She Spat In My Face

She spat in my face.

It was a mist. It caught everything from my left ear to the left side of my lip.

Random white woman spit.

Racism exists… 

I left the store, and hopped on my bike with a 6-pack of beer and a plan. I did upwards of 20mph in the bike lane on Grand Ave in Oakland’s Adams Point Neighborhood; 6-pack in my right hand. Focused on getting to the house party and not dropping the beer.

A college classmate, D’Auria Henry was waiting on me about a block away from the house party we were set to attend. When I got to D’Auria’s car she hopped out and noticed I had on my Howard University sweatshirt. She said she doesn’t travel without hers, reached into the car and grabbed her garment. After grabbing the threads from her car, she reached in again to grab a dish of banana a pudding that she had prepared for the potluck/ party we were set to attend.

As she reached in the car, a white lady– 5’6 with matted black hair and a backpack, came walking past. The lady said, “I’ll throw a flower at you!” As she announced her action, she stayed true to her word. She tossed a flower in D’Auria’s direction. I saw it all happen. Didn’t flinch. I laughed– or better yet: I silently chucked and smirked.

The lady continued toward me.

I stood on the street-side of the sidewalk, straddling my bike. The lady walked on the building side of the sidewalk.

There was enough room on the concrete for her, or any normal person to walk by. A sizable amount of space didn’t prove to be enough. As she crossed my path, she waited until she was completely adjacent to me. Left side. Further than my arm’s reach, but close enough for the stretch of saliva.

She spat on me. 

I don’t remember the obscenity she said as she did it. I’ll never forget the shock hitting my stomach, nor the spit hitting my face. I was frozen. She took another step. She was now on my blindside, almost completely behind me.

I turned away from her. Toward the street. Still straddling my bike and holding my beer in my right hand.

I turned 180º. Not thinking. Reacting. I reeled around and launched my 6-pack of beer like a discus towards her. She was now about two or three steps past me.

My backwards frisbee toss of a 6-pack of beer connected. It hit her left side–gently. And then the entire case crashed to the concrete. Shards of glass and beer suds scattered.

Broken beer bottles
Broken beer bottles

That wasn’t sufficient. I dropped my bike.

I started after her. Taking took two or three steps in her direction “You spat in my fucking face!!!” I was yelling. I don’t yell often. When I do: I YELL!

She looked back at me, as her body gained momentum in the opposing direction.

Going from a walk, to a light jog and then a full run– she looked back at me and said: “You’re a fucking racist!”

I stopped. Right then and there: I was guilty.

I was guilty of being a racist. Assault with a deadly weapon. Armed robbery. Attempted homicide, kidnap, rape… whatever she wanted to throw at me.

If an officer had rolled around that corner at that very moment, it is very likely that I would have been arrested. If not shot.

She spat in my face. It hit my ear, my cheek … my lip.

I didn’t see it coming . Didn’t provoke it.

I was just straddling my bike. Headed to a party on a Saturday night:

In pursuit of my happiness.

… And then she spat on me. 

But I was racist.

I went back, grabbed my bike, used my undershirt to wipe my face; but I couldn’t wipe away the thoughts.

In many ways, African American culture is a reaction to being spit on. Many aspects of Black culture, both good and bad, are a direct reaction to the predicament we have been placed in as a people.

That Howard sweatshirt. That soul food dish. They are symbolic of African Americans getting disrespected, and then reacting in a way that is beneficial to us (and the larger society).

My violent reaction and vulgar language were an example of  what it means to be disrespected, and then reacting in a way that is detrimental to myself (and the larger society, maybe).

(Maybe it benefits the larger society if I choose the detrimental route… hmmmm…)

This combined with the stories I’ve been reading and writing about all summer: Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. Alameda County Probation and San Quentin Prison. Homicides of old ladies and little babies. It’s like turning on the TV or looking at a movie screen and getting spit on. And then walking outside and getting spit on.

We have to choose how to react.   

Racism is only a belief. Racism is only a belief.

Racism is only a belief… until it manifests in the streets.

D’Auria lightheartedly said, “that crazy white lady wasn’t that crazy: she was smart enough to run!”

We laughed it off, purchased some replacement beer from Whole Foods and started toward the party. Passing back over the scene of the crime, I stopped to kick the shattered glass off the sidewalk and into the street. A Caucasian couple walked past. The lady of the duo thanked me for cleaning up the neighborhood. I laughed silently,told the couple to have a good evening, and then took off to my destination.

Just before D’Auria and I entered the house party, she looked down on the pavement: she found $60 folded on the ground. We split it.

My beer money was restored, and so was my understanding of racism.

God bless America.  

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Prison Only Exists in The Mind: Meeting My Father For The First Time.

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I looked at the reflection of my 24-year old face in the hand mirror. I was in a barbershop in downtown Oakland analyzing my fresh cut, as I told the gentlemen in the room of my upcoming journey.

It had been about 18 years since I had seen my ole man.

He and my mother had been separated for over 19 years.

A recent arrest left him incarcerated in Alabama, facing up to 20 years.

I hopped out of the barber’s chair and it was confirmed: my hair was indeed thinning at the corners. Another one of God’s clever jokes: give the bighead kid a receding hairline.

That was the final line. I had to have my question answered: Is my biological father where I got my bighead? Is he as short as I am? Is he charming and good looking, like myself?

I bounced out that barber’s chair and setout on a journey.

A 4-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago, a 12-hour road trip with a friend, from Chicago to Alabama, just to speak to my father for 90 minutes in an Alabaman prison.

We crossed the Blue River, the Red river, and the White River as we drove through America’s heartland. Our trek lead us through the flatlands of Indiana and the Mountainous terrain of Tennessee.

The drive from Chicago to Alabama on Good Friday was a breeze.

There’s truth to the Billie Holiday song, “Stars Fell on Alabama”, the southern night sky proved it. It had been 18 years since I had seen my ole man, and the billions of stars overhead became meek in comparison to the zillions of thoughts running through my mind as I sat in a hotel parking lot in Birmingham the night before the meeting with him.

My mother and father separated when I was three. I visited Alabama as kid, but from the time I was six until the time I was about 23, I had spoken to him only a handful of times; and not seen him since that last visit to the South. Most recently, I had gotten in contact with him through his brother, my uncle Erick, who I met via facebook in 2011. My father and I exchanged phone calls and letters; the last of which resulted in the words: “please don’t write back” written boldly on a piece of paper addressed from him to me.

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… this is what I was thinking as I looked at the stars…

The following morning I continued to think about all of this as I waited to meet up with my uncle in a Winn-Dixie parking lot. I drove behind him as we made our way to the State Facility just outside of Montgomery, AL on the Saturday prior to Easter.

I wanted to take pictures, but the guards at the jail informed me that nothing but my ID and car keys were allowed inside the jail; and that I would have to change my shirt: my white-T was too similar to the ones the prisoners wore.

Upon entering the small meeting room, I shook my fathers hand. There was no glass to separate us like on the movies. I sat adjacent to him. He wore glasses when we initially shook hands, and took them off as we delved into our meeting. It was history lessons, light humor, and talks of spiritual growth; it felt like a nonprofit board meeting. It was a stiff room. We we’re two Black men from the hood- and Cancers at that, which means no emotions shall be shown, no matter the circumstance.

“I don’t think I can cry- my tear ducts don’t work.” He literally said that as he described the conditions inside the prison. He said he had seen a man get stabbed just last week. He was solemn, calm, and very centered as he spoke about the incident.

He had been incarcerated for a number of months; it was his second time being in prison. He hadn’t yet been sentenced, but given his charge, he could be facing up to 20 years behind bars.

He was forced to face the window, in plain sight of the officer overseeing our conversation as we sat in that small blandly colored room. We talked about life: His life. My life. The meaning of life.

He showed me his only tattoo, a prison tat on his chest which read “Isaiah 10:13”. We recapped his childhood and his turbulent teens. We discussed the breakup between he and my mom, and how is addiction to crack cocaine pushed her further away. We talked about regrets and what could have been. We mentioned the future, and what will be if we choose to work towards it. We laughed about the origins and the ironies of our shared first name “Pendarvis”. We conversed for an hour and a half. But it seemed more like half an hour. The meeting concluded, and I was escorted out the prison.

The image of him remains with me. His rigid mannerisms- stiff moving, like he just worked out. His height, he is 4 inches taller than I. His hair, he had waves and salt-and-pepper sprinkles of grey… I have waves too- but I’d much rather have grey hairs than this receding hairline.

His skin tone was brown with a hint of red; kind of like the Alabama clay in the morning sun. He had high cheek bones- like my sister. He had an aura of centeredness, calmness, and spoke with eloquence. That reminded me of myself.

I left out of the jail and took one photo of the outside of the facility. The correctional officers barked at me for doing it, and asked me to leave the primacies.

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I left abruptly. I had regrets about questions I didn’t ask and words I didn’t say. I wanted to continue the conversation with my father, but I didn’t want to spend another minute in jail.

… Aside from my reflections of his image, six simple words stuck with me: “Prison only exists in the mind.”

He nonchalantly stated this profound sentiment, and subsequently admitted that he has now become a poet.

“Prison only exists in the mind.” A sentiment I had heard before, but it resonated much more, coming from someone on this side of the fence.

He expressed that he would’ve loved to have been with my sister and I during our upbringing; but I could tell the deepest regret was losing the love of his life, my mother.

Four days later I was back at my mother’s house in California, a letter from that jail cell in Alabama was waiting for me. He wrote me the day I left. In the letter he thanked me for traveling to see him, congratulated me on my accomplishments, and asked that I never come to see him in prison again- he stated that being seen in a prison is not the only memory he’d like for me to have of him.

He told me that prison only exists in the mind. Although those profound words came from a man physically sitting behind bars, I don’t believe it.

If nothing else, this experience has shown me that prison is not just a place where you do time or something confining you within your mind. No… Prison also exists in the heart. And the deepest darkest prison a man can be confined to: The regret of a love lost.

Ghana Represented.

On Saturday June 26th Ghana’s National team played against team USA, a Second Round World Cup match-up, and the world was watching… even the USA.  As I walked through the streets of Oakland, Ca, I overheard a man say something about how America will only appreciate the USA’s soccer team while the spotlight is on the World Cup, while Ghana’s National team will forever be legends in Ghana. And that was before Ghana won.

Ghana scored early. They dominated the USA team throughout. And in the end, the team sporting one Black star on their jersey’s punched an extra-time goal in the net to send the team from the USA, and all of its 50 stars packing. It was a complete game on Ghana’s part. It was a valiant effort on team USA’s part. It was a game that I’m sure the entire continent of Africa can appreciate on some level, and a game I could sincerely appreciate on all levels.

As Ghana advanced to the Semi- Final round, they represented more than just the last team from an African Nation remaining in the tournament: they represented the 1st free African Nation. They represented Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah. They represented the ancestors of African-American that had went through the door of no return in the Elmina slave dungeon. They represented… hey, they just straight –up got out there and represented.

I went to Ghana when I was 17, it was my first trip outside of the United States. And back then, for all I knew, certain streets in the capitol city of Accra could have been avenues in Atlanta, Georgia. Alright, so I’m being facetious; but the connection between the way of life I saw in Accra, and my life America ran deeper than our common skin tone.

The deep faith in Christianity, the superficial obsession with image, and evidence of rap music’s influence were all embedded in the culture! Oh, and of course the obvious cultural connection: sports!

The entire time I was in Ghana, I can recall people listening to soccer on the radio, and that wasn’t even during the World Cup. And my random eavesdropping is evidence that people in American are watching and talking about soccer.

Well, they were, before team USA lost. Now, I wonder how many World Cup related conversations will be overheard on the streets of the United States? One thing is for sure, those streets in Accra that I thought looked like Atlanta- for years to come, those streets will resonate with conversations of how Ghana’s legendary 2010 World Cup team went down to South Africa and represented.