My left wrist was wrapped up because of a recent pit-bull attack. It’s night but the breath-sapping Florida heat only added to the tensions. I’m half drunk on Bacardi and out to prove myself. I overheard Marcus call my sister a bitch over the phone, and I was about to force an apology. He pulls up in a white Impala. My sister gets in quickly, trying to avoid the conflict. I knock on his window demanding an apology. My brotha CJ overhears and pulls out a .38.
I feel like a toddler in size 12 boots. There, only because I’m too cowardly to look like a coward. Marcus peels off and CJ takes aim. I tell him not to pop off because Kristina was in the car. And I’m stuck thinking how the fuck did I get here.
Krissy gets back, a few hours later, in the back of a Crown Vic. She has a bruise. Apparently Marcus wanted to put a “green light” on my head. A green light is street talk for a bounty. Krissy tried to stop it. But now I’m in a world of violence and need a way out.
I decide to move back to Big Cove, leaving a predominately black neighbourhood to go back to my mother’s people, the Elsipogtog First Nation.
Two months back and I’m already in another fight.
I’m at a house party past midnight and we’re all too drunk to continue. Two women are outside fighting and a circle amasses around them. I can barely stand when I hear “get the nigger.”
A woman and a man break beer bottles and I’m trembling. Their inebriated faces are filled with hate as they brandish their weapons. I flash a 12-inch blade, hoping it never comes to it. They back off. I stumble home and can’t fully process what just happened.
When I wake up, I check Facebook.
They thought I sucker punched their cousin and wanted to defend him. They didn’t back off from the knife I flashed, but someone in the group told them, I had nothing to do with it. Their cousin, by the way, had fallen off the steps, busted his nose on a cement drain and passed out.
I’m in my fourth year of university and kind of distant from those scenes now. The worst I get is drunken friends breaking windows, walls, anything that can’t hit back. Or starting a fist fight. All fair in my opinion, nothing wrong with that. A one-on-one fight between two willing men. That’s what my family tells me anyway.
I remember reading that 18 to 24-year-old black men are more likely to end up in prison than university, and 20 per cent of those imprisoned in Canada are First Nations. I wonder if my people are naturally violent or just poor.
I reached out to Governor General Award winning author David Adams Richards for help. We met in James Dunn Hall on St. Thomas campus. He bought me a large double-double. Then we two men, forced to etch out our feelings on a page, discuss my story. I read him my opening and he takes a while to talk.
He said he often wonders about pro-boxer Mike Tyson. Richards wonders why Tyson turned to violence given his riches. Richards has an old friend, Rick, who is a former boxer. Rick thinks Tyson turned to violence because of his rough upbringing. Rick had a rough upbringing. He had rats in his house as a child. When Richards’ friend got older he had to protect his mother from her abusive boyfriends, but Richards explains that Rick wasn’t a violent guy. Tough as nails, but Rick avoided violence as much he could.
Richards believes violence is a choice, but situations force it out of a man. He spoke about the Bonnell case, a heart-wrenching story about a 16-year-old girl who was murdered by her older cousin, Curtis Bonnell. The man convicted of the crime, according to Richards, tried to blame the murder “on the white man.” Richards admits that reservations place people in horrible and desperate situations but it should never lead to such violence. He thinks each man has a choice and that choice is the man’s alone.
I ask if he’s seen violence. He says yes, but his eyes tell me the violent stories are too deep to be wrenched out on to a page. He wished me good luck and warned I might never have an answer.
I left reflecting on my own upbringing.
I never thought much of myself. Mom has struggled with manic depression as long as I can remember. My dad is a reformed crack head, so you can say I was baptized in poverty. My mother is from Elsipogtog First Nation and my father’s hometown is St. Augustine, Florida. Mom tells me they met in Galveston, Texas. She was a hippie and Dad was a truck driver.
They got married when Mom found out she was pregnant with me. Six months after I was born, Mom left Dad because she couldn’t stand his habit anymore. I first met him when I was seven, I think, but that was my first trip to Florida.
I grew up the half-breed, the little black boy on a Mi’kmaq reservation. It was tough. I fought for respect. Too many fights, but at the time I was proud of all of them.
I remember signing up for classes at North South Esk. Elementary school in Sunny Corner. Mom had a new boyfriend from Red Bank First Nation, so we moved in with him for a couple of years. The principal of the school noticed blood on my report card. I remember puffing out my chest saying it came from a fight. I don’t remember if it was true or not but there I was an eight-year-old boy proud that I drew blood.
When I was 10, Mom had another episode. My sister Kristina and I moved to St. Augustine.
We moved in with my grandparents because Dad was still chasing his next high. We had seen him in spurts, depending on if he was trying to stay clean or not. My grandfather, Papa, and my grandmother, Nanny, did the best they could to raise us. According to them we arrived under false pretences. Mom had asked if we could stay for two weeks, that turned into two months and eventually I lived in Florida for eight years. To my mom’s credit, her manic swings may have been too much to handle and the Southern discipline may have been just what I needed.
After Papa died it only got worse. He died in 2003 so I think I was 12 or 13. His death inspired me to write my first and only poem to get published.
Nanny was in her 60s and responsible for raising two young adults. She had a $500 a month mortgage and only pulled in $800 through disability, not leaving much money for anything else. I remember some nights only having biscuits and syrup for supper.
EBT, or food stamps, was my families’ friend during those times. I remember being angry at my high school classmates, because they were picky about the food they ate. I contemplated robbing them because they didn’t like the taste of food, while my family was simply trying to eat.
Channing Jamal Williams was my first friend in St. Augustine, the first one to befriend the Canadian. He was someone I always counted on.
I was 17. I had graduated high school, class of 2008. My year alone with Nanny was relatively incident free. Then when I was watching the Beijing games, Nanny screams at me about the iron. I finally got the nerve to yell back. She yells “Not in my house Negro,” and I swear she tried to choke me. It’s something we both disagree on to this day. I push her off me. She flies into the wall with a crash. The compassion snaps me out of the adrenaline rush. I go to help but she tells me she’ll shoot me when she gets up. So I go to CJ’s.
I show up in tears. His grandma, Ms. Gwen, lets me in. I show her the scratches on my neck and she consoles me. She tells me I never should have stayed there that long. Two weeks later I gather up the courage to confront my grandmother.
As soon as I pull in the driveway she calls the cops. I’m gathering my stuff, and the officer tells me I can go with him or stay here. I tell him there’s no way in hell I’d live there again. I left, but leaving there under those conditions is something that would always haunt me. Nanny was 71 at the time, with a bad back and knees, and ridden with arthritis. She wasn’t well and I sometimes think I would have been better off dead than to hurt her.
Ms. Gwen was dying. She was losing her fight with lung cancer, and she spent the last days of her life guiding us. Preaching to us that drinking wasn’t for everyone. She passed away at Flagler hospital and her death spiralled all of us into a world we were all becoming too familiar with.
One night, I was off with my friend Brooklyn, also known as Tommy Edwards, and he got into a one-on-one fight. Brook nearly ended it with a hook. Then two of his opponent’s friends jumped in. I remember Brooklyn trying to run before I could hop in. Before I could catch up they had Tommy on the ground. I jumped in and got stomped on by three guys. When I got up they had taken CJ’s iPod and ruined my sister’s hat. I biked back with Brooklyn.
Internally seething that I just got my ass kicked. I plotted revenge. My friend CJ got a bat and went looking for them. Thank God he never found them. Kristina left for drinks.
A few weeks later, was the night with Marcus. I never ran into the three that jumped me, so he was the next best thing. I never got to prove myself, but I found limits I couldn’t cross. That’s when I decided I needed out.
I moved back to the reserve. I worked a bunch. I slowed down on the partying, and some of my old friends accused me of thinking I was better than them. I just couldn’t stand the face of violence anymore.
I reconnected with my grandma. Now I’m at university, and I’m not afraid to look like a coward. I avoid violence like the plague. Like Richards said, a man has to decide for himself what his surroundings will make of him.
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