Those are the words—a number separated by a contraction, of my comrade, Esther Armah. As this stalwart of journalism, known for the radical concept of Emotional Justice, celebrated her fiftieth birthday, with that declaratory Facebook post along with beautiful selfies, that prove that black don’t crack, I sit in a bagel shop where memories of hate and pain reside—by others towards me. I avoided walking into this place because I was responsible, if even partially, for the repeated trauma and bad dreams of many people. Though this particular location is just a franchise of the actual ground zero of sadness; though this location is in the stomping grounds of my birth; just across the street from where I was raised in apartment 4B on 616 Nostrand Avenue; just three blocks from my elementary school, where despite a horrifying year of bullying I still somehow happened to graduate as valedictorian. Where, now white people walk carefree, and Black people still pace frenetically and worried, as they did when I rode my bicycle along these Crown Heights streets during the late 1980’s and 1990’s. At the convergence of upward mobility in this once forgotten neighborhood, and friends and enemies of my childhood past languish on street corners unemployed—unemployable—uninspired—stagnated—I sit in a Connecticut Muffin writing. Writing about and painfully acknowledging that I was forced to go away for over a decade where despite the hell of contemporary Black male inevitability—prison—I was able to earn a degree, write, teach, discover my self-worth, and prepare myself for academic conversations around things like emotional justice, feminism, and patriarchy, and whiteness, and social exclusion.
Light jazz music plays in the background in this muffin shop where people that look like me glance into the space with eyes of awkwardness and distance. Gentrification, the term used in politically correct arenas, but usually explained as, “white people taking over,” behind closed doors complicates this moment of personal forgiveness. So, I put my headphones on and play some Sizzla, the Praise Ye Jah album, to block out my own hypocrisy of supporting “white people taking,” by buying a cinnamon raisin bagel and Martinelli’s apple juice from this place when I could have easily went to the Jamaican restaurant across the street, right? But I couldn't because I needed to be here in this place where lost, confused, struggling, and hurting Black boys invaded the same muffin shop, but in SoHo over a decade ago, and changed lives forever. So, I needed Sizzla because songs like Dem Ah Wonder and Homeless and Did You Ever takes me back to a time when the struggle of being young and confused and wanting and lost, all while being Black and male, was vivid—was real. The nostalgia of his music allows me to feel my pain of 10:13:99, amid the new Select Bus Service lane, college town type bar called Nostrand Ave Pub, and this muffin shop that are all signifiers of upward mobility to some, and reminders of marginalization to others—community development to some and “white people taking over” to others.
This pain that has long evolved beyond guilt, still resonates—maybe like white guilt? Systems of oppression (something else I learned about in despite being that sickening place of Black male inevitability) that make things like armed robbery very viable venues of upward mobility for young brothers from places like Crown Heights (before and after we started calling Prospect heights) is to blame for why we are lost and hurting, still. bell hooks, Malcolm X, Audrey Lorde, and James, Baldwin taught me about these systems. First-hand racism in places like Otisville, Oneida, Green Haven, and Downstate made these theories visible to me. Yes, the pain my cohorts and I caused (and still causing for some on 10:13:99) are all evident displays of structural oppression that explains why so many Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks are hurting and hurting others the world over. This disaster of (dis)order of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is why in places like Laventille, Trinidad and Soweto, South Africa and New Orleans, Louisiana, hurting Black folks rank high at the margins of society. I understand why gentrification invites visceral feelings of white hatred—it makes us feel less; it makes us feel wrong and guilty for observing that the neighborhood seems safer when white people move in, though crime reduction is monolithic problem that is obfuscated by many things—not just white people moving into the hood. Intellectually, I understand that now.
Yet, 10:13:99, is not and should not be felt as simply a machination of systemic oppression. 10:13:99, for some is the reminder of the seed of depression, lost love, new fear, and understood hate—partially because of me. For some, the nightmares of that evening ruined good memories of past 10:13:99’s. Where some remembered that day as their wedding anniversary or birthday, they now ominously associate that day with death, and bullets, and reckless abandon. That day, not much unlike this day for some who live near this Connecticut Muffin franchise in Crown Heights, is filled with pain and hurt. Whether it is the ritualistic illustration of whiteness exemplified through Black marginalization experienced as gentrification, or Black boys ruining 10:13:99 for dozens, maybe scores, of people, it is all hurt.
It is for that hurt that I ask for forgiveness. It is for the visceral pain, trauma, hate, and depression now attributed to 10:13:99 that I ask for forgiveness. It is in the spirit of restorative justice that I sit in this muffin shop where the marginalization of my people, expressed as “white people taking over,” are really dormant feelings of generational oppression. I write this at the crossroads of a corner bodega where once lost and hurting Black youths posted up in their baddest screw-face and employed in the underground economy, now give wind to two middle-aged and balding white men. I offer this solemn request for forgiveness as I see a past enemy who once was one of the best basketball players in the neighborhood, but, now daily languishes drunk on the corner as an ornament of the past, standing juxtaposed to a twenty-something year old white woman carrying her laundry. It is in this place where Sizzla comforts me with Dem Ah Wonder I ask for forgiveness from 10:13:99, because I know we as complicated and fragile young Black boys ruined it for so many and perpetuated the complexity and often-horrid nature of our human experience.
It is in within the confines of these experiences that I celebrate my comrade's, Esther Armah’s fiftieth revolution around this planet. It is within the memories and consternation of that inescapable past that I celebrate my coming trek into a new year. It is a forgiveness that is forever conditional.
It is with this ask of forgiveness that I remember my friend, once also lost, who shares daily reminders of fifty, not because of a birthday or wedding anniversary, but because his life is now relegated to a sentence of 50 years-to life in prison because his contribution to the trauma of 10:13:99. This all messy; this is why so many folks walk frenetically through these streets in ghettoes and prisons and detention centers worldwide; why they silently despise those who intrude their space of confusion and pain; why Treach from Naughty said, “if you aint’ from the ghetto, then stay the fuck outta the ghetto!” There is no equanimity for the oppressed or the oppressor. There is only hoped forgiveness which begins a messy and difficult process of healing.