When I was Black.

God willing, that got your attention. Sometime in my life I strove to be a young black man. It all starts when I was real young and got picked on a lot. I will not engage in the minutiae of my life but early years were filled with fear and potential violence due to my crazy dad and the crazy Catholics who hated Jews.

Along about 8th grade, my school began to experience a dramatic shift in demographics. There was a significant influx of black families. Remarkably, this change became a source of salvation. The new black students frowned on kids bullying me. They expressed disdain for those that would pick on me given I was one of the youngest, shortest kids in our class. Jeffrey Branch (JB) in particular became “my bodyguard”. He was the toughest kid in our grade school. He became a street gang leader and star athlete on the playground. And he exhibited a moral compass that had previously eluded my classmates. He interfered, disrupted and dissuaded the local bullies, white and black from messing with the weakest of his classmates. He chased away the parochial school kids who had long persecuted small Jewish kids.

When we got to high school, JB and some of my other grade school classmates were there and still willing to dissuade predators in the new school. If you look like lunch you will be eaten. In high school, being 12 years old and 4′ 11″, I looked like lunch. But even some of the black girls I went to grade school with came to my assistance. Norma Taylor and Jenina Daniels personally saved me from separate violent attacks.

I was still white at this point. But jump ahead to when I lived as a runway for months at a time. I found it was easier to hide in the inner-city than in my own middle class community. I was absorbed into the black culture that gave me shelter from the storm of my home life. I attempted to blend into my new environment. I dressed, spoke and gestured like my black peers.

I probably looked weird to blacks and whites alike. I am certain I stuck out like a sore thumb. So peculiar that I may have seemed insane at times. I became uncomfortable and awkward around white people. I lost sense of what my white peers would act like. I had white friends, mostly alternative lifestyle sorts like hippies. So I didn’t stick out as badly as if I was mingling with straight-laced whites but awkward just the same.

When I drove my car, I leaned my body hard to the right. I wore “pimp tint” sunglasses all time of night and day. I supported the Black Panther party. I wore leather jackets and carried a gun. My words came out in a quasi-southern drawl and my language was slang. I wasn’t just trying to be black. I was trying to be ghetto black. I was trying to convince the world I was a scary felonious person who wished to be left alone or else. And I learned to hide fear. I learned to take simple acts of aggression and escalate them to scary heights. I preferred to be perceived as a predator than prey. I was introduced to and and dove deep into the waters of the criminal subculture. I got a buzz from moving seamlessly through the ghetto, its bars, chop shops and drug houses. 

I took my 17 year old self down to the blues lounges to hear Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy before they were mainstream. I threw back shots and snorted drugs, sitting in automobile repair shops in the deep ghetto that doubled as stolen merchandise exchanges.

I met force with greater force. My boys were tougher than your boys. My guys were better armed. We were smarter, more cunning and savvier. We didn’t fear the police, incarceration or death. In truth I feared all of it but I learned to never, ever show fear. No crime was beyond us and no consequence harsh enough to dissuade us from our tasks. We didn’t bully. We didn’t prey upon women or weaker persons. In fact we stood up for others when we saw them being picked on. Our intervention was almost always enough to alter the equation of the situation. Picking on a women was easy until we showed up.

I tell you there was a language and a movement to the inner-city which stayed in my speech and walk for many years. I still have episodes every day where I hear the voices of my youth in my head. They are phrases and combinations of words which are unique, colorful, and pointed. A day did not go by then that was not infused with a way of communicating that most whites will only hear in movies or read in books. 

It was crazy. It was just wild. My sisters could probably describe best how I appeared to their world. It was when visiting my own middle class family that the strangeness must have been most pronounced. The friendships made in the ghetto during those years seemed so solid and real. How could we really be different if we were all in, all the way? It took years to re-segregate and observe that I was always odd and expendable. The truth at the end of the day was that I could modify my dress and voice and gestures and disappear into the mainstream. But my ghetto pals could never hide in plain view. They would never have the financial resources to protect themselves from the harsh reality of being an inner-city black in Chicago. They knew intuitively that I was a visitor. A committed one. A sincere one. But ultimately, a visitor.

Years later as I began to mature and leave the immediacy of the streets behind for the pursuit of a profession and education, the trappings of the inner-city lost their luster. While I could hide it, I could not escape the constant fear in the streets of being killed or going to prison.

My experiences have held me in good stead. I regret nothing. I learned things, saw stuff and lived with realities that most people in my world will never know. I have used my experience to help hundreds of clients as a social worker and lawyer. I learned empathy. I saw the obstacles to success quite clearly and never suffered the delusion that exiting the ghetto was simply a matter of choice. It was mostly luck. And I am a better lawyer and counselor as a direct result of my years in the inner-city. Truth be told, I never completely left it all behind and I never forget. Sometimes I set out to recall the details and write them down. Like so many other life events they seem too layered and nuanced and detailed to share.

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