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Excerpt from chapter fourteen of "17 to Life: A Black Boy Memoir". Author Oronde Ash describes his struggles in adolescence to define a black identity as a wanna be writer

Below is one of the later chapters in my book, 17 to Life: A Black Boy Memoir. I spend most of the book trying to get out of my head, live the way I want to and not play the roles ascribed to black boys in America. In my teenage years, I literally had conversations with MY SELF --the person I knew I was but had yet to express-- about what was right for me. Slowly but surely, I began to dismiss the negative BOY in my head --my fears, anxieties and frustrations-- and listen to the positive VOICE that was emerging. I know I am not alone in thinking this way. With my book, I feel I'm giving voice to a process many [black folk] experience but can never fully define.


"I wore a black band on my left wrist everyday after reading a Sports Illustrated article on John Carlos and John Smith’s black power stance on the medal stand in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Some [high school] students at Tech began seeing me as a rebel artist, a little different. This time it was a good different, free to say and do things only an artist could get away with. Escape into art gave me the room to both confront and run away from a black identity I was struggling to define everyday.

At CTY, we read an essay from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. I had to hold the tears back as Baldwin described the poverty, helplessness, sheer drudgery of Harlem. “We shouldn’t be reading this,” I remember saying after one intense passage. I didn’t like the way the rich, white, kid was reading Baldwin’s urban, black words. The kid’s voice lacked something. I didn’t realize what it was until I heard a Dominican girl read a story in Spanish class. Someone started reading the words then the girl picked up the story in the middle. When she read her part, the words jump off the page. I felt the Spanish story because the girl could accent things none of the English-speaking readers knew.

I was moved to the core by James Baldwin’s words and wanted to write like he made me feel. In him, I found a means to voice the disillusionment, the suppressed anger, the knowledge that couldn’t come out, the family dynamic I never confronted. But every story I wrote in English class was a glossy, black tale. I remember sitting in my room and picturing white people in my head when I crafted my plays. I felt sick. “The Man has got you.” My sentiments were black, but the characters, like me, were shells. All I did was give the black shells names like Mahlik, Yusef or Kwame. In every other respect, my characters were white. As an artist, a James Baldwin wanna-be, the creative process was frustrating. I felt like a disappointment to my race.

I wanted to feel blackness all over my body and transmit it through the word. I wanted to go to the movies or turn on the TV and see a young, urban, confused black boy trying to find his lost self in a world which had only taught him to hate his confused, lost, black self. When that day never came --will it ever?-- I finally turned off the TV set. If I did watch the boob tube, I tried to be more critical of the images that influenced me. If something didn’t hit me as being an additive to the black man I was trying to create, it had to go.

Instead of network television, I watched PBS. A film on the history of Rock-n-Roll --or what is truly black Rhythm and Blues with a glossy, white cover-- changed my perception of black music.

“You should listen to more rap and R&B now that you know how important it is in the history of music,” my voice told me.

“It’s boring.” [This is a conversation with MY SELF/MY EMERGING VOICE]

“You don’t feel connected to it, huh?,” my voice asked.

“You know the worst part of talking to you?”


“You know everything… Of course I don’t feel connected to R&B. It’s about love and women, two things I don’t have in my life.”

“Just try listening again, will you?”

“I told you, black people got no soul, man. We sell out our voices and say nothing with it.”

“As much as you’d like to believe it’s everybody else, you’re the one with no soul. You’re seeing what you’re feeling, Oronde. Learn to embrace your music.”

“How do they expect anyone in the black community to feel love?”

“What are you saying?,” my voice asked.

“I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“So think about it.” I paused... maybe for days…. maybe weeks. “I’m saying there’s no love in the black community.”

“You’re saying there’s no love in you,” my voice answered.

“OK. OK. Hear me out. What if the only reason we’re buying all the R&B love crap is because we are suffering for love. That’s why those girls go nuts for Jodeci. That’s why we went nuts for soul music in the sixties. That’s what those writhing bodies in the painting Sugar Shack is all about. We want an aesthetic we seldom experience.”

“OK,” my voice begged. “Now hear me out. What if the only reason you think R&B is crap is because you have no love in you? You want love; you’re dying for love. What if you’re just jealous of Jodeci because they can create an aesthetic you will never know? That’s why you can’t go nuts for soul, that’s what your uninspired writing is all about. Black people have been through hell in this country. We’ve had our music repackaged, re-named, re-done, rehearsed and re-sold to the rest of the world as Rock-n-Roll.”

“And?” I asked.

“And… And still we rise to crank out the soundtrack of America. Black rhythms and black blues made this country, Oronde. Black love made black music, therefore…”


“Black love made this country.” I was still too young to accept truth when I heard it.

From what the news projected, black love didn’t exist in America, especially among the young, urban and poor. Black love had never been re-enforced in my apartment, so it was easy for me to buy into the media negativity. What I saw often made me ashamed. Brothas were killing brothas over sneakers and gold necklaces. Black life seemed to mean nothing. I couldn’t respect any black man --any human being-- who lived like that.

When young Gavin Cato was killed on President Street in Crown Heights --five minutes from where I lived --and the so-called riots ensued, I was appalled. When a Jewish man was shot, I was distraught. The boy who shot the Jewish man was an old acquaintance. We used to play baseball when I was at Mary McCleod Bethune. He used to smile a lot. He loved baseball. When he was in the papers and on the news, the boy was never smiling. Brothas didn’t smile in Brooklyn.

“Why do they have to do this on TV?” I asked. “We’re just showing the world what they think we are --animals.”

“Are they supposed to do nothing? A black kid got run over. The driver of the car is hiding in Israel. Could a black man get away with that?” my voice asked. “You really got to start hangin’ out with more brothas, Oronde. At least study some Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions. You don’t even know the people on this block, do you? You can at least pick your head up and smile at the sistas around here.”

“They don’t like him,” the little boy inside me countered. “They’ve never liked me. When I first got here. They thought I sounded white.”

“They thought… They thought.” My voice had been trying to evict the little idiot still in my head. The boy was coming between truth and me. Even I was afraid for the boy. Where would he go?"

“Did anybody ever tell you, ‘Oronde, I don’t like you because your voice sounds white’.”


“Are you starting to see something here?” I didn’t want to think it, but it was there.

“It’s all in my head.”


“You’re saying every negative thought I’ve had about black people is only a…”

“Keep going. Keep going...”

“…Only a... a projection of the way I feel about me.”

“Don’t stop. Don’t stop there,” my voice urged, like a teacher finding his purpose.

“And if I start thinking positive about me… then I’ll… I’ll start thinking positive about black people.”

“Not just black people. Everybody.”

“Why don’t they teach this in school?” I asked.

“They do.”

“Then how come I never got it?”

“You never liked me enough to learn,” my voice said. “I mean, learn deep down in my soul so you never forget it.”

“This can’t be right. Life can’t be that simple?” I wondered.

“It’s a lot simpler than you think. Truth always is. The world just makes every day more complex ‘cause man has to do something between sun-up and sundown.”

“What kind of truth?” I asked.

“Love,” he said simply. “A love of self is the most important thing anybody -- black, white, brown, yellow-- will ever learn. Honestly, how do you feel these days?”

I thought about it. “I feel light.”

“Not only do you feel light, you also see light, don’t you?” I was confused. “The people in the hallway,” my voice went on, “are not looking at the dreads or the glasses. They’re looking at light. It’s like you’re born again. Who doesn’t want to be born again? You said it yourself. These days you’re like the mother, the father and the son rolled all into one. You’re becoming complete. You’re growing up. You’re becoming human, my brotha… Human.”

I didn’t understand all that he was saying, but I felt good finally hearing my voice."

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Replies to This Discussion

Wow, James Baldwin turned me on to how life was for blacks back in the day too. Great read, I enjoyed it.


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