Drugs. Violence. Police brutality. Hate. Love. Love. Love.
In 1995, if you would have read about the Robert Taylor projects, the news report would probably have headlined something like this:
“17 Men Arrested in Drug Sting at Robert Taylor Homes.”
But inside those forsaken buildings where no one but those who lived there would have gone, children lived there. And those children, like all children, found a way to make the best of their situation. We did so in part by playing “It” in abandoned apartment buildings with holes in the walls.
Looking back on those days so many years later, I know my mother would have had a fit had she known what I was doing. As a father of three, I know I would not ever knowingly allow my daughters to play in abandoned buildings. Yet I also know that those dangerous moments where we had fun chipped away some of our surrounding circumstances and gave us a hideaway.
Maybe my children will not ever experience what it is like to grow up impoverished in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, but they will hear many a stories from me about those moments.
As you’ll find if you read my blog thoroughly enough, I grew up in the Robert Taylor Projects on the Southside of Chicago. If you do any research, you’ll find it was not the ideal place to grow up, being overwhelmed with drugs and gang activity. But it is where I am from, and I am not ashamed of it.
My uncle Milton lived there as well but for over thirty years. When I was younger, he made a painting on my mom’s wall of the cartoon Tom cutting off Jerry’s head. Blood was everywhere in the painting. My mom was pissed to say the least. I was delighted, until she made him paint over it.
Milton is a very sarcastic person who you’ll either love or hate with hate seeming to be the winner in most cases. Yet he is comfortable with whom he is. On Monday, June 4, 2018, the Chicago Sun Times did a spread on him concerning his upbringing, painting and one of his pieces currently on display at an art gallery. This inspires me.
My family is condensed with people in the arts. I’m a writer, my uncle is an artist and some of my family makes music. Most of us came from those dilapidated buildings, but we have success, college degrees and each other.
Someone once asked me why I never failed to mention that I am from the projects. This person has a painful history, having grown up extremely poor to the point of having no running water in the house. Her childhood was traumatic. She is doing well for herself now, but she shies away from her past. She will not discuss with anyone how she grew up. It is this denial that leads her to question me. How can I, having grown up in the most notorious part of the city, be able and willing to speak openly about it?
I am not ashamed of where I come from. It has made me who I am, good or bad. It showed me that the world can be harsh, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference. It is what inspires me to do better for my children so that they don’t have to experience what I did. The point is, embrace your past to know your future as the Sankofa bird of West Africa tells you.
One of my most vivid memories of my life in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Projects is my friend Travis and me walking through a grassy field and finding a huge ZipLoc bag of crack cocaine. There had to be at least 300 rocks in there.
Up until this point, I had seen plenty of crack transactions. I was only nine or ten, but this was a way of life where I lived. But still, seeing crack without a dealer sent a raw fear through me. I felt like I would go to jail just from being around it. If the cops came, they would charge Travis and me with having it.
“Damn,” said Travis, picking up the bag. “We’re rich.”
“We need to leave that alone,” I said, stepping away.
“What? You scared? You a punk?”
After a brief argument, we decided to take it to my uncle. I knew he smoked crack and I thought he would know what to do with it. In his bedroom, my uncle interviewed us.
“Did you still this from your brother?” he asked Travis, since his brother was a well-known dealer.
“No,” Travis said.
“And don’t nobody know y’all got this?” he asked us.
After my uncle confirmed our story, he promised to sell it and give us some of the profit. Needless to say, we never saw a dime. Travis was mad. I wasn’t. We should have known not to give crack to a crack head. But I did not want anything to do with it anyhow. I realized then that I was not a drug dealer.