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Where I Come From

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Ten years ago, on a warm spring night, I found myself on the wrong end of a gun.

It was all for the love of an eggroll. Fifteen minutes before the attack, I walked into the hole-in-the-wall Chinese carryout closest to my grandmother’s house in East Baltimore, where I was staying while I finished college. I grew up in the area, but any casual observer might have sworn otherwise. With my khakis, boat shoes, and Tommy Hilfiger polo, I looked as if I’d taken a wrong turn on my way to Gilligan’s Island. But I thought I fit in well enough. As a young woman in a very snug pair of jeans paid for her food, two guys who looked to be about my age and I were, I knew, on the same wavelength. Yeah, she’s bad, we all thought, but her friend—not so much. It was an instant, unspoken rapport.

When my order came up, I pulled out a wallet overstuffed with various IDs and discount cards, and before I could take 10 steps toward home, my new friends were on me. As I lay face down on the ground, one held a gun to my left temple while the other rifled through my pockets. “Count to 10 before you get up, or we’ll shoot you,” I was told.

A little later, when a police officer arrived to take my statement, he asked what the assailants looked like. I remembered the jackets they wore; the baggy shirts; the hovering, rail-thin build of the tall one; the crown of dreadlocks atop the short one. No one would have mistaken one of us for another, but my first impulse was to tell the officer, “They look just like me.”

Why?

My older cousin Marlon tried to train me for this when we were kids. “I don’t want him to grow up to be a punk, Aunt Norine”—that’s what he told my mom whenever she complained that he was brutalizing me, her firstborn, the older of two sons.

Marlon and I loved professional wrestling, but our living room brawls were always rigged in his favor. Choke holds, taunting little slaps, figure fours: Marlon mastered them all—on me, and I usually left these sorry, one-round bouts in tears.

To compensate, I inflicted just about as much pain on my younger brother Mark, who wanted desperately to fit in with the older boys. He got a lot of scrapes and bruises for his trouble. Once, I pushed him down a flight of concrete steps just because I could.

There was a timeless quality to our brutishness. Somewhere in Poland, I’m sure, there’s a cave drawing of a proto-human adolescent clubbing his kid brother then laughing heartily. But the constant dangers in our neighborhood added purpose to our fighting.

Mark, Marlon, and I had limited contact with our fathers, so sometimes, as young as 13, we were the biggest people in our respective households, bracing ourselves for the much bigger things just outside, trying to teach each other how to be men. I don’t think we did a bad job. Today, Marlon is a devoted husband and father. Mark, at 26, supervises 20 people at an auto maintenance shop with a firm but benevolent hand, and I get paid to write about my feelings. As much as I suffered, Marlon always pulled his punches, and although he had every right to hate me, Mark never did. As much as East Baltimore hardened us, we never let it make us callous.

That is both a miracle and, at times, a danger. Having been away from the neighborhood for several years, by the time I pulled out my wallet at that restaurant I was a little rusty—I knew better; I should have slipped out a few bills before I went in. But when trouble came, I didn’t panic. I just waited it out, dusted myself off, picked up my food, and walked home. Marlon, I imagine, is proud of how the whole thing ended, if not how I got myself into it.

Feared as we are, sometimes with good reason, especially among ourselves, it is ironic but appropriate that African-American men have a million and one ways of communicating acceptance: grips, chest bumps, head nods, daps, shouts, hand signals. Without knowing it, I walked into the carryout looking for one of those signs. It never came, but I keep my eyes open. Trading stories about women, sports, tragedies, and near misses, connecting with people who understand the pride and peril of being young, black, and male: Apparently, I couldn’t completely check that impulse if I wanted to, not even if my life depended on it. Because I’d like to think we could all turn out as well as my brother or my cousin, I still have trouble dividing friend from foe.

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