a few years it had emerged as a predominately African American county, one of the largest in the country in fact. Of course, there were still enclaves of multi-racial communities here and there, but by the mid 80’s PG was unapologetically BLACK. Many African American’s were drawn by stable, well paying government jobs in the region. Other black professionals were drawn by PG’s proximity to the city. African immigrants, primarily from Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, along with Trinidadians, Jamaicans and Haitians from the Caribbean also flocked to the region with the hope of pursuing the American Dream.

But like anywhere else in the world, life can vary greatly depending on ones zip code. The crack epidemic and all of the violence that it entailed had, by now, begun to ravage the city…spillover into PG was inevitable. By the early 90’s, there were parts of PG whose reputation for violence had even come to rival DC’s.

Enter the GO-GO scene, where the most go hard dudes would congregate in the Pit (same idea as a mosh pit) participating in the usual Call and Response activity with the bands who were on the line-up. Sometimes, and not unexpectedly, things got violent.  All manner of beefs were either settled or kicked off in the Pit, and the detailed results of those confrontations would not only make their way through the streets, but also through the hallways of every connected school in the region.  By lunchtime on Monday, dozens of schools would have already been debriefed on the weekends activities…a pretty amazing feat actually. In the event that beefing crews attended the same school, fights or worse would ensure on school grounds. More often than not, the most violent acts occurred elsewhere and by the early 90’s, the violence had reached epidemic levels.

I remember being in high school when DC was declared the murder capital of the world. It’s kinda crazy though…thinking back to my younger self, and how proud I was of the fact that DC (and PG by extension) was finally on the map. The irony of sitting in AP History class feeling boosted, along with a few others who cared about that sort of thing, was completely lost on me back then.

And why wouldn’t it be? At that age being cool was everything, and cool I was. Yup, I was a smooth dude….that was me. Pulled a rack of broads, had hands…went hard too.

Well, not too hard, and maybe I wasn’t actually a ladies man. I mean, I had some luck. And now that I think about it, going hard was overrated anyway. Yeah, overrated. Getting to class on time and banging out homework…that was def the move. I’m not saying I was a geek or anything, just you know…

Well, maybe I was kind of a geek. Ok I was a geek.  There, I said it. I was a geek (not to be confused with a nerd). Definitely a geek and…..I’m still a geek.

There was no question about the fact that I was going to college and the doctor, lawyer, engineer thing? Yep, that was drilled into me as well. I was a geek. But I was a PG geek and that meant something.

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Chuck Brown performing. Photo by John Shore

Even geeks with strict African parents occasionally found their way to the Classics to see the Junkyard Band or to one of Chuck Brown’s trademark open air concerts. It was a rare treat to experience the energy of a Show and it made me feel like I was part of something, part of a community that few outside of the DC region really understood. With the exception of a shoe box full of Go-Go tapes or the fuzzy a.m. radio set with Conan, that never seemed to run long enough, the live experience was best way to get that fix.

Grew up in church too, and I mean real church. It was sorta like having Apostolic, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Lutheran and Anglican church members all rolled into one Izuza charismatic, multicultural, foot stomping, holy ghost tongues speaking, ultra conservative, borderline cultist, Keith Green praise and worshiping, skirts below the knee, no sex before marriage, Amish dressing, Scarlet Letter wearing, confessing your sins, getting excommunicated after confessing your sins, *breath*  good ole time.

It was literally A Different World from what I dealt with otherwise; ultra conservative, multi-racial, extremely rigid, the complete rejection of the any worldly pursuit or pleasure. These Pentecostal ideals were drilled into us. I sometimes wonder if I would be the person I am today, had I not had those counter narratives to combat the culture of the DMV.

I still remember the mixture of shock, confusion and joy I experienced the first time I attended a Catholic service. It went from start to finish in 30 minutes flat! At my old church, church was life….4 – 5 days a week.  Even so, as kids we had to learn how to play the role, and still find a way to do our thing on the side. We did and we did it exceedingly well. Every now and then though, one of us went out in a blaze of glory. But like a herd of wilderbeest at the edge of a river filled with hungry crocodiles, we’d say a prayer for our fallen comrade and desperately splash across as the crocs tore into the unfortunate soul.

I eventually decided that I’d had enough and found myself an African church to attend (much to the dismay of many). In this instance, “African” is an accurate label. Although the founding pastor, church leadership and the majority of parishioners were of Ghanaian extraction, there was a strong contingent from other countries in both Africa and the Caribbean.

Prior to this decision, I had began to undergo an awakening of sorts. Attending college will do that to you, at least it should. Being exposed to new and different ideas, and people from so many walks of life that differed from everything I thought I knew was an experience that I’m grateful for. One area in particular that I was forced to confront was my own identify. As any second gen, thirty something in America knows, navigating the teenage years was pretty rough at times and coming up in the DC area as an African was no picnic.

In some ways, it was like living two lives. From 9 – 5, you did your best to fit in with your African American friends. Talkin the talk…walkin the walk. Some days were good, some weren’t.  If you weren’t called an African Booty Scratcher at least once in elementary school, you weren’t doing something right. Things got better by high school and of course college. Even so, it was not unusual to be presented with inflammatory situations which required the choice to either confront them or compromise. I found that my willingness to comprise began to diminish as I matured. But as I type this, I can think of a few folks who basically walked away from the Ghanaian community. It was just easier to completely assimilate into African American culture.

Maybe it was the fact that my father was a proud Asante man, who made it a point to pass on his vast knowledge of not only Ghanaian culture, but African history, to me. He truly is a Son of the Soil, so its no surprise that I didn’t fall far from that tree. Maybe being immersed in the Ghanaian community as a kid acted as a place of safety, providing a counter narrative to what I experienced “outside”, but I don’t recall ever feeling the desire to escape from my community. Embarrassed at times? Sure, but what kid wasn’t? Even so, I still carried resentment from a number of negative experiences I’d had with “African Americans” well into my adulthood.

But lets press on to here. So back in college, I was introduced to one of the works of Richard Wright. For some reason, I found myself identifying with the main character in this book. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why.

I travelled, as an adult, to the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil and can still recall the hysteria leading up to both events. The complete and abject fear of many folks from around the globe who were terrified by the thought of attending the Cup in such ‘dangerous’ countries. At the time, I was following a number of message boards and day after day, week after week, these poor souls would weep and wail about whether or not it was worth risking their very lives to make this trip. Sure enough, there were quite a few who decided against going.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. One of the benefits of growing up in urban environments is the development of an innate sixth sense. The ability to live or move about in a hostile (or potentially hostile) environment, while keeping your wits about you just comes with the territory. No one wants to get caught slipping. Military folks refer to this skill as Situational Awareness. I never, for a second, considered canceling my trips. Why? Because I’m not an easy mark. I’m confident enough that regardless of where I am, I’ll be aware enough of what’s going on around me to either knuckle up, or get the hell outta dodge should a threat arise. I may be a geek, but I am by no means and pacifist. Not even remotely.

I went to both World Cups, carried a shank at all times, made a slew of friends and had a BLAST. This, I think, is one of the few benefits of traveling while black. But there are also negatives that come with the urban experiences.

One of the lowest points in my life occurred during my junior year in college. I was actually doing pretty well for myself at the time. I had a well paying job at a local bank and was on track to graduate from Howard University. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just ridden the dreaded “70” bus from school, all the way up Georgia ave to Silver Spring(SS). The “70” was a bus route that one could literally see life, death and everything in between on. Whether it was trying to ignore a bum who’d decided to box you in while he had a bucket of KFC, and of course follow up by brushing his teeth…I eventually pushed past him when he started washing up. Or exchanging words with unruly high school kids, or showing up 30 minutes late to work because the bus driver decided to pull over, chase down and two piece a kid who’d thrown a bottle of something at him. Everyday was an adventure, and as usual, I was in a foul mood by the time I’d reached SS station.

My next ride back through PG was usually a lot less eventful, usually. It was just my luck that two weed heads from the city were on my bus as well. Now that I think about it, they were probably on something else, ’cause they were on some aggressive shit, going on and on about how everybody from PG was a bamma (the most viscous of all insults back then). Plus I knew that restless, shifty eyed look.

In any case, they started to get to me. I was already irritated and besides that, I had to defend PG’s honor right? We stopped taking that kinda talk from big cousin a long time ago. I kept my cool though, never did any more than exchange a look or two (or three). For some reason one of the dudes got off, at a random stop, right before the Prince Georges Plaza stop which is were most folks tended to transfer.

I got off at the PG Plaza stop near the Chevy Chase bank. Big Cousin got off too, still running his mouth. I took a couple steps toward the bank and looked back–that was all she wrote. All I remember is that he swung first, and that was all that mattered. By the time my book bag hit the ground, we were scraping for real…trading blows like a couple of ex-cons.

Im a slow to anger, kinda guy but when I loose it, I see RED, so I honestly don’t remember much about the fight. There was a point, though, that snapped me out of my blind rage.

I had the guy in a headlock as we stumbled into the drivers side door of an elderly white man as he was trying to get out of his car, jamming him with the door. At that moment, the bank manager came rushing out and my heart sank. You see, I was a college student that was going somewhere in life.  I even had a good part time gig at a branch of a local bank, a bank by the name of Chevy Chase.

We instantly recognized each other. I let Big Cousin go and shoved him back as she layed into us, threatening  to call the police. Even though I didn’t work at that branch, she and I had crossed paths before and the look of disappointment in her eyes still bothers me.

What if she hadn’t been an African American woman, brave enough to come out and confront us? What if she had just locked the doors and called the police from the safety of the bank? What if the elderly man had decided, against her pleading, to press charges? I wonder how different my life would be today. I wonder.

I sauntered over (lip bloodied), apologized, collected my bag of school books and went on my way. Still eyeing Big Cousin as he made a bee line for the mall, I started to follow. I knew he was game for Round Two. But…..somehow I pulled it together. As  pissed as I was, I knew it wasn’t worth. Somehow that thought pushed its way past all the others. I caught the F4 home.

In this way though, I found myself identifying with Bigger Thomas. The protagonist in Richard Wright’s, A Native Son.

Growing up in PG will do that to you. It was also that take no shit response to overt racism that I had rarely experienced state side that nearly landed me in a South African police station.

But I also found I related in other, subtle ways, like learning how to dial down the don’t fuck with me persona in the corporate arena. The default mean mug sported in urban communities all over the world is fine on the street, not so much in the office. Or the odd looks (and unsaid words) I would get every time I made it clear that I was rooting for Ghana (and not the U.S.)  during the last 3 World Cups. Funny, the guys and gals rockin German jerseys didn’t seem to have that issue.

It took years to learn to suppress my inner Bigger. The first couple of years out of college taught be a lot. I learned that in many cases, being too passive or accommodating was just as bad as being overly aggressive.  I’ve come a long way since those days. As I sit here typing today, I’d like to think that my inner Bigger has been fully tamed.  My ‘ace’ to throw on the table when I decide to, because I’m in full control. I’d like to think that…

But maybe that’s part of the struggle of a Native Son. Maybe I really am just another Bigger. Maybe it’s my lot in life…I don’t know. At the end of the day, I see a Native Son (or Daughter), as someone who wan’t born into a life of privilege.   Someone who, through their own journey towards self awareness, has also come to understand the ways of the world and the many injustices that exist in it. Someone who, in spite of their own imperfections, has a heart that bleeds for the defenseless and strives, in their own way, to right the wrongs they can.

I’m blessed enough to have quite a few Native Son’s and Daughters in my life, and hope that, in time, I’ll be able to introduce a few to you as well.

 

Written by A.N.S