Mekonnen aka Mack aka Huey Freakin’ Newton (fiction)
When my family moved from Ethiopia to the US, we bounced around a few places before ending up in Brooklyn. That was in 1989, the year Yusuf Hawkins, an African American boy, was murdered in Bensonhurst by a mob of white boys, the year Do the Right Thing was released, and both riots—the one just a few neighborhoods away and the one on screen—gave me a sense that I had something to learn about race, real fast. I was eleven years old and got the warnings to keep clear of Howard Beach, where a young Trinidadian man had been attacked and killed by a group of white guys a few years before we moved to New York. And stay far away from Gravesend (the message is in the name, I heard), where Willie Turks was so battered on Avenue X that some judge called it a lynch mob in Brooklyn, but for the rope and tree.
In those days, I, their young naïve son, was more of a resource about America to my parents than the other way around. I would pick up lessons through school or friendships or television, but my parents worked jobs where they labored in back rooms or were otherwise invisibly kept out of the way. But none of us could teach each other about race in this country then.
In fact, it wasn’t until they arrived in the US that my parents knew they were black, and even then, they refused to accept it. My parents thought in terms of tribes and ethnicities, regions and lineage. While filling out forms at the immigration office, my father poured over the options for color: red, yellow, white, black (there was no box for “other” then, and had there been, he probably would have chosen it, and who knows what elaboration he’d have written on the dotted line). My mother looked at her yellow-hued skin and checked the box for yellow. My father checked red since in Ethiopia, that’s what he was called— kay—the color that tinted his medium-brown skin. He marked me down as red, too. The immigration officer corrected the forms. Africans, he said, are black. Lesson one.
From that day on, my mother believed in the possibility of two identities: we were Ethiopians, no doubt about it, and maybe we might ￼￼become African Americans concurrently, but why worry about it, she said. My father declared that no, we were not African Americans, but Africans in America. My parents had grown up in a system with its own caste stratifications (light, brown, red, black along with Amhara, Tigray, Kembata, and all the other eighty-two tribes that stacked up to form the social ladder in Ethiopia). They carried that thinking over to the US; it did not translate; they could not let it go. I tried to cut through all that complexity and said, “Why aren’t we just black?” My father, who was privileged enough back home to get us here, retorted, “Mekonnen, you are not just anything.” My mother agreed. That ended he conversation, and any real racial identity I developed was not negotiated at home but was between me and the world outside.
Before I enrolled in school, I started to take note of a neighborhood
clique of kids who called themselves the African American All Stars. Word was the group formed in the 1960s by some liberal-thinking, power-embracing, probably mature-beyond-their-years middle schoolers who looked up to Malcolm X and MLK and Lumumba and Belafonte, and all those who shone brightly in what seemed like an era of All Stars. Knowing no one in my neighborhood, I started to pay attention to this group who fashioned themselves as oral historians keeping old languages alive, and their messages seemed to hold some key to understanding my new identity.
Every weekend, the All Stars gathered in the back of the playground and did step dances passed down class by class, year by year. I didn’t know where the choreography came from. Someone said they were old African dances taken up by slaves in the South and brought up North during the Great Migration. Whatever their origins, the moves were perfected over decades there in that playground. I wanted to join them as soon as I saw the boys making their bodies big, stretching their arms, stomping in great gestures, cupping their hands to their mouths and calling out, and the girls, pretty in the sunlight and show-stopping smiles, responding with writhing hips and dips and spins and their own calls. Then the dancers got quiet, and just swayed to a poem by Maya Angelou. Someone read from Amiri Baraka, then Langston Hughes, the last poem that ended every session. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. The girls snaked their arms, the guys moved ￼￼like snake charmers coaxing their dance. The fellas fell to their knees (I thought, lord, how could you not bow down to those girls?). I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. The boys on one side, girls challenging them on the other, and the boys submitted by stretching up their hands, and the girls let their fingertips touch the boys’ fingertips. Ancient, dusky rivers. The group of them stomped to the back of the playground, their backs to us. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. Applause.
And so before I joined the All Stars, I had set out to make friends with them; I aspired. The All Stars would gather on Saturday and Sunday mornings and dance and recite for anyone who would listen. I would go out and watch as they performed in front of the walls at the back of the playground, where kids often played handball and graffiti artists painted huge murals of peace and love. We gathered together there and kept to ourselves in a neighborhood that also kept to itself in a city that seemed threatening to our innocence, and our bodies, too.
Anyone could try out to join the All Stars, but membership was hard earned. They tested us hopefuls, calling out names and dates of the great and barely known black historical figures, giving us books to study at the library, some written by former All Stars, making sure we knew even the minor players in our past. I was grilled at every chance, no opportunity for my humiliation passed over. I got it worse than the others; to them, I had more to prove. I almost dropped out and told Kareem, the captain and alpha male of the group, that I’d had enough, but he pulled me aside.
“You can’t quit,” he said. “You need this more than anyone. I never met a black person knows so damn little about bein’ black,” he told me.
“Why’s your way the right way?” I asked, and he thought about my question for not even a second, then said, like he’d rehearsed the pitch, “We’re offerin’ a way to make it through. The All Stars are soldiers. This is your boot camp. You need this, kid,” he said. “Bad.”
I was sitting against the playground fence, and I remember the way his hand felt when he put it on my head, a paternal touch. He told me he’d coach me when I needed it and was true to his word on that. He pushed me; I pushed myself; I kept going, though it felt like hazing, and at times like plain harassment. Because who had to read twice as much as the rest? Who lied to his parents and took that old, ￼￼red, graffitied, overcrowded 2/3 Train into Manhattan to get those obscure books for the older kids (I could have probably ordered them from the branch down the street, like everyone else did, but they said I oughta go that extra mile), then carry a huge stack of books back down those big library steps, past the stone lions, through seedy Times Square, then on the 2/3 to Grand Army Plaza and down Eastern Parkway, turn left at the C-Town, and head on home . . . ? Who had to dance the longest, take the towels home to clean them (and clean them again if they weren’t fresh enough)? Who had to go steal ice from the fruit carts outside the bodega to cool us off after practice? Who practiced longer, was asked the most questions, was measured against towering standards? Who at every turn seemed to be challenged, tested to see how bad was the desire? So at times it felt like pure, plain torture to within one inch of my life, and at other times, I felt like I was being taught survival skills so important that my very being depended on them.
The most important lesson was that the All Stars lived by a single word, a guiding principle. Pride. When the rehearsals lagged, “Say it out,” someone would shout. “Pride,” we’d reply. I thought it was cheesy at first, but there was an urgency in those voices. “Say it out!” “Pride,” a little louder. “Say it out!” “Pride!” We’d yell, and jump and pump our arms and work ourselves into a frenzy, then back to practice, back to the lessons, the language, the dance, the song.
This was my life on the weekends; during the week, I was in a tracked magnet program (a cruel caste system all its own) due in large part to my perfect test scores, my parents’ willingness to lie about our address, and some other magic mixture of luck and opportunity. I sat in the back of an all-white class, ate lunch with all-white friends, played sports on all-white teams, studied in the all-white library (even the books were by white writers, and none of the ones we studied on the weekends ever sat on those shelves). I transferred into the class late, and I learned later from those classmates that they had their own racial awakenings that year: they hadn’t noticed they were in a white class till I got there. In no time, I had to establish two distinct groups of friends: my school friends and the All Stars, a sixth-grader juggling a highly compartmentalized life that matched the rhythms and patterns of segregation in 80s New York.
The New York summer, already brewing with its thick mingled smells and heavy wet heat, was dense on that late June day I finished sixth grade. Kareem stood in the sun and led the announcements about who had made the cut. The new recruits waited around sweating from the high temperatures and the anticipation. The All Stars chanted the names of each new member, and every inductee got a white T-shirt with All Stars printed on it in red, yellow, and green. As the T-shirts were handed out, the initiates got up to accept them and joined the All Stars standing in a huddle in the shade.
When there was just one shirt left and five of us waiting, Kareem said, “This last shirt goes out to the person who was born in the country where we got our colors.” He pointed to the red, green, and yellow lettering on the shirt, the colors of the Ethiopian flag. I was in. It was a sweet victory, and the shirt was my trophy. I was even given a nickname, a tag, that was chosen for me by the older kids, what they’d call me, what I’d spray paint on the subway platforms or abandoned cars: Huey Newton. On my T-shirt, in black marker: “Huey lives! Tough as nails!”
We wore loose T-shirts tucked into baggy dyed red, green, or yellow jeans that rested on our waists held up by big buckled black belts. We wore black high-top sneakers and bright white socks. We boys had high flat-tops and messages shaved into our fades. The girls gathered their hair into tight buns on the top of their heads and colorful head-wraps smoothed down the baby strands around their hairlines (and two or three always carried around hair spray and some hair oil, too). Our style made us look bigger than we were, wider, taller (and our mothers didn’t mind because we could grow into our clothes over time, and so they lasted us longer before we passed them down or consigned them).
We listened to hip-hop as it blasted from cars, from boom boxes, or from turntables at block parties and played it on a tape deck during breaks from practice. We liked De La Soul, Monie Love, MC Lyte, Run DMC, and LL Cool J. We loved Afrika Bambaataa, Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, and Queen Latifah. We could do without the Beastie Boys, 2 Live Crew, and Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince (until “Summertime” came out, and we started looping their stuff).
None of this is to idealize; the All Stars were no saints, none of us.
Even our leaders were flawed because, let’s face it, Kareem had nasty, nasty things to say about every other race he could name, and I wondered how a twelve-year-old kid, even one as tall and boisterous as Kareem, could hold all that bitterness in his unformed body. And I’m convinced some of the older kids pushed around us younger ones because they finally found a way to exercise their power, and in fact, two or three dropped out and ended up in the junior gangs that sprung up in our neighborhood with names spun off hip-hop groups (modeled after N.W.A. alone: N.W.T., Niggaz Wit Troubles; N.W.E., Niggaz Wit Enemies; N.W.S., Niggaz Wit Swagga).
The All Stars were no saints, but they were a buoy. They didn’t give me the puzzled looks that cut short conversations about race, like at home or in class. They didn’t say things like, “Just don’t pay attention to that.” Or “You’re imagining things.” The All Stars always had an opinion, something for me to think over. And no matter where the conversation went, they always brought it back to pride. Pride the lesson, pride the method. Shame, too, when pride was lost.
Shame is a powerful lesson.
For most of my seventh-grade year, I had achieved what I thought
was a balance of worlds, delicate maybe, but I was living it; that was my life, a golden moment I had hold of, and all was copacetic up until one Saturday afternoon on the way back from an All Stars meeting at the public library on Eastern Parkway when Kareem and I put a rift between us that couldn’t mend. We were all walking by the corner store by Grand Army, and I said the shop had the best array of candy on this side of the East River that I’d seen. Kareem told me he didn’t ever step foot in that store. I asked why not. Kareem said, in a low-pitched voice, “Don’t even get me started...,” then he cursed under his breath, and what he said made me step back, a minutes-long tirade about Koreans, one slur after another ending with “These Koreans come here from Beijing or Shanghai or wherever, no passport and no papers, and they take over our blocks, my block? All of y’all are OK with this?”
Some of the girls laughed, but it was a dismissive kind of laughter, and Kareem got defensive, crossed his arms, and cursed even louder ￼￼at Korean store-owners, at the whole lot of them for their invasion of Crown Heights.
“Back me up, Huey. Don’t you know all black folk in New York City take issue with the Koreans?” he asked and looked at me. I shook my head. He asked, “You never had problems with that store, with them.”
“Never had problems, Kareem.”
“Bullshit,” he cried out, and the girls giggled again—at him, we could tell—and he didn’t like that. “I said bull-shit,” Kareem yelled. “You like goin’ there?” He grabbed my shoulder, and I could see he was going to get something out of me one way or another. “They fuckin’ colonizers. Don’t you know about colonizers out there in Africa? Things that wash up on the Coney Island shore: nasty hypodermic needles, oil from tanker spills, and little boatfuls of Koreans set to storm my block.” He was yelling so loud that a group of neighborhood kids had gathered around us smelling a fight.
“That’s not the Koreans,” someone said. “That’s Cubans and Haitians in the boats.”
“This ain’t no D-Day invasion, Kareem,” someone else yelled. “How many boats you seen?”
Kareem went on with his ranting, and then to defuse the situation I said, “You know, I came to this shore, Kareem. Me and my family came to this shore, and you’ve got nothing against me.”
“But you’re not takin’ nothin’ from me,” Kareem said.
“Yeah he is,” a girl yelled provocatively. “He’s taking your spot, Kareem.”
“Is that right, Newton?” Kareem said playfully, but as he looked me in my eyes, looking down at me because he was at least five inches taller, I could see the idea land somewhere in his mind, and he began to think it over, then he pushed his right shoulder against my right shoulder, hitting mine back like he was cocking for a fight. “You want to rob me of somethin’? I can see it in your eyes, Newton, you keepin’ somethin’ from me.” His expression grew more serious, and he pushed my shoulder turning my body in circles, and the All Stars gathered close, and started calling out at him to cut it out, but the other kids who gathered pumped for a fight. Kareem glared at me in a way that scared the shit out of me. I wondered what was happening to the friendship that we were forging with so much effort and kindness and ￼￼time that it had transformed into a true filial bond because ten minutes before that I would have called him my brother, but right then, he didn’t seem to know who I was.
He said, “I think those Koreans did somethin’ to you, and you just keepin’ it in. Why you think you can live in two separate worlds like that, your black world and your immigrant world? Or is it your black world and your fancy school world?” Kareem’s eyes brewed, some buried old upset surfacing.
Someone from back of the crowd yelled, “You can’t let this skinny little wash-up kid lie to you like that, Kareem.”
“He hiding something, they all is.”
“Fight it outa him.”
The All Stars, on the other hand, were saying, “Stay calm, stay cool, boys. Keep your cool, boys,” and things like that.
I said, “I took nothing from you, Kareem. I’ve got no beef with you. Let’s just let this lay here and leave it be.” My words were wavering, soft, and even if they had been hard and sharp, the intensity that showed in his eyes made me realize he wasn’t open to what I had to say anymore. He heard me, but I couldn’t sway him.
He rhythmically hit his shoulder against mine, spinning me around. He spoke words full of disbelief. “You sayin’ that the spot you took in that fancy school can protect you from even the Koreans? Motherfucker, I don’t believe it. I see it right there in your eyes, Newton, plain as the motherfuckin’ day,” he said, shaking his head.
I searched the crowd for allies, then he punched me, and for some reason, I wasn’t ready for it. I felt my head jerk, the muscles in my neck relax, I staggered back and sought balance, and my hand went up to where my cheek pulsed with pain. I tasted metal, I thought, then ran my tongue on my salty gums. The All Stars lunged toward Kareem now, but the rest of the crowd was cheering us on, and Kareem was jumping up and down in place like he was skipping rope.
He could have kept going, I saw, but I also could tell then that his anger was taking on the form of a deep hurt, and we were both there in so much pain. I put up my hands in surrender because I didn’t want him to take all of what he had stored up out on me, and I didn’t want to hurt him either, and yes, fuck, I was hiding something, and he knew it, and he was hiding something from me, and I saw it, his agony right ￼￼there in his eyes, his anguish, maybe even his hate. I had a secret that some would say I was willing to go to my grave with the way Kareem can fight, but Kareem won with one punch, and that hurt reflected back in his eyes, and the spoils of his victory: he got a story out of me, and he got my shame.
The crowd dispersed when the fight defused, and when it was just me and the All Stars, I said to Kareem, “Something happened to me,” and he lifted his arms, turning around like a prizefighter basking in glory.
The All Stars listened carefully, and I told them every detail I could think of. I started by saying my mom had given me a whole two dollars for lunch the day we had a school trip to the Cloisters (a couple of the All Stars yelled out asking what those were, and I told them it was like a huge castle in New York that you get to if you take the Manhattan A almost all the way to the end of the line). I bought a hot dog when we had our lunch in the park and ended up with a dollar left over, which I wanted to use to buy two candy bars on the way home.
I was in this store weighing the pros and cons of a Whatchamacallit against a Kit Kat when the proprietress tapped me on the shoulder. I thought she was going to ask if she could help me, but she asked me to join her outside and spoke quietly like she had a secret to tell me. She whispered that her husband was out of town that day, and she was busy. This meant, she was saying, that there was no one there to follow me around like usual. She asked me if I could just wait outside. She would buy me what I wanted and bring it out to me. I told her I had just wanted to browse that day, and I walked away.
The day after this, my magnet friends and I were on our way to the Botanical Gardens, and I still had my extra dollar in my jacket pocket. They wanted to stop off for a snack at that corner store that day. They always had extra lunch money and went there all the time when they were going to Eastern Parkway to visit the Gardens or the Brooklyn Museum or the library. I walked nervously toward the store, and the proprietress saw me again, and she blocked me at the door. “My husband is gone,” she said pointing around her. “Next week, come in then.” She asked me to wait outside again, just me. She let the others in.
None of my school friends seemed bothered by this. I looked at my closest friend there, Tommy, who was my lab partner, and my study- buddy in homeroom. We were on all the same teams together, and he ￼￼was by far my most trusted friend of the group. He didn’t turn around, and I felt embarrassed and ashamed when he entered the store with the others. I didn’t want to go home yet and leave them. In fact, I couldn’t work out what I felt. So I called Tommy’s name from the door, and he turned back. “Mack, what’re you doing?” Tommy asked me. “The lady doesn’t want me to come in the store today,” I said. He nodded as if to say she was an adult and we were kids, so she must be right.
I gave him a dollar and asked him to do the favor of buying me two candy bars. I remember his shaggy mop of feathery blond hair bouncing up and down as he crossed the threshold into the store. I stared inside the store from the window and watched him look at the new magazines, saw him considering the array of sodas, and watched as Tommy played with the others as they picked through the cheap toys that were stacked on the counter near the register. I stood at the window and waited.
When he was done shopping, Tommy handed me my candy bars, and that was that. Except that my magnet friends and I didn’t talk about it afterward. Deliberately avoided the whole event, by which I mean, what had happened that day at that store was painstakingly avoided. I could just tell. They continued to frequent the store when they passed that way, but I didn’t go back much after that. Come to think of it, yeah, not at all. And those friends never asked why not but just changed the subject whenever I said I had to go home or wasn’t up for going. That event hung in the air, and we sensed a wrong, but nothing came of that feeling, not even a word.
As I was relaying this story to the All Stars, I could see from the looks on their faces—the disbelief, the gaping mouths, the wide eyes— that I had done something appalling. And something appalling had indeed been done to me. I felt like a kid who was the butt of a joke he didn’t completely understand, smiling and laughing along to an insult I missed entirely.
Kareem didn’t flinch, but the other All Stars erupted.
“Come on now, think: What would Huey do?”
“We should throw you out!”
“Have you learned a goddamn thing?”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Use your head, Huey!”
“Have some pride and walk away.” ￼￼
Kareem looked at me and said, “Bottom line, you paid her to treat you like a nigger.” He thought about it, then asked, “Why you keepin’ that from me? You protected her from me. She’s your people, someone who don’t even want you around?”
“No, you don’t get it, I protected myself,” I said and started rubbing my jaw, which was still sore from the punch, and the long story didn’t help.
“Protected from me, though? What else you hidin’ about that other world of yours?”
“No, it’s not like that. I never talked about it with anyone, and then it got to be the kind of thing you don’t talk about.”
“We let you in, Newton. Is you in in or what?” B“Yeah, Kareem, I’m in.”
“We’ll see, Newton. We’ll see about you.”
By 1991, the divisions in the city shifted but were still eroding the
streets, carving out barriers like insurmountable ravines. The Bensonhurst protests were raging. Someone even tried to kill Al Sharpton, but he survived. Then just before school started, the latest race conflict in Brooklyn came to Crown Heights, where a Hasidic man accidentally ran over a seven-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl, both black. The boy died; the girl made it. That one resonated with me, since they were kids, too. I guess it resonated in a different way with the black men who then went on to kill a young Jewish man and the ones who killed an Italian guy who looked Jewish.
I was starting eighth grade and became the new captain of the All Stars, and it was no consolation prize, though the open rumor was Kareem got together a faction to vote against me, and his ammunition had to do with that story, that fight we had, and what I deserved from the All Stars. I put in a lot of time before the vote proving myself, trying to make up the ground I’d lost that day. Actually running for captain was probably another way for me to devote myself more than before, but the win wasn’t all sweet; nothing was right between me and Kareem again. Though he was already in high school by then, Kareem came to the small ceremony-of-sorts in my honor, but he stood in the back, didn’t stay to say hello or congratulations, just sulked there as ￼￼if it had to be seen with his very own eyes. He hardly looked at me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him, just stared at him waiting for a sign of approval.
I thought of Kareem a lot after this, wondering what it would take to make amends again. He never was on my mind more than the day in ’92 when my father’s best friend, Ephraim Alemu, tragically died too young of a heart attack. The memorial was held out by Sunset Park, and I went with my father, who managed to get the day off. We had to take a bus ride that took so long the All Stars joked I’d need a passport. My father had known Ephraim all of his life, and they became particularly close when they both immigrated to the US, to Brooklyn. My father, a no-nonsense, soft-spoken, diligent, and proper man, took me to the florist with him to buy a simple bouquet, is what he said he wanted. When we walked into the store, the clerk, an old white guy, took one look at my father and started speaking immediately, “No, no, no!” He approached us shaking his finger. “We don’t accept food stamps here,” he said. The clerk walked up to my father and tried to usher him back out the store, almost pushing him out. My father pointed to his new shoes and suit and silk tie. “Do I look like I can’t pay you?”
The clerk repeated, “No food stamps!” and my father looked to the clerk, then to me, then back to the clerk. He must have considered walking out, and he must have considered taking all of his hurt out on the man with his fists (he had that same mix of grief and anger in his eyes that I’d once seen in Kareem’s).
“Dad, let’s go,” I said, pulling on my father’s jacket sleeve. “This isn’t the only florist in town.”
My father looked at me. “Stop it,” he hissed. “This is the only flower shop I’m in right now.”
The clerk said, “The problem is you Negros think your food stamps are as good as gold.”
My father said, “We’re Ethiopians.”
This meant nothing to the man, so my father said, “I want the nicest flowers you have.”
And I pleaded, “Dad, let’s get out of here. This man doesn’t deserve your money,” but the clerk stopped me from leaving and said to my father, “We have a lovely selection. Which ones would you like?” and he paused and added “sir.” ￼￼
“I want the best,” my dad said.
“Dad, this isn’t it,” I said and stepped between my father and this clerk.
The clerk said to me then, “It’s OK, I thought you were one of them.” He chose a big vase full of orchids and lilies, and walked over to my father, and I thought of the All Stars, so I just bent a little low, stuck my leg out, and I watched the man trip over my foot, flowers flying everywhere, and in a brisk motion, I brought my leg back in, and the guy didn’t even know what happened. My father saw it, and we quickly walked out, but before we left, I got one last surge of satisfaction shouting, “I am one of them! Always have been.” On the walk home, my father had a hard time finding the right words but eventually said, “Where did you learn a thing like that? Mekonnen, we must do what we can to keep our pride here.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
We looked at each other a few minutes more. He looked like he was working out a difficult problem, making an intricate calculation. His eyes were distant and his mouth pursed. I looked away feeling sorry for him, worried for him. He might have felt the same for me; I still don’t know.
I wondered how much pain he had escaped by avoiding these harsh American lessons about race until he was older and maybe better able to distance himself from them, or on the other hand, how much more difficult was it for him to confront this context so late in life, when perhaps the insults were more shocking and unexpected, damaged all the more? Who was better off, the All Stars or my father? And of course, I couldn’t help but wonder, where did I stand? I look back on what I learned from the All Stars often, and it’s nothing I can name simply, but doesn’t it have something to do with survival, and pride, and shame, and resilience, and camaraderie, and honesty, and acceptance, and holding your body up tall, and hitching yourself to a past, and making legends of the big and small victories of that past, and deciding for yourself what you’re worth? I wonder what my father and Kareem would say to that now.