It’s been said that life is like a series of rooms and the people we get stuck in them with are who we usually become. They rub off on us like wet paint on a door jam. Like a sponge, we absorb their beliefs and values, and to a great extent-their character. For those who grow up poor in America’s ghettoes, our parents were too tied down by bills to concern themselves with morals that did not put food on the table. A “shut-off notice” hangs on the door of every house or apartment in the ‘hood at some point of our childhood-if not often. The lights are going to be cut-off. Or it’s the water or gas.
As children, my little sisters and I really didn’t sweat it because Momma had Game–the key to the water main. Yet when the water department got up on her moves and removed the entire meter, like pack mules we carried water from Grandma Rachael’s or it was the neighbor’s hydrant to fill our tub so we could share a bath. We fill our sinks, pots and pans too. When the gas got cut-off, Moms had electric blankets, heaters and skillets. When the lights went out, we froze in the Oklahoma winter breeze. So at times, as children, we were not so carefree.
Our struggles inevitably beckoned drugs. What started as a hustle ended with addiction. I stood on one end of the pipe–my mother eventually the other. Nonetheless, this was our African Queen. Despite poverty’s discordance, she taught us how to get through hard times and stay warm in those cold winter nights as we lay bundled together in Grandma’s old quilts. Government cheese, beans and canned meat kept our stomachs full. And the hugs this fiend would give, along with the ass-whippings, assured us that she cared. She handled her business given what she had to work with despite opinions. Rain, sleet or snow, if she had to “ho up”–Mr. Hood got a show. If she had to slang blow, she did-it-moving and indeed went all-the-way-out-schizo-tryin’ to feed her crumb snatchers.
Trapped in a world of disparity, I witnessed it riddled with drugs, violence and insanity. All too which would have its affect on my ghetto perspective. Yet, my ghetto was unique, nonetheless, the same. Though, there were no plywood covers littering project windows or other features that immediately come to mind when reflecting on the scenery common to the inner-city ghetto. Nor was it the reality I’ve encountered in other countries where more extreme definitions of poverty exist. Yet and still, being poor is universal and embodies the same oppressive elements.
My ghetto was one of illusions all the same. Here, cats came up stankin’ floating in the lake underestimating my country settings. I was raised for the most part in Seminole County, Oklahoma. At the heart of this racially intolerant stretch of land sat the county seat–Wewoka, my birthright. Yet, I resided here and there throughout the state. In thirteen years of school I attended thirteen different schools. My mother and stepfather often jumped from town-to-town, city-to-city looking for rare employment opportunities as our family grew.
Most of the towns we lived in were small populations (800 to 25,000), with exception of Oklahoma City (OKC, hereafter) and Norman. These towns were just as insulating as the inner city. They all were trapped in the cultural bubble of racism, drugs, poverty, and violence.
During the 1980s, Wewoka was to the drug dealers of Seminole County what Tijuana, Mexico was to the Columbian and Mexican drug cartels–a drug trafficking hub. The Dope-Game was so off-the-chain it seemed as if everybody (Black) either sold dope or smoked it. Too Hollywood for a small town, occasionally the flow of things would get disrupted by the feds. As in the big city, after months, if not years of investigation, the indictments would be served by some 300 or better law enforcement officers composed of local, state and neighboring counties-Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), FBI, DEA, ATF, and the IRS. The Alphabet Boys made for quite a spectacle every time they kicked-in doors in Wewoka.
As if yesterday I recall Reagan’s so-called war kicking up dust in my backyard. It was on-and-cracking with the “One-time.” “Three Suspects Held In Police Officer Shooting” read the headline in the Wewoka Times Newspaper. A childhood friend had let the pistol smoke on the 5.0 (police) as they attempted to raid local club slash crack-house.
Things really got off-the-chain after that shooting. Chaos had long spoiled the tranquility of the home. My mother was a registered nurse, who had been laid-off when the local hospital closed. Employment opportunities being scarce, next to nonexistent for Black folks, provided vigor to the roller-coaster ride of circumstances that forced her to try her Game hand. Looking back today I see the dominoes falling one-by-one. She had pulled a bad hand. Despite having did all the right things (i.e., graduating high school valedictorian, college, career, marriage, etc.) there was a storm brewing.
What started as a hustle ended with addiction…. It was the summer of ’86. Moms and I had taken the short drive to a trap-house in New Lima–a rural community seven miles outside of Wewoka. Ear hustling from the rear seat of my Grandpa’s van, I vividly recall her and Honey Jackson speaking about the new drug (crack cocaine) as their sherm smoke dulled my senses.
It wasn’t long after that a huslta or two was in traffic connecting dots between home base and distant shipping ports. And so the story goes, from privilege to underclass households I had a front-row seat to watch crack cocaine flourish. What was once a rich man’s high was now the poor man’s destruction. We were ignorant of its affects. The addiction deserves little to no explanation. Yet what does deserve explanation is the Blueprint that transfigured our parental and communal structures into an atmosphere ravaged by social neglect.
The chaos that came of the crack cocaine epidemic would forever change the relations amongst the afflicted. Overnight we went from mentors of humble origins and kids breakdancing on the block for fun to knocks and domestic terrorists without conscience armed to the teeth eager to rob, steal and kill for the spoils of the trade. Where we once became friends before becoming anything else, everyone in the Dope-Game became everything else before becoming friends. This made for an environment that had an alienating affect on individual and community bonds. The first sign of a problem, this caused us to turn-on each other as if cannibals because we had no foundation to fall back on to provide reason to the situation. Cats got so cold in the Game that they would give you a piece of dope to smoke before they would give you a plate of food to eat. The value we once placed on community solidarity was transfixed to a “block” represented by the neighborhood gang of trap-stars as a place not to be respected insofar as the greater community was concerned, rather a place to be respected and used to make Dope-Boy Magic.
From jump my real father had checked-out. Though he abandoned my mother and I, his departure was not by choice. Three bullets caught him in the back of the head. I was told he was murdered by a coward stepping to a hogg behind a “juice box” (a.k.a. some pussy). At the tender age of three, I vividly recall holding my sobbing mother’s hand as we approached… I was confused not realizing the impact of that day as we drew near the sky-blue box my father was lying in. Looking to my mother for answers, I recall asking: “What’s wrong?” “Why is Daddy just lying there?” “Daddy get up!” “Let’s play cowboy and ride my horse Big Red!” Daddy just stayed there as if he was playing sleep. As I continued to tug on my Mom’s dress tears flowed from her eyes as if a river as she attempted to explain my father was gone forever. “No he’s not! He’s right there,” I insisted not understanding the meaning of “gone forever.”
The murder of my father would be the first of many life-altering events during childhood that would harden my soul. Something inside of me would turn-off. Death and insanity seemed to ever claim those I cared for most. So I just stopped caring. Sadly, the only memory of my father I would grow to have would be the man in the casket who, as my mother and family would tell, brought joy to the world around him, including mine as the kid cowboy wanting to be like pops.
Pops was a real cowboy-boots and the whole nine! He was handsome man of fair complexion that loved “fire-water,” beautiful women and a good dice game. He had a fierce reputation for pounding a cat into the sand for getting out-of-pocket with him. My mother would tell of how he was such a beautiful and proud man who swept her off her feet with his charm. He was a sharp dresser, a dandy, who took care of her and loved spending time with his only son.
As the years passed after his murder, it seemed as if my life was nothing but a hole akinning where my father should have been. I would grow-up with only remnants of his profound affect gleaming in the cloudiness of my mother’s pain spoken eyes when he was spoke of. “His favorite words,” she would encourage me with hopes that his death would not hinder me in life, was: “Ain’t no step to high for a stepper.” These were the words that I’d grow to live by.
As for the man my mother would later marry and attempt to fill the void caused by my father’s death, our relationship would sour from jump. Vividly, I recall moving with the newly weds to Cherry Street in Ada, Oklahoma. The prospects of a new dad were bright for the six-year-old kid. I was willing to give him a chance. That was until he found me with a porn magazine of his I had dug out from Mom’s and his closet. I guess he thought I was slow when it came to recognizing the “juice box.” Because he asked with a smirk… I provided the slang… and Momma knocked sparks from my ass.
Living with moms and stepdad was drama central. They fought like cats and dogs. Domestic violence spoiled the tranquility of the home at least three nights a week. Their disputes were always about a lack of money, which also went up in a cloud of “coke-smoke.” The one thing I have to say is that I give my stepdad credit for putting up with my Mom’s shit for close to twenty years. For twenty years he fought with that woman with hopes that she would “get-back.” Like clockwork the drama in my parents house went on for years. So much so, I’d be ready with a bag of popcorn anticipating the main event–“Stickey vs. Ricky!” I betted on Mom every time because she was always the aggressor who got-off first and got the advantage of the “element of surprise.” My sisters and I–occasionally the police too–were the cheering and tearing crowd of fans. Ironically, I found comfort in their squabbles because it was not my sisters’ or my ass getting whipped on for a change. Like Rocky and Mr. T, fist flew and bullets too. It was a miracle she didn’t kill that man.
At the center of my mother’s addiction problems was the institution of racism. Her white father had disowned her. My Grandma, I strongly suspect, despised her for running the sorry S.O.B. off. This, however, was a story that I would not learn of until well into my teenage years. It made for the most unusual day of my life.
There I was about fifteen years old and my Mom, out the blue, just up and picks me up from school. “My grandfather had died,” she tells me. She spoke with so much pain in her voice between attempts to catch tears with the back of her hand. This was an unusual sight to see. Honesty, I can say it was the only time I ever recall seeing her all worked-up. My mother was not the type of woman that wore her emotions on her sleeves. At least not when it came to shedding tears.
But could what she just said be true? I just spoke to Grandpa that morning. Tears and confusion immediately filled my face.Things became even more confusing as we took off in the direction of the white funeral home. Yet and still, my eyes remained full of tears on that long but short drive. I was confused as hell when we pulled in the parking lot. Black folks did not patronize this establishment. I’m thinking to myself, “What the hell!” Next thing you know we in the viewing room and my mother boo wooing and an impulsive, “Who the hell is that?,” spills from my mouth as if vomit to her ears.
So many questions invaded my mind at the moment. However, before any of them could filter down through my mouth, Moms checked me with a fierce backhand. “Show some respect,” she snapped, “that’s my father, your real grandfather!””Real grandfather, hell!,” I thought to myself as I massaged the sting of her infliction. “I don’t know this honky. And he sure in the hell ain’t the Grandpa who taught me how to fish, hunt, and get money. Respect? Obviously, neither he nor any of his kind had had any for me or the countless other descendants of Africa they fouled with their seed only to leave women like my grandmother with bastards to raise.”
For my mother the impact of racism drove her to drugs. Drugs, indeed, kept her from revisiting her troubled childhood.When she wasn’t high, she became extremely abusive having found herself frustrated. She had my sisters and I shell-shocked any time her hand drew back. At times her tantrums were unpredictable. Schizophrenia had begun to eat at her mind. She was hard in the paint like a NBA star driving through the lane. At any act of defiance a backhand would be served. Switches were her most effective means of making her point. A many of times I was ordered to sprawl ass-hole naked to be welted like a slave.However, my stepdad got the worst of it. Seemingly, my mother’s estranged relationship with her father created within her an insecurity, an anger, that out the gates compromised her relationship with male energy. To me it appeared as if this complex drove her to emasculate men. It drove her crazy too. For she inherited this white man’s mental illness.
Of the affect of drugs, violence, gangs, and racism to which I have been exposed to throughout my life, none have been as devastating as that of a family member who suffers from mental illness. In my case, it’s been four–my grandmother, mother, uncle and now my sister. With drugs, etc., you know the consequences are of your own making and despite the manipulation there’s choices involved. However, with mental illness there is no one to blame or a choice other than the nursing home or crazy house.As a thirteen-year-old kid, mental illness is a difficult experience to process. No one taught me about it. And I was too ashamed to ask. So I was stuck on stupid wondering why all of the sudden Grandma rambling at the mouth and pointing in an effort to communicate instead of just saying what was on her mind. We would just sit there stirring at each other frustrated. She’s now putting her clothes on backwards and burning food-just stirring at the smoke as if a snake charmer. Now we have to watch her closely, too close. Because if not, she will wonder off or burn the house down. It’s a full time job that no one but my Grandpa and I care enough to undertake. Yet he’s half paralyzed and I’m just thirteen. We don’t want to see her in the nursing home, but the decision has been made. Here comes all the above-the drugs, gangs, violence, etc.
It’s no better at Mom’s house. She’s full throttle on the voodoo. “It’s because of all the sherm she has smoked,” my ignorance tells me. Yet, something just isn’t right with her. It’s more than the Sherman. She done went from spitting on brooms and black cats to arguing with herself. She’s pulling out her hair and screaming at the walls. In her mind “It’s the spirits.” Superstition has led her to hanging cedar leaves over the door to keep the “voices” out. Are they good or evil? Agape in the living room rests the Bible. Her “voices” tell her to keep the lights out and the spirits will not find us. So we move about in the dark with only the Bible to protect us. The “Boogie Man” is hiding in her head I tell my little sisters as we cling to each other in fear. They bite! Yet the Boogie Man is a myth to me.Manic flights, voices, paranoia, and suicide attempts are something I have unfortunately had to witness in my family. The upside of these experiences is that they have assisted me to understand mental illness as not simply the result of outside pressures of a treacherous social landscape.
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