Uncle Red

Here is my piece from the recent published anthology by Ajuan Mance entitled “1001 Black Men: Portraits of Masculinity at the Intersection.”


Joe Camel was everywhere when I was a child. He was on television, he was on bus stop benches, and he was selling cigarettes on billboards in the same manner that Billy Dee Williams was hawking Colt 45. This was the late 1980s which represented the last days that such blatant targeted advertisements would be allowed in the African-American community. My childhood was impacted by Joe Camel in the same way that kids of today are being impacted by Blueberry vape pens. The drawing of Joe Camel smoking a cigarette as he played a game of pool was hella fly to me. In my young preadolescent opinion, even though he didn’t speak, he was the dopest cartoon image ever. He had more charisma than Bugs Bunny and was a bigger boss than Leonardo from the Ninja turtles. Even more significant than that was the fact that he was the mascot for my Uncle Red’s preferred brand of smokes. Which meant that he was present at my grandmother’s house, family get togethers, or where ever my uncle happened to be.

When I was little I thought my Uncle Red was the coolest man in the world. Partly because he had been to prison and partly because he used to be a pimp, but really because he smoked Camel cigarettes. He would blow smoke rings in the backroom of my grandmother’s house and let the kids break them up with our fingers. He had a thousand stories and never told the same one twice. In retrospect all of them were wildly inappropriate for a boy in elementary school to hear, but I still soaked up all of his game like a sponge. Anytime I was able to walk with him down 3rd Street in the Bayview section of San Francisco or down E14th in East Oakland it was like basking in the light of a celebrity.

 Uncle Red is sure to walk on the outside of me and my cousins so that he is the one closest to the traffic. He lets us run to the corner while he stays behind with a Camel cigarette pursed in between his lips. We make it to the corner and stop to wait for him before we cross the street. I turn around totally out of breath and look back at my uncle who is taking out his lighter to light up another cigarette. He is wearing white leather platform shoes, white bell bottoms, a white button up shirt, a white blazer, and a nappy chest. His hair is combed back. His hairline is barely receding. The sun catches his bronze complected face in a way that makes him look like a mixture of Goldy from The Mack and Joe Camel himself. By the time he catches up with us we have caught our breath. We walk together across the street and into the liquor store where I get animal crackers and a soda. My cousins get Lemonheads, Jolly Ranchers, and Funyuns. My uncle asks for Camel Menthols which are behind the counter. Uncle Red pays for everything. While he steps out of the door he flicks his cigarette butt onto the concrete and I run to step on it first. He opens up the new box of Camel Menthols and shakes another cigarette into his palm, then he places it into his mouth. My cousins and I run ahead to the next corner and I am in the lead.  

My uncle went to prison fairly often for drug related offenses. When he was granted parole he went straight from San Quentin to my grandmother’s house where his shoe collection was there waiting for his release. He had snake skin boots, gator skin shoes, suede platforms,  and loafers of every imaginable color. Most of them were still in their boxes in my grandmother’s backroom. The backroom at my grandmother’s house was central to family life because that was where the television was located. There was another television in the living room, but we couldn’t watch that one. The living room was just for show. It had plastic seat covers on all of the furniture and if it wasn’t a very special occasion my grandmother would slap you for setting your foot in there. So we would watch tv with my Uncle Red in “his room.” 

On this particular day he is fidgety and slightly annoyed. He taps his box of Camels but it is empty. He then takes a deep breath, curses, and asks my sister to go to the corner store and buy him some smokes. My sister is 12-years-old. I am 8. He gives us enough money to buy some candy with the change and we’re off. We walk down Shafter Avenue to get to 3rd Street where the Arab store is. We bring our candy to the register. My sister asks for a pack of Camel menthols. The Arab man behind the counter tells her that she is too young. She replies that they’re not for her. They’re for her uncle. The Arab man says that she needs a note. We go back to my grandmother’s house and tell Uncle Red. He says to my sister “Well write a note.” My sister writes a note in her very best cursive handwriting and signs my uncle’s name on the bottom of it. We go back to the corner store and purchase the cigarettes without a problem.

Over the next few decades there would be a justifiable war on cigarettes and the harm that they had done to generations of people. They would be exposed for lying about all of the health risks that their products cause and for specifically marketing menthols—which is the most addictive form of cigarette—to the African-American community. Billboards and commercials promoting tobacco products would be strictly prohibited. Joe Camel became a relic and places of business that sold cigarettes to minors would face serious sanctions. My grandmother passed away in 2016 and the family lost her home in the Bayview. My uncle, however, is still going.

About a year ago I saw him on Macarthur Boulevard in Oakland. He had checked himself into a program for drug addiction. The program was run through a church. I passed the church and saw him standing out front. He had finally given up the bell bottoms and the platforms for blue jeans and sneakers. Yet he still was wearing a button up shirt and had a nappy chest. I pulled over and called him to my car. I got out and hugged him in the street. He said he was proud of me and he meant it. I told him that I was proud of him too and I thanked him for always making me feel safe as a child. We reminisced for a minute and laughed, but he looked incomplete. When I was about to get in my car to leave he stopped me. 

“Say nephew. Do you have some change? I need some smokes.”

“For sure,” I said with no hesitation.

I gave him a bill and then gave him another hug. As I drove off I saw him walking toward the corner store in my rearview mirror. I sped through the green light at the corner.  

-Roger Porter

College Bound Brotherhood Recognizes Its Latest Graduates At Oakland Event

Roger Porter

June 10, 2011

Note: Here is a piece that I wrote for www.oaklandlocal.com that was published today. Just to let you all know I do write about positive things from time to time, though I try not to. LOL.


As I walked down Oak Street on my way to attend the College Bound Brotherhood Graduation Celebration earlier this week, I met a young man named Charles Breed who was heading to the same destination.

He wore his hat to the back and walked in the slow, cool, strut that seems to be unique to African-American males. Charles, along with 65 graduating seniors from Bay Area high schools, was being honored at the annual event held at the Oakland Museum. When I asked him what the evening meant to him, however, he was at a loss for words.

That’s when his aunt who accompanied him could not help but to jump in:

“I registered him for this event because it’s a milestone. He is the first,” she slowed her speech down for emphasis “man in the entire family to graduate from high school.”

Now Charles who 30 seconds ago was the epitome of cool could scarcely conceal his grin as he blushed and looked away.

The Wednesday evening graduation, which was hosted by the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, was created to celebrate the young black men in the Bay Area who graduated from high school and plan on attending college in the fall despite the abysmal statistics. Statistics such as only 11 percent of the black males who graduate from high school in the San Francisco Bay Area have the courses and grades required to attend a California university.

The young men who participated in the ceremony were given a $100 stipend along with a first class celebration. Karen Bevels catered the banquet portion of the event and soul food was definitely on the menu. There were chicken strips, greens and macaroni and cheese. The vibe was extremely positive as predominately young black people milled around the room in business attire and dress clothes. The scene stood in stark contrast to the murderous war torn Oakland, which is consistently depicted in the media.

Akili Terry, a sophomore at Marin Catholic High School who helped out at the event, captured this misrepresentation perfectly when he said, “Everybody in the hood don’t smoke, drink or get hyphy but we do have that spirit.”

That spirit was on full display while an African drum procession led the large gathering of graduates, friends and family into the auditorium for the ceremony. It was there that Jahsiri Asabi-Shakir a graduating senior from Bentley High School gave a riveting performance of a poem that he penned himself called “Skin tone.” It’s no wonder that Jahsiri will be attending the prestigious Morehouse College in the fall.

The keynote speaker was Lloyd Pierce, an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors. And he was on point with his address: He simply challenged all of the graduates to look toward the future and told them “to be better than you are right now.”

His brief, yet powerful, speech seemed to resonate with the students as they took the stage and announced where they planned on attending college and their intended major. Each of them strolled across the stage exuding the confidence of a man who made it even though all the odds were against him. They all possessed an undeniable swagger – a swagger that seems to be unique to African-American males.

The Primal Scene

Roger Porter

April 30, 2011

Me and my cousin are 11-years-old. We are lying down in his room, he is on his bed and I am on the floor. We are both recuperating from our first full week of football practice.

“You think we gone make the team?” My voice seems to carry quicker through the darkness. “Yeah we both gone make the team.” He responds confidently as if he has inside information from the coaches. Right then my uncle bursts into the room wearing Gazelle sunglasses, a white tank top, boxers, and green Pumas with fat laces (even though it’s the mid 1990’s not the 80’s).

“Hey,” he says in his deepest voice. His speech slightly slurred and a camel cigarette behind his right ear. “If ya’ll hear something going on in the living room don’t worry about it just go on back to sleep. And uh, if ya’ll got to go to the bathroom then go right now cause me and Precious gone need some privacy.”

We each pull our blankets over our heads and giggle. Precious is his longtime girlfriend—his main chick. Together they made my little cousin so we know they had sex, but to see my Uncle’s compact muscular frame in his underwear announcing to us that he is about to get some was ridiculously funny. “Alright, man down,” are his final words to us before he closes the door.

I couldn’t imagine him making that announcement before we started playing football. His son signing up for youth football seemed to be the best thing that had happened to him since he had children. Five total but only one boy. He was once a star running back at Southern University and he always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. So he videotaped our first day of practice and bought us catfish and French fries afterwards. He told us some of his old football stories and for the first time in our lives he treated us like men and not children.

We stayed awake listening to Precious’s high pitched half screams and my Uncle’s loud panting that followed. Our white teeth glowed in the darkness of that small room as we tried to feel vicariously what they felt.

The Death of a Father

Roger Porter

It’s early November 2010 and finally after months of me complaining about seeing her ride through my hood with her new boyfriend, but never coming by to say hello, my cousin pulls into my driveway with her two young daughters in the backseat and her boyfriend in the front. She gets out of the car and we begin to catch up.

She asks me whether or not my daughter is in the house and I tell her no. Her daughters, ages 3 and 5, say they want to go see the pit bull behind my neighbor’s gate down the street, but every time we make it halfway they both scream “Noooo!” and scramble back to the car.

My cousin asks me about amateur boxing; how can she sign up, when my next fight is and why she wasn’t invited to any of my other ones. Her boyfriend asks me if I mind him smoking in front of my house and I tell him yes. He’s slightly irritated, but he understands. So my cousin and I continue to converse until we notice a car creeping up the block.

The driver is a light-skinned man with a slight build and small afro who sticks his head out of the window to survey the scene. My cousin stops talking and halfway rolls her eyes;

“That’s Sa’rye’s daddy.”

The man gets out of the car and as he approaches I think about the drama that may unfold. I mean here was his ex-girlfriend talking to two guys who he doesn’t know while his 3-year-old daughter is playing in front of some house in East Oakland that he’s never been to. I notice my cousin’s new boyfriend tense up a bit as he sits in the passenger seat with the door open and his right leg hanging out of the car. He watches the scene from the rearview mirror. The man crosses the curb and steps onto my lawn and I can’t help but to wonder how I would handle the situation if I were him.

He picks up his daughter without even acknowledging anything else.

“Hey Daddy!” Sa’rye screams in excitement.

I introduce myself to him and he tells me his name is Darryl and shakes my hand. He then tells his daughter that he is on his way to work, but will see her later before kissing her on the cheek. He says peace to us, heads back to his car and drives off. While he’s leaving I say to myself, “Wow, that’s exactly how I would have handled that situation.” Meanwhile the girls keep playing, my cousin and I resume our conversation and her new boyfriend relaxes once again in the passenger seat of her car.

A few months later my cousin called me to see how I was doing. I told her our grandmother was in the hospital and then she told me about drama at her job. We talked about our daughters and how they need to grow up around one another like we did.

Then she paused and said, almost as an afterthought: “You know Sa’rye daddy got killed right?”

“Naw, I didn’t,” I replied. “That was the one I met right?”

“Yeah, he got killed at the liquor store right down the street from your house.”

And then she spoke to me of no arrests being made in the murder, that it happened on Dec. 18 and that she suspects it was probably some youngsters trying to earn stripes, all in an extremely detached tone. A tone that conveyed 30 years of ghetto conditioning.

I listened to her as she told me that he had been robbed in the month leading up to his murder and that some men who stood on a local corner resented the fact that he had 20-inch rims on his black Infinity and that he was relatively new to the neighborhood. It didn’t matter to them that he earned the money by working at a hotel or that he wasn’t involved in the street life at all. They looked at Darryl as being an easy mark so they went after him. In the final weeks of his life he began to develop very real premonitions of his murder. So much so, my cousin went on, that on at least one occasion he asked to spend the night at her house just so he could be under the same roof as his daughter.

My cousin thought this was a bizarre request considering they were no longer in a relationship and that she was now heavily involved in a new one. I could tell that of all the things that occurred in the time leading up to Darryl’s death this puzzled her more than anything else. For myself, on the other hand, I couldn’t have related to him more.

My two-year relationship with my girlfriend was already rocky by the time my daughter was born during my senior year in college. But when my little girl entered the world, I became determined to make things work so I asked my girlfriend to move in with me. And even if the relationship was clearly failing I was still determined to put up the best front for my child so that she could enjoy the luxury of growing up in a two-parent household – something that I never experienced.

On the contrary, my girlfriend wasn’t nearly as delusional. After about five months of extreme tension, very little conversation and no affection – except for the shared but ultimately separate love that we had for our daughter – she came to me suggesting that we break up. I didn’t disagree. As a matter of fact, I felt really relieved until she told me that she would be moving out, which, of course, meant that she would be taking our daughter with her.

I tried to talk her out of leaving to no avail. Next, I tried to get her father to talk her into staying, but not staying in the relationship, just staying in the house so I could come home to my daughter every day. He thought the idea was ridiculous.

“What if one of ya’ll wanna bring somebody else home?” he asked.

I thought about it for a minute, but couldn’t come up with a response.

So no more than 48 hours after we broke up all of my daughter’s and ex-girlfriends things were being loaded into a truck. I made sure that I wasn’t home when she moved out. I didn’t want to deal with it so I stayed at the campus library and studied all day and deep into the night. By the time I got home and stepped in the door, I immediately felt the emptiness and was almost sickened by the silence. I made my way to the room where my baby used to sleep and was incredulous to see the crib still there, fully intact.

As it turned out they didn’t bring the tools to dismantle it so they had to leave it there for a few more days. As I approached it I could still hear my daughter cooing while slapping the thin mattress. I could see her as she pushed up on her stomach like a baby seal at the Pier. But when I looked over the upraised sides and into the crib the only thing I saw was a Winnie the Pooh bedspread and a set of multicolored toy keys. I then remember leaning into the crib and crying uncontrollably. I realized then that I hadn’t merely lost a girlfriend, but I had lost my family. Things would never be the same.

After I got off the phone with my cousin, I couldn’t stop thinking about Darryl’s murder. It was just another reminder that fatherhood, like all other things in the hood, is extremely uncertain.

This weekend, I pick up my daughter who is now 6 years old. I have been fortunate enough to have consistent visitation as a noncustodial parent since her mother and I split. We have dinner together, go to the movies and play basketball. I always look forward to picking her up, however, for the past few months often times when I hold her in my arms I think about my cousin’s daughter.

Sa’rye is an assertive, young 3 year old with an ebullient personality. She has her whole life ahead of her, but it disturbs me to know that she will have to navigate through this often times shady world without knowing her biological father.

There is no doubt that when Sa’rye gets older she will learn the footnotes of her father’s life. She will know things like his name was Darryl Starks, he attended Castlemont High School and he died Dec. 18, 2010, at the age of 26.

But will she ever know how much he loved her? Will she ever be able to feel that love? Will she remember the day when her father stopped his car in the middle of the street just to steal a hug and kiss from her before he went to work? Will she ever be told that one of the last things her father wanted to do before he left this Earth was to sleep under the same roof as her? Or will she grow only to be obsessed with his absence, fueling an unconscious resentment toward every man she encounters? I don’t know.

I do know Sa’rye comes from a resilient culture and a strong family. I also know that she can grow up and accomplish whatever she wants to achieve. On the other hand, I will never understand why her father was taken from her and I’m sure she won’t either. So now when I kiss my daughter on the cheek or help her with her jump shot I know that I’m not just doing it for me. I do it for all those men who wanted to be fathers, but couldn’t. I do it for Darryl Starks and countless other men who are just as righteous as me.

Shasee’s Dad

by Roger Porter

I had to leave work early that day in order to pick up my two year old daughter Shasee from daycare. At the time I was teaching at a non profit organization in Richmond, CA. I started working there as a part time tutor my junior year in college, and once I finished I was promoted to a full time position. I was young, committed to the kids, and had earned a fair amount of respect at the job, therefore it was OK for me to leave early every now and then.

“Alright then Mr. Porter,” a 10th grade student I worked with told me as I opened the door to leave.

“Peace,” I replied as I walked slowly to the parking lot while checking my cell phone to see who called me.

I thought about my daughter while stuck in traffic on highway 80. She hated her daycare. On the mornings when I would have to take her she would cry from the time I strapped her in her car seat to the time I rang Mrs. Carrie’s doorbell. Luckily for me the daycare was only two blocks away from our house.

I kind of felt her though. I mean it was unfortunate that I had to put her in childcare at such a young age, especially when I only saw her every other week, but I had to work every weekday. I couldn’t quit and I couldn’t rearrange my schedule so that was that.

As I pulled into my driveway and stepped out of my car I saw one of my friends from Junior High School driving in an old Buick with his stereo up full blast.

“Rog,” he yelled as he smashed by!

“Ayyyy,” I replied rather delayed and not sure that he heard me!

As I stepped into the living room of my house I saw a puzzle with big colorful letters that read KINSHASA. It was something my mother bought so that my daughter could learn how to spell her full name, since she had already learned how to spell Shasee, the nickname that everyone called her.
I changed clothes quickly, wrote a check for thirty dollars to pay Mrs. Carrie, sent approximately two text messages and began walking around the corner to pick up my daughter. As I approached the block that her daycare was on I received a text. I read it as I walked briskly down the Avenue. It was sent by a young lady I was dating and it made me smile.

When I looked up I could see about ten little toddler to preschool age children playing in front of Mrs. Carries daycare but I couldn’t see my daughter. They were pushing each other in toy cars and playing with a bright red bouncing ball. There was one kid in particular whose eyes were transfixed on me as I walked toward him.

This kid had to be about four years old with a honey colored complexion. He wore his hair in long cornrows that I’m sure his mother had allowed to grow since birth. He whispered to the other children and then he began to slowly walk toward me.

I looked down at him and he looked up to me with very large light brown eyes.

“Are you Shasee’s dad,” he asked me in a wondrously curious tone?

Shasee’s dad? Did this kid really just refer to me as Shasee’s dad? My name is Rog I wanted to tell him and I grew up in this neighborhood. As a matter of fact I probably went to school with your mother. I am Roger Porter I played football for the Oakland Dynamites and the Skyline Titans. I ran track for the West Side Kickers and got into college. I even graduated from college with a degree in English and still work and live in the hood. I am Mr. Porter. I teach kids how to appreciate books and use writing as form of therapeutic release. Shasee’s dad; was this little bastard serious? I looked around at all the little children at play and realized that none of my accomplishments would ever matter to them. To them I was only Shasee’s dad.

I was twenty four years old man stopped dead in my tracks by a little boy twenty years my junior. To make matters worse he maintained eye contact with me so I felt that I couldn’t simply walk away without answering him. Not that I was ashamed of the title I just wasn’t really aware of it so it kind of startled me. The term Shasee’s dad meant that my little two year old had developed her own identity and had made friends to compliment her little smart mouthed personality—which I was oh so aware of. My daughter was now her own little person and I was merely her dad. I was simply the old guy that dropped her off, picked her up, and bought all of her clothes.

It was shocking to me that after all of my success in beating the odds I was being identified through a two year old. It was all happening too fast, I wasn’t sure that I was ready. But then I had to be because the time had come. I no longer had a baby who had to be around her family all the time and cried in the middle of the night if she felt around the bed and no one was there, but rather I had a big girl who had just taken her first steps toward independence.

“Yeah I’m Shasee’s dad,’ I told him ‘could you go get her for me please?”

That little bastard.

We Still Wear the Mask

Roger Porter

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.