April 13, 2011
Just a few hours ago I found myself rereading James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues for probably about the 35th time. One of the reasons why I enjoy reading the story as much as I do is because it is so rich. It’s one of those stories where each time you read it you notice something amazing about it that you hadn’t noticed before.
There’s a scene in the story when the narrator goes to pick up his baby brother Sonny from jail. During the cab ride home Sonny requests that they take the scenic route because he hadn’t seen the city since he was arrested. Initially the idea appears to be a good one as they ride through an upscale section of town but ultimately they wind up driving through the same ghetto that they grew up in. It is at this moment that Baldwin provides the insight that only he can provide; “Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap.” And when I read the passage in silence I had to reread it, and then reread it yet again, and then finally I had to read it out loud.
It’s kind of wild to me that James Baldwin was calling the ghetto the trap at least 4 decades before Young Jeezy and TI ever mentioned it on a rap record. And the sheer accuracy of the metaphor is mind-boggling. How naïve are some people to actually believe that they can erase all remnants of their ghetto past by going to an elite school or marrying someone who is from a well off background? If you were raised in the ghetto then the ghetto will inevitably affect your behavior for the rest of your days even if you move out. I mean how could it not?
One thing I noticed relatively early on in my hood upbringing is that to be smart—that is to do well in school—is equal to treason. I’m not exactly sure why this is but I do know that in the 7th grade I once made the inexcusable mistake of getting a perfect report card and was traumatized by the reaction I got from my peers. I was branded a square, the worst thing a kid in an inner city public school could possibly be. In fact I was derided so relentlessly by the other kids that I ended up having to get into a fist fight to prove that I wasn’t a punk. Not only did I win the fight but I was also suspended from school for 3 day which, thank god, made me cool once again.
But the damage was already done. I immediately began to conceal my intelligence as if I were ashamed of it. And even to this day it is very rare that I will discuss my education in person. So unfortunately, even though I’ve successfully navigated through all the pitfalls of the ghetto I have left pride in my education in the same trap that James Baldwin so vividly depicted in Sonny’s Blues– a story first published in 1957.
I guess when it comes to the hood things never change.