We are survivors: we the descendants of the Africans who endured the wretched march to the west coast of their continent, brutal confinement, and cruel transatlantic passage, to reach alive—somehow alive—the shores of a new world. Among the future generations of those captured humans are the men featured here, all of whom are my kin, each of whom I photographed and asked the same question: What’s the toughest thing you’ve survived? In an effort to encourage readers to imagine themselves as the protagonist of each story, I wrote their responses as second-person narratives. The narratives of my family members are one with the story of black Americans. We are all-American, which is to say, our stories of survival are inseparable from the ever-fraught history of America. After all, what’s a national history but personal histories writ large?
You’re a junior high superjock who believes the rules at most half apply to you, and therefore swank into the locker room insouciant as shit about your lateness. Dressing down, you hear the coach holler your last name. “You’re late,” he says. “You’re running a jaunt.” You scope the room, eye teammates in various stages of undressing, and decline the honor. “You’re running the jaunt or you won’t be on this team,” the coach says. “Fuck that,” you say. “I ain’t runnin’.” You snatch off your pads, slam yourself back into your clothes, boom your locker shut, and stomp outside and into the stands, where you try to console yourself with the prospect that, though a reprimand is damn near assured, the coach is certain to let you back on the team. Practice ends and you bop out of the bleachers to the edge of the field, where you dap your boys as they slog off. In the midst of this, the coach marches over to you. “I told you you’re off the team. Get your shit and go!” he says, blitzing your pride. “Fuck you!” you say. The coach yells, “Fuck you! You ain’t gonna be shit, just like your brother.” And why oh why oh why in all the world did he say that? You call him a “Faggot!” A “Punk muthafucka!” You say, “Don’t say shit about my brother!” and berserk for him, but one of your boys catches a handful of your shirt. “Chill, bro, chill. It ain’t worth it. Just leave,” he says. “Yeah. Get the hell outta here!” the coach taunts, and turns what was a blitz into a siege. “Fuck you! Fuck you! My brother just got out, and me and him gon’ come up here and fuck you up!” you say. “On everything I love, we gon’ come back up here and fuck your punkass up!” Your boys urge you off the field and around to the front of the school, where you wait with your adolescent heart doing high-knee kicks. One of the first boys out of the school is a kid who ain’t a friend but who also ain’t heretofore been an enemy. “Why you quit? That was some bitch shit,” the kid says, and summons the whisper of your father’s gospel: Son, you wanna solve a problem quick, sock a motherfucka in his jaw. You smash your chest to the kid’s chest. “Bitch. Who you callin’ a bitch?” you say. “You’s a bitch. We can scrap right here, right now.” The coach’s daughter sends you a look from her ambit of friends and you grant the kid a pass. You menace minutes longer outside the school and head home to the apartment you share with your mother and the brother your punkass coach damned as a forever also-ran. You don’t mention a word about the trouble to your mom. Instead, you count all the times you’ve seen fracas at school, the times students have been caught carrying a knife on campus, the number of squabbles you’ve witnessed between the Mexicans and the Russians, between the Red Cobra Bloods and the Carson Block. You wake the next morning and catch the bus to school wondering if your spat with the coach is enough to earn your nth suspension. You assume your usual post outside the school with your crew and spy the kid whose jaw you almost cracked. You approach him and apologize and he accepts and the both of you laugh off your brief friction, a moment abridged when a school security guard marches over stern-faced and asks if he can see your bag. “Yeah, sure,” you say. “What’s up?” The guard handles your bag as if it’s crime evidence and commands you to follow him inside, where you feel eyes everywhere tracking your steps. “What’s goin’ on?” you ask. The guard orders you seated in the principal’s waiting area, carries your backpack off to who knows where. Meanwhile, the bell sounds for first period. Meanwhile, the Pledge of Allegiance echoes in the halls. Meanwhile, not a soul in the office charities you a single word. The guard, belated, escorts you into the office, and the principal—he of rust-colored hair, glass eye, and bush mustache—offers you the chance to explain your side. You admit that you lost your temper but that you intend to apologize to your coach. “Did you threaten to shoot him?” he asks. “What? I never said nothin’ about shootin’ nobody,” you say. The principal reports the coach is distraught and concerned for his and his daughter’s safety. You argue again that you never mentioned shooting nobody, but concede to threatening to involve your oldest brother. “Well, unfortunately,” the principal says, “we heard otherwise. We heard that you threatened to bring a gun and shoot him and we must treat that threat with the utmost seriousness.” Years from now the weight of this moment will be clearer—most of all, how it’s mere months after a mass school shooting in Thurston, which is a town too close to ignore as elsewhere. The principal announces that you’re expelled. “But wait,” you say. “Security didn’t find no gun.” He shakes his head. “But wait,” you say, and petition once more for him to reconsider. “Okay, okay,” you say, and, having seen other expelled students allowed to return, ask what’s the length of your expulsion. You appeal for the principal to call your mother, which he does, but he can’t reach her. You request he call your oldest brother, which he refuses because you’ve implicated him in the clash. A school cop appears at the door to escort you off the premises. You bound out of your seat and smash your back against a wall. “Nah, nah,” you say. “I ain’t goin’ to jail!” The cop frowns. “Please, son, don’t make this worse,” he says. You accuse the coach of lying again, reiterate the fact no one found a gun, appeal once more for someone to call your mom. “I can’t go to jail,” you screech, duck, and dodge around the office, squeeze your eyes against tears, and feel your pulse dancing a Super Bowl shuffle. You skirt school security and the officer till struck still by the futility of actual escape. You let the cop cuff you. He reads you your rights (a first despite assorted juvenile woes) and leads you slumping out of the school feeling each step as part of your fortune. The cop loads you into the car with care. On the way, he asks if you’re hungry, promises to feed you just as soon as you reach the jail, offers further encouragements while you weep. You’re booked, mug-shotted, finger-smudged, led to a holding cell, and left to sulk. It’s Friday and, per the protocol, if they can’t reach your mom by X o’clock, you’ll spend the weekend in custody. You brood the tests you might face over such a weekend but (call it grace) your worry is cut short when they reach your mother before the deadline. You explain to her what happened on the way home and feel both comforted and confused by her calm. No school for you until your expulsion hearing in a couple of weeks, and in that time, the local paper runs a story on the incident. In that time, the parent of one of your homeboys forbids him from kicking it with you. In those weeks, other friends foster fresh distance. You begin to wonder if you’re the boy in your behavior file, if the expulsion is an omen. You wallow in this ambivalence until your court date arrives, a proceeding you attend with no one but your haughty mother. The two of you sit opposite a school district worker and your ruddy, glass-eyed ex-principal. They pull your file, papers thick as fingers you’ve jammed in hoop games, a record that includes the time you tried to spit on a teacher, the time you threw a crayon at another, the time you slapped a kid in class, the countless fights, the in-school suspensions, the out-of-school suspensions. You gawk at the file and reassess your chances of escaping this latest entry. The judge upholds your expulsion, bans you from attending any school in the district; in fact bars you from attending even the popular alternative school. The judge, as a matter of fact, mandates you to attend a brand-new alternative school. You arrive at that school the first day and discover your classroom is trailer parked on a pebbled lot. You soon learn your classmates include boys in their late teens who binge on cheap vodka, a white dude forever on his penultimate chance, Mexicans chasing a passing GED score, classmates who float into the trailer-classroom high as the cost of dreams, others who smoke Marlboros and pinner joints on breaks, girls who cut and run from home to join meth-smoking marathons with grown men, bully-prone gang members. You’re the youngest in a trailer-classroom of eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old pseudostudents but discover your age don’t exempt you from the rule that requires all students to attend group night with their parents. Your mom runs late the first night of group, and while you sit taciturn, you witness a girl curse her mother low names, another parent lament having not seen their son in weeks. The group leader asks you to introduce yourself and explain why you’re in the school. You hesitate but admit the expulsion. She asks if you threatened to shoot the coach, and you deny it. “Well, you’re here,” she says. “So that means something.” You concede but add, “Yeah, but I don’t got problems like them.” One of your classmates pipes, “Ooooh, look what we have here. The dude who don’t got problems like the rest of us. What, you better than us?” You giant out of your seat—hear your father’s scripture on blast: Son, sock this motherfucka in his jaw! You say, “What you say, punk? I’ll whoop yo’ ass!” He sparks erect and glares. “What? What?” you say. “We can go outside and get the ones right now.” The group leader pleads against blows, and in pulses, pulses, pulses her will prevails. She waits for quiet, or as close to it as the room will cede, and turns to you: “Now I see,” she says. “Now I think I know why you’re here.” But it will be many years of defeats before you can see what she sees.
You and your patna, after kickin’ it with some tenders, hike through Northeast for his crib, a route that leads you past a house with a pile of mountain bikes outside it, and inside, a passel of dudes sounding good and saucy. You and your patna slow long enough to glance into the house, glimpse bodies through a naked kitchen window, one who spies you and yells, “Hey. Look. Them niggas tryna steal our bikes!” You had no intention of stealing their bikes, but that don’t stop you and your patna from breaking. You hear the dudes bust out of the house, slam themselves into a car, and gun the engine. You huff up a hill and around a corner and around another corner and into an alley, keep trucking until you can’t hear them. “Damn, bro, that shit was hella close,” you say. “What you think they was gonna do?” Your patna shrugs. You slap your hands on your knees, bend, suck wind. You wait a few belabored breaths and motion your patna to follow you out of the alley onto a main street—a street dark and narrow, canopied by trees, flanked by cars. “You think we cool?” your patna asks. “Yeah, we cool,” you say. You take a few more mock-confident strides and turn to head your separate ways, but a lanky light-skinned dude with long hair corporeals out of the dark and grabs you by your jacket. Your patna bails. The dude clutching a handful of your jacket hollers for his homies to pull up the car and “bring the dogs.” You hear a car growl closer, imagine dogs mauling you, imagine worse, believe yourself doomed until you realize you’re less than a block from the house where some of your OGs hang. You manage to magician out of your jacket, dart to the OGs’ crib, and BAM! BAM! BAM! on the door. One of the OGs answers, double-barreled shotgun in hand. You explain your jam in a burst, and he stomps off the porch with the shotgun. “Where they at?” he says. The OG and you look this- and that-a-way, see no sign of dude or his accomplices. You wait in the OGs’ yard for your runagate pulse to slow and dash for home, glancing over your shoulder every few paces. On your way home, you see your patna. You don’t bother asking him why he left you, but instead follow him to his house, where you recount the story to each other, call another homeboy, and retell it to him too. Days pass with what happened and might’ve happened chief in your and your patna’s dialogue. Days later your patna’s amped, has got his hands on some heat. “We gotta do somethin,” he barks. “We can’t just let them niggas get away with this shit.” Decades from now, you’ll feel a deep indebtedness to the angels that have kept you alive, but today your patna’s plan looks like the key to life. You draft one of your homeboys as a driver, load heated into his car late one night, and creep down to the house where you first saw the dudes who spooked you. You and your patna hop out your homeboy’s ride and dump rounds in the house and the car outside it (a baptism into gunplay) and dash back to the car, and your homeboy smashes away from the scene. Not a single newscast reports the shooting, and neither do you hear word of anybody being shot or killed in the hood that night, and those silences are the extent of your investigation into possible harm.
You meet your main squeeze at the park, a park that on this halcyon day is teeming with picnickers and games on all the diamonds and courts. The two of you are strolling outside the park when a carload of Crabs pull up in a Blazer. These are the same Crabs who caught you slipping days before, accused you of putting hands on one of their cousins, and pulled heat on you. That day you denied laying the mitts on their fam, and to your surprised relief, they gave you a pass, but today those same Crabs scream, “Wassup, Cuz,” from the window. Since being a punk ain’t on no page of your teenage how-to-gangbang handbook, you scream, “What’s happenin’, Blood. What’s goin’ on?!” The driver idles, and you think you see a passenger reaching for what could put you and your main girl in dirt. You snatch the pistol from your waist and bust—per the police report you’ll read later—eight shots. Your girl statues beside you. The Blazer tears off. You duck into the park—what a witness will later describe as a saunter—with the gait of a dude who ain’t just dumped in daylight, while a dog-walking white man pursues you saying, “Hey! Hey!” Says it till you turn, point the pistol at his life, and squeeze without intent to kill, but should he die, well… The gun don’t fire but spooks the Samaritan into fleeing. You keep on, your girl at your back. “You can’t toss that in the garbage can. You weren’t wearing a glove, and your fingerprints are on it,” she says, and demands your gun. With no plan whatsoever for disposal, you give it to her. You watch her flit off, see police swarm her near the edge of the park. You bolt out of the park and down the block, see the Crabs you dumped on pull around the corner. Gunless now, you fake reach for heat and they peel off. You sprint between houses, bound a fence into the yard of a woman tending her garden. She stops. You stop. She screams. You break out of the yard and hustle between houses until you reach the sidewalk, where you snatch off your T-shirt and throw it in a trash can. Sirens scream (for who else in the world but you?) in the distance. You spot a squad car at a red light and jog in place as if, in your tank top and jean shorts, you’re out for an afternoon jaunt. Once police creep past, you hotfoot the miles from the park to your house hearing a trumpet in your chest and the wind in your ear, feeling the whir of your life in your neck and wrists. You reach your house and march straight to your room with your mother worrying after you: “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” You slam clothes into a bag, grab the couple of bucks left in your stash, and rush past your mother for the door. Your sister catches you before you leave, reports that minutes before you got there, some dudes came to the house looking for you and tried to bully past her, but she broke to the second door and locked them out. Sound advice nor consolation occurs to you, so you offer neither. You instead vault off the porch, dash to the park where the set hangs. You wish you could ring your father, who’d offer counsel, but since he’s in AZ, you instead buzz your Big homie. Your Big homie swoops you from the park and shuttles you over to the duplex of a chick who’s got a baby by another dude in the set. You sleep in her squalid apartment for days. You see the shooting air on the news and claim the fact they don’t list your name as a suspect as a sign of fortune. You end up at your grandparents’ house, where you stow a few days, secret till one day your aunt screams, “You gots to get outta here! I don’t want you on my couch! Don’t want you in my house!” You call an uncle and he offers to let you hide out at his place across the river in Vancouver. Over the next few days, your not-quite-flight from the law includes convincing your uncle to ferry you back to the hood to buy bud. On one of those trips, right about the time you’re about to blow one with the homies, police pull up. You think: If I run, where to? You think: Who can I call to get me? You stroll to your uncle’s car, climb in, and run down the situation. Your uncle eases away, manages a block or so before an unmarked car hits you with flashers. Your uncle, turrets blaring in his rearview, drives another half block or so and turns into the driveway of your grandfather’s house. Police cars (marked, unmarked) screech onto the scene. Officers jump out, draw guns, and bark, “HANDS OUT THE WINDOW! HANDS OUT OF THE WINDOW, NOW! GET OUT OF THE CAR! BACK UP SLOW TO THE SOUND OF MY VOICE!” You wary out of your uncle’s car to orders. Officers grab you, slam you facedown, smash knees in your back, flip you over, elbow you in the face, jerk you to your feet. They shove you into the backseat of a squad car. Your mom rushes out of the house. “Hey, that’s my son,” she says. “That’s my son.” She barges through the officers to the side of the car. She leans inside. “First thing you tell them when you get there is you want a lawyer,” she says. The first thing you do when you get to the county is slumber, hands cuffed, on a bench. A nosebleed frights you awake, and soon officers enter and lead you to an airless room. Right off, they mention your girlfriend’s name. “Who that?” you say. They say, “What happened at the park?” You say, “What park?” They say, “How do you think we knew where to come? She told us everything. And we have witnesses saying you shot the gun and she was just there.” The officers threaten to charge her if you don’t admit to the shooting, and you wonder for moments what’s the handbook rule on a girlfriend who snitched. “All right, all right,” you say. “This what happened…” The moment after you confess, you second-guess it and request a lawyer—ambivalence that you will learn makes your admission inadmissible in court. They book you on three counts of attempted murder and eight counts of unlawful use of a weapon, one count for each shell casing they found at the scene. The DA’s office charges you within the week. You own little doubt now that you’re headed to prison. The question is, for how long? You stew in the justice center for three months in a unit that houses violent criminals—kidnappers, rapists, murderers. You’re thankful you didn’t murder anyone. You’re thankful as well for the public defender who discloses you’re eligible for a new program called Closed Street, which will allow you to be released if you can find someone to post 10k for bail and offer you a safe home. A friend of the family agrees to put up the ten grand, but the day you’re supposed to get out, she reneges. You’ll find out later that the family friend believed you’d jump bail, and maybe she’s psychic because your plan was to flee and live with your father in AZ, a state you’ve been told won’t extradite. Months after your rescinded chance to blow bail, you meet with your PD to discuss deals and find out that the dudes you dumped on have been caught for another crime and assigned to him. Your PD cites a conflict of interest and decides to drop you instead of them. The court assigns your future to a private lawyer, one whose firm requires pro bono work. This new counsel don’t bother pretending overmuch concern with the outcome of your case. He reports that the DA’s first plea offer is fifteen years. Or in sentencing parlance, 180 months. Your mom pressures you to take the deal, but you do the math on how old you’ll be when you parole, and think, Fuck that! Meantime, the dudes you dumped on bail out on their new charges and ghost. Lucky you, the year before, the Supreme Court clarified the Sixth Amendment in Crawford v. Washington, so when your accusers don’t show up to testify at trial, your steeling teenage heart floats to the roof of the courthouse. The prosecutor offers a second deal of eighty-four months. “You better take this one,” your mom says. “You need to take this.” You weigh her advice, but then the DA’s office assigns your case to a new prosecutor, and you resurrect hope for an even lighter sentence. The new DA forbears you the gun minimum of five years. Or in sentencing parlance, sixty months. He sweetens the tender with credit for time served. You agree and, anxious, bide time till your sentencing date. That ominous day, bailiffs march you into the courtroom, you spot your mother, your sister, your uncle, but not a single homie from the set. Grade-school kids fidget in the benches, a scene resembling your not-that-long-ago class visit to this same courthouse. “You’re so young,” the judge says. “You do this five years, and when you get out you’ll have an opportunity to change your life. However, I’m concerned that you’re still in denial.” He peers at you, asks if you have anything you’d like to say. “Yes, Your Honor, I do,” you say. “I did it. I’m sorry I did it, and I want to accept responsibility for my actions.” Your sister leaps to her feet, screams, “Stop it. Stop it. Don’t say that. Don’t let him say that.” The judge orders her seated and his courtroom hushed. “You know, you’re either an honorable young man or an idiot,” he says. “Because I don’t have to accept the DA’s recommendation. Not when you just admitted guilt.” He calls the DA into his chambers, and you wilt, cursing yourself, refiguring how old you’ll be if he gives you the max, wondering if not the max, how long you’ll do. A century later, the judge, DA trailing him, strolls out of his chambers and assumes his throne. He lifts a gavel that turns you into the center of the world, and you hostage a deep breath while your heart plummets past the last floor of the courthouse. “Son, consider yourself fortunate,” he says. “I’ve decided to honor your plea.”