Childhood is the time in our lives when we are meant to have two main jobs.
Our Eyes and Ears are our instructors and our imaginations are the lesson plan.
In advance I want to brace you.
I plan on being honest and not censoring what I share with you, there will be a point to the brutality and a point to the language.
I none the less will move to be thoughtful of sensibilities.
This was one of the first lessons.
Nobody even thought of using words like Policewoman or even Police Officer. 1980-80+. If a woman worked with the Police she was plainly a Meter-Maid or maybe she was part of the army of 911 Operators.
Not taught that women could not do the job, just not even conditioned to think of the question. It was simply nonsense so was never considered. My Grandmother mopped floors in the 88th Precinct in Brooklyn so I was in and out of there often as a child. I would see many White Males a few Black ones and about three Black Women in uniform. They sat at the front desk. They stocked coffee machines. They walked in with boxes filled with lunch. So...my lesson was that they were secretaries and police secretaries wore uniforms like "real" cops. It must be like "Meter-Maids" they wear uniforms like police but you could tell they were not by an additional color or oddly shaped badge.
Grand Dad on the other side was a great man and a Captain, Chief? Time has taken the rank away but the point is he was a great man and I wanted to be like him.
"They aint going to let your little Black ass be no Fireman."
My uncle, I'm 9 or 10. It's not the first time I heard it. He is not the first one to tell me this.
Sure I had NEVER seen a Black Fireman in NYC during my youth and...decades later it would be exposed that people of color were not very welcomed in the NYFD. Articles would be written on it but at that time...
I hated my Uncle. First he was a career criminal and second we were all taught NYPD/NYFD are all part of one club, one culture and if Grandpa could be a Cop then I could be one or a Fireman. I hated him in the way that children call any strong feelings of anger hate, for trying to take it from me and for trying to speak ill of Grandpa. Notice that? Any ill mention of any officer or fire fighter triggered the idea that it was an attack on my Grandpa.
HEROES AND BAD GUYS:
Cowboys & Indians.
Knights vs Moors.
Cops and Robbers.
Good Guys or Bad Guys.
Notice I did not say "and" I said "or".
Binary Choices. So unlike real life.
I am a child sitting and learning we call it playing.
I have a race track with a cop car and a black sedan of some sort. Black is the color of Bad right?
I imagine chasing the bad guys. Never did I imagine being in that black car.
Police are Good right? So naturally anything that is not police much be bad. Anything or anyone in opposition to the police must be bad.
When in danger and need help call the police. When your home is broken into you call the police. In case of emergency dial 911.
I watch the cars go around the track and I am taught there is good OR bad.
I had a remote control Fire Truck and you could extend the ladder up and down. I had lots of cool toys. I was lucky, my family had money at this time.
See that is important.
We had money so I could afford to live in a nice part of Brooklyn with other Black people of means. This was before they gentrified my world.
It's important because I, as a child, only understood the Well Off Black Experience. A world of plenty and "relative" protection from the police. An illusion of equality.
When children play they are taking in information from all around. Your kids can hear you, your friends, their uncles.
"Shit we went to Niagara Falls and call ourselves going out to get some drinks. Them Crackers chased us all the way back to the Hotel. Canada or here we still Niggers."
I didn't like the words I was hearing, even as a young child.
I was a child of the 80's not the 70's or 60's or whenever Racism was "real". They were all old and needed to let go of that. This is the age of Rock Music and Shows like Knight Rider and my favorite The Dukes of Hazzard. The General Lee was so Bad Ass! .......yeah.
I had that toy too. That cool orange car with the old American Flag on it. Yeah I had a toy with the Confederate Flag and I simply thought it was an old American Flag, like the one with the circle of stars on it. At this time I want you to know I was a smart kid. Smarter than most I dare say but I was only educated by The System. PS 11 was often the #1 school in a district of number ones. They never told me the real story of Egypt and they never told me I should not be playing with a car with the name of General Lee with a fucking Confederate Flag on it. As I mentioned I had money so I also had the nameless police car to go with it. I played with that more. One... I loved Police. Two...it had lights and a siren.
FUN & GAMES:
There was a thing called The Fresh Air Fund.
At that time I would send an Inner City Kid (Black) to a Suburban Family (White) for 1 or 2 weeks so they could get away from the city for the summer...... (I'll leave you with that.)
I went to a deeply religious family with two boys and one girl (at the time) and it was jarring and I loved it. It's important for me to show how PLAY shapes us far more than we may think.
We were playing "Star Wars Guys" and often I would be handed Lando. I really feel this was not done with any Malice on the parts of the boys, both younger than me. It was simply association for them. Lando was Brown. I was Brown. I get Lando. This is was first time it dawned on me that I was....different. Yes I knew I was Black and yes I knew different people were in the world but this was when I first started to see that I was not just a different color....but I was a different type of person and their would be rules of play based on it. I refused to play with Ladno after that. I'd grab Luke or Vader or Greedo. Nobody stopped me or tried to but I would be asked...often... "Why don't you like Lando anymore?"
I went over to their friend's house and we were all racing.
Bunch of kids and the friends of the friends, some older, teens.
This one girl was watching from their elevated deck. She was really nice to me, never met anyone from NYC before she said. I was winning the race. Maybe 11 kids and I am winning. It felt good. She was cheering for me. Then.... "Woooooo run ruuun! C'mon...... Black!" If she had forgotten any of the other kid's names I wonder what she would have called them?
This was the next but not the last lesson I would learn about the rules of play. I still loved my Summers up there.
To spite the rules of Play I got to see White People up close in my child's mind and I felt I was right. Racism was over. We ate together. Played together. I even fell for a few in the way that a 10 year old falls for girls.
So when I came home I was really made furious of any talk about oppression or the unfair treatment of Black people. People are just people and I had proof! This is also the moment when I decided I wanted to be a Policeman like my Grandpa...who had died that same year near my 10th birthday. My father was a piece of shit and his father knew it. He did all in his power to be as good to me as my father wasn't. I'd honor him by wearing the badge. This I know see distressed my Mother, "I thought you wanted to be a vet? You love Animals and could help so many of them. You could be anything you want to be I will not stop you but you have to understand that it's not..... the same for us as it is for them."
I was furious with her. I didn't say it but she knew and she never brought it up again. She would just mention she wanted me to be a vet.
I PUT AWAY CHILDISH THINGS:
The first time I ever rode in a Police car.
It's the late 80's and I am on my way from the local pharmacy. They sold Transformers. $20 got me Headstrong the Decepticon. I am a half of a block away and it's snatched from my hands and some freakishly tall kid is running down the block. I am screaming fro him to stop I am chasing him and I am shouting he has my toy. I have NO chance of catching him. Two men on the street pause, "He snatched your Bag Little Brother?" I sob yes and they took off after him. I thought the kid was fast...the two brothers that stopped to ask me over ran his ass in moments. They shouted at him and cursed him out and then they asked me what I wanted to do to him. At the time I did not grasp they were asking me if they should kick his ass or not. My answer was quick, it was the only right Answer. "Call the Police."
We ended up at the 88th Precinct.
I was in the back of a Police Car and the two officers were all smiles and jokes. I did not know why. This was funny to them. One of them took out his Nightstick and banged it on the floor of the car, "I hate kids like that. Man I just want to WHAM!" this scared me and I was not sure why. "We do not have to take him in if you want to give him a wack with my stick. He's a criminal and had no right to steal from him. You want to beat him up?"
I said no. I wanted him in jail.
They kept trying to talk me out of that and told me how he was not going to go to jail because he was so young. I should just hit him with their sticks and get even.
I said no.
This is the first and last time I will ever sit in a cop car.
So....mom comes down with me.
Everyone from the cops to my mom are telling me to just drop it.
I still say no. It's my mom's call of course but she backs me.
We are in a small room waiting and a man walks in.
He asks me if I am okay.
He asks me if I know the difference between the truth and a lie.
He asks me if I know how bad this can ruin my life and if I am sorry.....
He then asks me why I stole the toy.
My Mother loses it on the guy....this is the time I should mention that the kid that snatched my toy was a very light green eyes Latino that could "pass".
To spite my youth I grasped why this happened and why he assumed I was the thief. It also dawned on my how much this system cared, he had a file. he had my name he was given this case to represnt me and....he did not know who did or did not do the stealing.
I told my Mom I wanted to go home.
I gave up and when I went to Junior High, I ran into that kid on he lunch line. He stole my lunch tickets once.
JUST SAY NO:
Crack destroyed my Hood and My World.
My great escape was...Play.
Dungeons and Dragons, Robotech or Cyberpunk. Roleplaying games.
I guess in many ways I could have been called a Nerd. If not for my size, anger and skill in martial arts. Gangs are everywhere now. The money is gone. I am meeting people from all over, I do not go upstate anymore but I keep my nose clean. Someday I am going to be a op and I am going to bust every gang banger I come across. For now I hang out with a spattering of young Black and Latino males who live in shitholes like I do but have parents that keep them on the path. We do not hang on corners, we do not rob and steal we gather at the homes of one another and we PLAY.
I am walking to Jermaine's with a book bag full of clothes and school as well as roleplaying books.
Two cop cars pull up.
"Don't you fucking run."
I'm confused. Why would I run? I'm not a bad guy.
"Where's it at Homeboy!? Where's the shit!?"
Who says Homeboy anymore?
He hit me before he was even close enough to grab me, then he grabbed me.
"Wait! I didn't do anything. This is a mistake!"
He hit me again.
I had dreads, he grabbed a hand full of them and slammed me on the police car. Just like the one my Grandpa drove and like the ones I played with all my life. It was hot hot enough to burn. I popped up from the heat and was punched in the back, "DON'T YOU FUCKING MOVE!! WHERE'S THE SHIT!?!"
I'm about 12 or so.
"Don't cry now. You really gonna cry when you get to the booty house!"
"I didn't do anything. I'm going to a friend's house!"
Roughly they pull my bag off of my back and open it up.
Clothes are thrown on the ground after they go through the pockets.
Books are flipped through and thrown down in the street.
Side pockets are ripped open and my toothbrush and washrag are in the gutter.
"You don't have shit? You ditched it? Who you gonna to meet!?"
Two cars and four cops......one looks like me. Like my Grandpa. He says nothing and does nothing but watches.
They uncuff me and as a parting shot.
"Clean this shit up before we cite you."
This rings in my head to this day.
I told my mother.
She went down to the precinct.
I did not get a badge number.
I did not have a car number.
I got to look around in the lobby to see if I saw them there.
Well....there was nothing that could be done and I was made to understand that making a false report was a crime.
Things like this would happen more and more often the older I got. I'm also not a small man so I was not a small kid.
I never wanted to be a policemen again.
They sounds of sirens that my toys made as a child now trigger fear and anger.
The colorful reds of the firetrucks of my youth just remind me that my roommate of years past Billy Dello Russo once said, "Trust me they are not trying to have you be on their Engines if they can help it."
My toys remind me of dark times.
My toys remind me that I bought in and sold out.
My Grandpa was a great man.
Officer Pedro Serrano is a great man.
Officer Douglas Zeigler is a great man.
Officer Cariol Horne is a great woman.
The list goes on and on and on but the fact is....the list of dead people are longer.
I am not my Uncles.
Grandpa is not Jeronimo Yanez.
All police are not the murders and killers they get away with it over and over.
All Firefighters are not the trash Paul Smith that keeps a list of, in his words, "No good Niggers."
But the list of the ones that are is too...damn...long.
~ Malaki Hill
AIM, DESTROY, TRANSFORM: Play For Change: A group show of toys, games and figures at Medialia Gallery