I remember the first time I got jumped. The streets were the type of empty that allows you to see ten blocks straight without a car or person in sight. It was the middle of the night, somewhere between 11 pm and 2 am. My friends and I were hanging out in our building when we decided to go hoop at the courts that were behind the projects a few blocks away. It was something we did pretty often. We figured since it was so late at night, we could get some good runs in without any interruptions. There were about 6 of us.
We were hooping, talking shit, and laughing, like any other night midnight game we played, until I noticed something unusual. A few guys were walking towards the park that we were playing in. None of them had a basketball, and their attire didn’t suggest that they were coming to the park to play ball. In fact, one of them was riding a bike. My friends and I continued to play, trying to pay little attention to the group of guys coming into the park. None of us said anything, but I noticed each of us take a turn to glance over at the group as they made their way towards the only entrance of the park (which was also the only exit).
Did they want to play? Did they have plans in this park? Why were they whispering to each other? All of these questions ran through my mind. The biggest thing on my mind was, WTF is about to happen?
Pause real quick — I just realized that this actually sounds exactly like what happened to Will Smith in the Fresh Prince Intro. The only difference is, it was the middle of the night, it was at the projects in Brooklyn, and, spoiler alert: I didn’t get to “live with my Aunty and Uncle in Bel-Air” after.
The guys finally came into the park. They sat on the benches about two courts down from where we were playing. By this time, I already knew that nothing good was about to come of this night. Suddenly we hear glass shatter from the area where the guys were sitting. I analyzed the faces of my friends to see if the feeling of fear and alertness was consuming them as much as it had me — it was. The spirit of the game that we had moments ago evaporated into the night sky. At this point, the game we were playing was no longer critical. We were throwing around the basketball without purpose or intention because our minds were occupied with trying to predict what was about to happen and how we should prepare.
Growing up in the hood you learn how to speak the language of energy. Without any exchange of words or gestures, you learn how to read what’s written in the air around a person or a situation. When you speak energy, you can hear all that is being spoken amid dead silence. It’s a skill of survival; a language of those who have learned that they must be attentive to the smallest potential of violence or else it can mean, very literally, the end of their life.
We were able to quickly assess the potential violence in the air because we spoke the language of our neighborhood.
Without thinking, I panicked. I told my friends, “I’m about to be out.” A look of confusion possessed their faces. They tried to convince me to stay. They never gave a reason though. They just said, “Stay my nigga. Play one more.” To which I replied, “Nah, let’s be out.” I didn’t vocalize it, but they knew that I was scared. I made my way out of the park. I figured that my friends would be right behind me but as I walked the fading sound of the basketball bouncing and the growing silence of the empty night notified me that they weren’t.
Then it happened…
I got about two blocks away from my building when I heard the clicks of a bicycle chain behind me. I turned, and I saw the guy who was in the park on the bike. Behind him were about four other guys. The bike-guy pulled up beside me, and he asked “Do I know you from somewhere? You look familiar.” I replied, “Nah…” Then I felt someone hit me in the back of my head. I swung at the guy on the bike. He fell over. Then I was knocked to the ground, and from there I decided to get this over with and drop to the ground and guard myself. I felt them hitting me for about a 35–40 seconds before they ran off into the empty streets. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline coursing through my body or the lack of strength behind the hits, but I wasn’t hurt, only angry and scared.
For reasons that were unclear to me, I was selected and beaten up by guys who looked like me, who were in my age group, and who were from my neighborhood. This experience, as frightening as it was, familiarized me with how I was expected to communicate in my community. The only thing left for me to do was to respond to their actions with actions of my own; fight fire with more fire. If I didn’t react in the way that my environment expected me to respond, I run the high risk of being considered “pussy” or “soft.” Two titles that you can only remove from your name by engaging in violence whenever your peers determine that it’s necessary.
I was 14-years-old when all of this happened, maybe 15. I was full of anger, and when my friends got back from the park, I did what I was expected to do. I told them what happened and I was ready to commit to the series of events that were to follow.
The purpose of me sharing this event isn’t to give you details of a ghetto fight story. Instead, it’s to highlight one of the fundamental ways that young black men learn to communicate their pain with each other. I don’t know why I was jumped, and I don’t think they know why they jumped me. Perhaps, not for any other reason than us being black boys from an area of violence and poverty, were we engaged on that night.
The amazing part about that night was that immediately after, the value of their wellbeing dropped because they didn’t see value in mine. After being jumped for the first time, I rationalized; if they can do it to me, then I can do it to them. If it can happen to my body, then I must be able to do it to other bodies. It wasn’t until I got older and I saw the hood from a different perspective that I was able to identify the vicious cycle that so many brothers like myself have committed to once in their lives. We adhere to a code that is predicated on our own destruction.
Our physical environments, warrant us to behave out of survival and project anger and fear, so our behaviors reflect just that. To some measure, we have as much control over choosing our behaviors as we did in choosing our neighborhood. I believe a part of them knew that I was of kin to them in some way. Then again, everyone in the ghetto is related. Sharing the same liquor stores, supermarkets, corner stores, schools, and parks can feel as though we live in the same house. We share the same pains of poverty of struggle, on different levels of course, but as long as you’re in the ghetto, in the grand scheme, you’re fundamentally living in the same quality of life.
Countless brothers and sisters are either behind bars or in the grave because they engaged with principles that were communicated to them at their first run-in with the forces of the ghetto. This place that we call the hood was constructed in a way that would make one think that they’re acting on their own accord when bestowing violence on their brother or sister. There is a subtle yet deliberate ecosystem of violence that’s around specific neighborhoods.