My Liberation: A Story of Life and Death
My mother almost died carrying me. She was hyperemetic and the pregnancy was nearly killing her. I heard she took some experimental drugs that weren’t approved by the FDA, but I came out okay. Well, except for that sixth toe. But its good for climbing.
I was born in Jersey City in 1980, the height of the crack epidemic. I grew up in the hood. It’s all I’ve known. My mother took me to Bangladesh, our homeland, and I told another boy I’d go back to Jersey, get a gun, and come back to blow his brains out. It was over a foot race. I was 5.
It’s not like I made a conscious choice to turn out any kinda way. I was just responding and reacting to my circumstances. By the time I was 5, I’d sorted out that I would have to fend for myself in life. My parents provided, but they didn’t always parent. I didn’t get those sit-down conversations that American kids sometimes get. I was raised as an only child, and by the time I was 5, I could tell from how much my parents fought that I wouldn’t be getting any brothers or sisters. My father had other kids, by a white woman he married before my mom, but they never acted like real family. So I raised myself. At 5, I got tired of the other kids laughing at my Bengali accent and my difficulties with the English language. So I taught myself English. By 8, I was teaching myself whatever I figured I needed to know to survive. We never had money, but there were always books. And TV. And the hood. So I studied hard.
By 9 though, I was pretty traumatized from growing up like this. I remember my father started kicking me out the house around then. Maybe it was the only thing he thought would work. Maybe I was getting outta control. I probably was, but the things we tend to remember are the moments we feel pain and what we got outta that moment. I remember being tossed out one evening. It was raining. I was barefoot. I found a place to camp out for the night and when I finally came back I hoped they’d realized what was going wrong. They didn’t. Immigrant parents are different from American parents in that they miss a lot of the subtle emotional stuff that happens in families here. We grow up desperate for love that they weren’t raised to give. And so, by 10, I was running away from home. I really thought I was on my own. I didn’t know how any of it affected my father until I read his writings after he passed in 2009. Now that I’m a father, I understand fully.
But then, I was in far too much pain to see any of that. When I was old enough to “jump off the porch” and hit the streets of my neighborhood, the hood took me in with open arms. I’d stayed outta major trouble til now, but by the time I was old enough to run away to New York, I felt like I was already a man. So I gave my life to the streets. I had to constantly prove myself, but it felt like family. It felt like home. It felt like love.
Conversely, I never felt comfortable when I’d visit my relatives in the suburbs. Their parents didn’t feel comfortable with me either. I was always the hood kid they didn’t want burning down their house. In fairness, it was only ONE of my friend’s houses that I nearly burnt down. But Indians, like most immigrant communities, think white folks are the best thing since Naan bread. But I never felt that way. I’d experienced racism from white people since I could walk. The hood embraced everyone, from white boy Dave to Puerto Rican Jeff to dirty ass Peanut from around the corner. So back then I would have rather ran from cops and fought daily than to subject myself to the humiliation of living in the suburbs and going to a school where they treat you like less than a human. I refused to accept the path of the quiet immigrant kid who lives as a victim.
I got kicked out of high school sophomore year. They’d already suspended me for putting my graffiti up across the whole school, and now they were expelling me. I’d robbed a white boy, and he confronted me with a group of his white friends. I bucked. Threatened him. Said I’d do it again. Told every white boy in that crowd that they wouldn’t “do shit to me.” They didn’t. At least not how we would where I’m from. No, they told the principal and I was outta there. That’s how white folks beat you up. Through the system.
No high school in the county would take me. I had a bad rap. I spent a few months out of school, convinced I was dropping out. I didn’t feel I needed school anymore. I told my mother I wanted to start a company. In my heart, I was ready to die. I didn’t plan on living to see 25, like most of my friends, and I wanted to enjoy whatever time I had left on the planet. School wasn’t a part of that vision. I got deeper into the streets. Still, I’d tell my closest partners that I knew there was something better for us, just something so far out of reach or out of sight that we barely could imagine what that something was.
Later that year, after my mother’s pleading wore them down, I got accepted into a high school that I honestly didn’t plan to graduate from. Many of us didn’t. We were just living to die. Or just making it. But not really living. In my illusion of freedom, I cut class, smoked weed in the stairwells, and left school to rob folks with my team. I was outgoing and always animated. Always into something. Meanwhile, my GPA was lower than my self-esteem. I’d already attempted suicide before, but I figured if I kept jumping those rooftops running from cops, eventually I’d have my end in spectacular fashion. Either that or I’d build a drug empire like Scarface and die in a pile of coke. No lie, that was my vision.
I’d started selling coke, although – as with the stickups – my conscience would eat at me every damn day I kept it up. This is when two things happened. One, the school’s Crisis Intervention Counselor, James Johnson, forced me into a college prep program. That was my “out” after Mr. Johnson confronted me with everything I’d been caught doing lately. So I started the program, where I’d have to trade in that oversized t-shirt and jeans that sagged to my knees for a button-down shirt and slacks. This is how I began even considering college as an option. Mr. Johnson didn’t leave me a choice in the matter.
Now, I mighta been more stubborn and rebellious to Mr. Johnson if it hadn’t been for another older brother, the god Pure Sun Allah. I knew Sun from the block. We’d go to his apartment and sit on some dusty crates around a folding card table, drinking 40s of Schlitz and St. Ides, smoking the kinda weed you can’t even give away now, and freestyling over pause tapes made from Ron G mixtapes. Some of yall remember all this.
After we’d smoke, Sun would pull out his “Book of Life.” This is where I first saw and heard the teachings of Allah’s Five Percent. As someone who’d been engaged in self-study since 5, everything I learned was music to my ears. Sun taught me as much as he could and then introduced me to all the Gods and Earths he knew in the city. I found my home in that community, because there were people who thought like me. I started drinking and smoking less. I stopped selling powder and doing stickups. I was building daily.
In having knowledge of self, and specifically the knowledge that I was the “sole controller” of all outcomes in my life, I found an answer for my depression. It had gotten so deep and heavy that I wasn’t just ready to die, I’d lost my sense of value for all life in general, making it that much easier to contemplate taking another’s life without concern. For years I was comfortable with the prospect of killing. I justified it as being about survival, but a part of me wanted to kill. The intensity of that life had nurtured a coldness in me, a numbness that pushed me to suppress my feelings rather than engaging them. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, but I never really mastered my emotions or the trauma that produced them. Instead, I repressed every emotion…except anger. I mighta deaded Sloth, Gluttony, and Greed, but Wrath was my middle name. I was always “on one.” I hurt a lot of feelings these years, hell, more than feelings. I was not the one to try. Plus I was a straight shooter. Yeah.
So I wonder if some of the people who loved me actually feared me, but I wasn’t paying attention to those things then. Even as I matured into an adult, I never quit my anger. I thought it was cool, because I didn’t see where it came from, or why it plagued me. Fortunately, I also never quit my drive to achieve and accomplish. So, from the time I acquired knowledge of self as a young teen to the time I’d be applying that knowledge as an adult with a family, I always found myself busy. I went from accepting my future as a high school dropout headed for an early death…to a nonstop push for greatness, whether it was in school, in business, in real estate, or in changing the world through my teaching. I stayed busy, always doing more than before. From 15 to 25, I did more than most people do in their entire lives. I truly took my life by the horns, and people respected it. I never spent much time calling myself God, because people would see it in me themselves. Then they’d talk to me and soon see it in themselves. That’s always been my greatest joy. To be a positive and instructive influence in the lives of others. When I stopped wanting to die, this calling is what gave me life. Seeing myself as capable of saving lives gave me a reason to live. Still, I wasn’t “happy.”
After all, all I knew was turbulence. Spotting fires and putting them out. Saving lives, daily, it seemed. I had moved to Atlanta, alone, when I was 16. I graduated from college and went straight into a teaching career. But I wasn’t fully out the street life. After all, I never changed my zip code. At one point, early in my career, I’d be going to work with a metal attache briefcase with the heat locked away in it. And the babies LOVED me! Parents too. But I was riding the bus (yes, the bus) to work as a teacher, and I’d just pistolwhipped one of the top goons in my neighborhood a few days prior. All behind the young brother I’d taken custody of earlier that year. I was 23 and he was 15. Like I said, I chose to grow up fast. Long story short, I had to be prepared. Meanwhile, the Japanese government was inviting me to come to Tokyo to be honored for my work in the school system. I owned almost a million dollars worth of real estate. I was starting my third or fourth company. You could say I was doing it all.
By 25, however, I was miserable. I’d nearly gone bankrupt trying to make myself wealthy, and a series of bad relationship had me giving up on love and family. I went to Ghana that year, thinking of quitting America (better than quitting life, right?) and again I found new definition, a new vision. I stopped trying to be rich, and worked harder on just being happy. Life, of course, never slowed down. The following year I was completing my dissertation for my doctorate, only to be interrupted by felony drug charges. Sitting in that jail, I knew I needed to change my life some more, but couldn’t see how.
That’s when I met Mecca Wise. Through the process of us coming together as a couple, a partnership, and a family, I developed an entirely new lens on life. Over eight years, we grew up together, challenging each other to become our best. In raising our children, I learned quite a lot about what really matters in life. In running SDP, I saw that we were, indeed, the ones who could give the people salvation. Liberation through education. It was as fulfilling as a life’s path can be.
So when I lost Mecca to breast cancer, it left me, again, traumatized. We spent three years fighting that disease, and it took its toll on all us, our children included. When she passed on September 19, 2014, I was more fucked up than Donald Trump’s hairline. People would later ask, “How did you get through all that, and not go crazy?” You know what I say back? I yell, “How you know I’m NOT? Boogly boogly boo!” with my arms flailing and tongue hanging out. I think it’s fair, cause I really was that crazy for a while. It’s just that nobody really knew it because (a) only a few people stayed close enough, and (b) I wear crazy well. Hell, I made crazy look cool, cause nobody knew just how dysfunctional I’d become.
So, to death again? No, losing Mecca revealed to me yet another stage in my evolution, another layer of the onion of self to peel, and what I saw was so eye-opening I could reject that kinda thinking so much easier now. Sure, I went for about a year in desolate darkness, but now I could see the light. Mecca taught me we all have to love ourselves first, and to do so would require unraveling the tapestries of our tortured souls. The way we’ve been warped, and why. An African proverb says, “To fix a crooked stick, it must be bent in the opposite direction.” So I started a cleanse. Not a physical one, but one in which I let go of all toxins that are psychological or emotional in nature. And just like the brain damage you incur when you take in lead or mercury, these toxins build up but they don’t flush out on their own. You’ve gotta take a personal inventory and then make a personal decision to take that path yourself.
So I let go. That was another thing Mecca was big on, mostly because she was teaching it to herself at the time. To simply “let go.” So I let go of grief, of anger, of resentment, and all the other feelings that caused me pain. When I let go, I felt so different, so unencumbered, so weightless, so unburdened, that I almost didn’t think it was real.
But I continued, refusing to think negatively about people who I had once felt negatively about. Then I did the same for situations and life events. Like, if I spilled all the soup I just cooked, I learned to smile, remembering, “At least you got soup to cook and a kitchen to cook it in fucker! Don’t complain! You could be in a soup kitchen instead!” Okay, maybe it was a bit rough when I started, but that was the general idea. Why was I holding on these toxic feelings? To these negative outlooks on life? The Buddha said “Anger is like a hot coal, it only burns the one holding it.” And I’d been a man on fire, all my life, or at least since I was old enough to speak for myself. It was time to let go. To get free. To live differently.
So I quit my dayjob. Well, technically, I retired from a 14-year-long career with the Atlanta Public School system. I did so to give more of myself to my children, who needed me now, more than ever. I wanted not only to be available, but to be functional. To be a source of inspiration rather than someone who was also traumatized and stuck. So I also scaled down my responsibilities at SDP. This way, I can do what I love and value: writing and teaching. Now, I can go anywhere in the world, with my children, whenever I please…and work from there. I can teach as I live my life, but what’s most important is that I’m actually reclaiming “my life.” That’s something many of us don’t have. Especially those of us who got off the couch and went hard after achievement. Either for our ego, to satisfy someone else, or for the sake of our babies…whyever you did it, you chose a path that’s wracked with turbulence. Every step of the journey. But that’s why we have to make things easier for ourselves. By refusing to beat ourselves up, or admonishing ourselves excessively for past failures (after all, failures are lessons), or holding ourselves prisoners to our many obligations, without any respect for our passions or the live we really want to (and are meant to) live.
Don’t you want to be free? I damn sure do. And while much of the work must be (and is) done on a large scale, changing the way our very world works, this work begins with YOU. And freedom begins with your “free dome” or a mind unencumbered by the weights of grief, stress, worry, anxiety, fear, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, and so on. That’s where it starts. I damn sure didn’t start my path with that understanding, but I damn sure got the Supreme Understanding now.
Love yourself first.
Then love others as you love yourself.