We Still Wear the Mask
I remember starring in the mirror trying to emotionally prepare myself to lay my one time play brother down to eternal rest; my responsibility as one of the pall bearers. For it was a week after my friend Sean Scott had been shot to death in a triple murder on 68th Avenue in East Oakland. He died on Sunday December 18, 2005. We were both only 23 years old.
I put a lot of energy into keeping my tears inside and not breaking down, feeling as though somehow my manhood depended on it. It was as though each tear that I let go symbolized weakness, and even though I was going to a funeral I still did not want to look weak.
After several minutes of looking at my face in the mirror in an attempt to gather myself, I realized there was no way I could do this alone.
Sean and I had gone to elementary, junior high, and high school together. When Sean invited all the boys in Mr. Walls 5th grade class to a sleep over at his house I was the only one that actually came. Sean, his little brother and I stayed up all night prank calling his older brother’s girlfriend and playing his new Sega, Genesis. But now he was dead and I felt like there was no one there to feel me. So I turned to the man that millions of confused and distraught young black men turn to when no one else understands our pain.
I slowly spun my CD rack around until I found him; Tupac Shakur. I put in his All Eyes on Me album and flipped to a song called “Life Goes On.” In the first verse of the song Pac rhymes to his dead friends about how life on Earth remains, and in the last verse he gives a detailed description of how he wants his funeral to be. It is only after this verse that Pac speaks without rhythm or rhyme. He speaks directly to the dead as if he is walking through a cemetery. He says; “Last year we poured out liquor for you, but this year…life goes on.”
Like a deacon in church who is reassured by the power and eloquence of his pastor’s voice I derived strength from Tupac’s sermon. If only I can make it through this year I will be OK I thought as I headed to Acts Full Gospel church for the funeral service.
It has been nearly three years and I as well as those who were closest to Sean are just as affected by his death as we were when we last saw him; His head was misshapen and badly swollen as it laid against the eerily white lining of his oak casket.
It dawns on me now that Tupac lied about this one. Life does not merely go on. It inches forward slowly before jumping right back to December of 2005.
“It’s gotten worse. Way worse,” were the first words that Farley Smith, one of Sean’s best friends up until his death, said to me.
We walked out of a mutual friend’s San Leandro apartment while he and others drank Patron Silver Tequila and played John Madden football on a big screen television. It was 1:30pm on a Friday afternoon.
“You know I still be thinking about it a lot of the time. Every day you know what I’m saying. I ain’t never gone be the same just cause we go way back….I’m so used to seeing him every day now that he gone you still can’t believe it, like it’s a dream, you feel me?”
As we sat in my silver Honda parked in the front of the apartment complex Far spoke to me stoically with long pauses separating his thoughts. He wore a black Yankees cap, black tennis shoes, and baggy blue jeans. Back in the day when we picked on Far in football practice or at school it was either about his dark complexion or his slender frame. Now I looked over at his chubby face in my passenger seat and could not help but to notice his belly slightly protruding from his long black T-shirt. On the right side of his neck there was a barely visible tattoo of his daughter’s name.
The conversation became uncomfortable and the more questions I asked him the shorter his answers became. Initially I pointed at our coming up in the notoriously violent city of Oakland as to why Far had very little to say about Sean. With a population of just less than 400,000 Oakland recorded 127 homicides in 2007. This in stark contrast to San Francisco which has 746,000 residents but only recorded 98 homicides. The almost expressionless face that Far wore spoke of a man who had grown up in a town (or perhaps belonged to a generation) in which murder and gun violence has been completely normalized. It was only after we got out of my car that I looked deeper and realized that his demeanor for most of the interview had been a façade to hide his true feelings; it had to be.
Sean, Farley, and I have known each other since Sean transferred to our elementary school. We remained close through junior high school and by the 10th grade we were all on the starting defense of our junior varsity football team. I (the least athletic by far) played left corner, Farley the big hitter played free safety, and Sean although small in stature was a major force at outside linebacker. Sean was quick and played the game intelligently. He always put himself in a position to make a play on the ball. Like when we played against Logan High School and he dropped back into pass coverage, grabbed an interception, and took it the distance for a touchdown. Sean was determined to play in the NFL.
A few days after the touchdown coach interrupted practice to read off a list of about six names. Among them were Sean Scott and Farley Smith. The list was the players who were academically ineligible based on their final semester grades at their junior high schools. All six were excused from the team. The next season I played varsity but Sean and Far never played again.
While expelled from the team they grew even closer than before. They cut school together and smoked weed daily. Neither of them graduated from high school. When I would ride through the neighborhood while in college I remember always seeing them posted on 90th and Macarthur Blvd. I would stop for a moment to catch up on things then be on my way. Telling them peace and giving them shoulder hugs before driving off and letting them get back to making their money.
Although Sean and I never fought or had a major argument the truth is that we fell off years before his murder. In the final years preceding his death it became clear to me that all we had left in common was shared memories. But he and Farley had gone down the same path. Far had seen him just days before he got killed so I figured it had to be eating him up inside. The last question I hesitantly asked him was whether he had ever chosen to seek professional help.
“Naw,” he said. His quickest response yet.
“It ain’t got that bad.”
Gerald Chambers a leading counselor who works with the West Oakland Mental Health Clinic sees this attitude often in people that come in for treatment. Most of whom only see him because of a court order stating that if they do not attend his class then they will be immediately placed back in custody.
“Therapy for most African-Americans is not a value and part of that is poverty and another part of it is the legacy of slavery,” Mr. Chambers explained. “Blacks were considered chattel and their emotional lives were never cultivated. Part of slavery was to dismantle our attachment system. There is nothing wrong with us we just live in a condition that is not conducive to mental health.”
While talking to Mr. Chambers—a 49 year old black male with a smooth deep voice reminiscent of a DJ on KBLX—I thought about myself not wanting to cry on the day of Sean’s funeral and Farley’s tough visage that was impossible for me to crack. Mr. Chambers had a theory as to why this is as well; “For many African-American [males] mental health has been feminized…as well as talking about feelings, being intimate with someone without being sexual, and asking for help.
In our environment it’s necessary and even beneficial to not show how you feel…many of our communities are predatory. You might get bullied or called a faggot or a bitch. So we develop a mask and …it’s appropriate to have a mask but at some point you have to [take it off].”
Mr. Chambers’ use of the mask as a metaphor reminded me of the poem with the same title written by the great Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
His masterpiece in three stanzas speaks of the dual consciousness that African-Americans must develop in order to function in the white world.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
Over a hundred years after the poem was written and almost three years after Sean’s death we still seem to be hiding. It is just that some of us do a better job at it than others.
I was extremely grateful that Chris Johnson and Ryan Scott, Sean’s older and younger brother, agreed to speak with me about something so personal. Especially since I hadn’t seen either one of them in over a year. When I pulled up to their apartment on 104th Avenue around 8:30pm I saw Ryan standing in the driveway. His dreadlocks wrapped behind his head with a rubber band, a half smoked cigarette in one hand and a plastic cup a quarter full of UV vodka in the other. We chatted momentarily while he finished his drink, then he led me into their downstairs apartment.
There was a keyboard in the corner that they used to make hip-hop beats and recordings, and an ironing board against the wall. Chris’s five year old daughter (the youngest of his three girls) slept in the bedroom while Chris himself slept in a comfy looking chair a few feet away from a floor model television. He woke up when I walked in. Ryan poured another drink and sat on the couch.
When I spoke to Ryan over the phone I asked what he had been up to and he replied, staying out the way. Now that he we were both in the same room I decided to ask him what he meant by that statement.
“I’m working right now and what I mean by staying out the way is keeping my job. You know just trying to keep things going right in my life trying to aim higher than what I was doing towards the time my brother got killed. I was in the streets you know selling drugs and basically I’m not trying to go back to that right now.”
As Ryan spoke in a confident matter of fact tone I suddenly realized that he is now 23 years old. The exact same age that his brother was when he was murdered. As he took another sip from his cup I wondered how often that crossed his mind.
Sean’s older brother Chris, who is 32 years old, sat up in his chair when the interview began and leaned forward letting his intertwined fingers fall between his knees. He wore a shirt around his head with the words Laid Back (his stage name) airbrushed across the front. I was curious to know how he had been dealing with the murder now versus when it first happened.
“It’s just internal you feel me. You know life goes on but I still suffer you know what I’m saying. Like me, I lost my job so I’m struggling trying to get back on another job. The certain state of mind you in could put you back in that mode, could make you look back on everything you know what I’m saying and that’s just one of the things that’s included in that. I ain’t gone lie I feel kind of like crazy, like man fuck do I still want to be here.”
The conversation continued as if Chris hadn’t said what he had just said. Part of me wanted to move on with the interview and sustain the easy nonthreatening tone that the discussion had assumed. But then another part of me felt a strong obligation to return to what hurts us the most. I asked Chris what he meant by does he still want to be here. He smiled briefly before lethargically shaking his head. He spoke as if he wasn’t talking to anyone in particular but rather to anyone who would listen.
“I mean the shit is so crazy I mean I don’t know just from dealing with hella shit. I mean sometimes I really do feel like that. Like I don’t even want to be here. If it wasn’t for my kids and my family and everything, but…excuse me for a minute.”
I looked up and both Ryan and Chris held their heads in their hands as they cried, disallowing me to see their faces. Silence reverberated throughout the room. I thought about Sean and how I had only saw him cry one time and that was in the 3rd grade. It was a year to the date after his father had died. I never got a chance to ask him the cause of his father’s death because it never came up again. From then on every time I saw Sean he was smiling, laughing, and cracking jokes on people. Talking about how fat someone was, how ugly, how badly they needed a haircut. And when him and Farley were together it was really all over. They would make me laugh so hard I couldn’t stand up. There was no way one could be depressed around Sean, but since he’s been gone depression has become an almost daily part of my life.
I concluded the interview by reiterating a previous question. I asked whether their emotions had improved since the murder or gotten worse.
“I would say the same,” Chris said “it ain’t more so on the outside it’s just on the inside.”
After the interview I stayed and we chatted for a long while about changes in Oakland such as the popular decline of the sideshow. As I spoke to them I couldn’t stop thinking about my own pain that I kept trapped inside and how that affects my mental and emotional health. I’m a 26 year old full time graduate student with a lovely daughter and a promising future. I don’t hang out on the block; I don’t do drugs or run with a criminal element, yet often times I can’t sleep. I lay in bed scared that the next time I leave my house someone might murder me. It is an ever present fear, or maybe even a paranoia, that I never allow myself to express to anyone because doing so would require me to take off my own mask and reveal to the world how vulnerable I really am.
After a while I had to leave their apartment. As I said goodbye to Chris and thanked him, Ryan walked out to the front door and began to smoke another cigarette. When I came out I shook his hand while pulling his shoulder into mine. Before I could express my gratitude for the interview he said;
“Thanks for doing this blood, cause we don’t never talk about that.”
All I could manage to say in response was;
“Naw, we don’t.”
I then got in my car and drove home.
This piece was originally written in November of 2008.