How a young boy has been decaying in Baltimore since age 10: A Death Note
If the sounds of gunshots were generated into song sales, Baltimore would’ve gone triple platinum by now. Murder has been opening its mouth like a hungry lion, eating away more than 220 lives in 2017, and it’s only August.
It was 3:00 a.m. and I was laying down on a pint-sized mattress in a cramped dorm room at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I had a long day of writing workshops, so I decided to hit up the The Violet Hour, a bar in Wicker Park, where I guzzled 4 vodka gimlets to end my late-night/early-morning. I was plastered, numb to all misery, until my phone buzzed. I checked it, and an alert read, “Man killed in Greenmount Avenue shooting becomes city’s 200th homicide victim.” I stared at the ceiling as cold tears slid down my cheek, chilling the back of my neck. I started to reminisce about all of my family and friends who expired on the streets of Baltimore. Depression crept down on me, hope seemed futile, and I wanted to fade out like Robin Williams. I called on God, but his phone was on do not disturb; it seems as though he always ignores me when I need him the most. Every time a body drops in my city, no matter if it’s a loved one or not, a piece of my sanity is chipped away.
We live in a country that marks black babies at a popular price of null and void.
Since I was a small child, I’ve had family and friends murdered under these Baltimore skies, and it’s been killing me, literally.
It was the summer of 2003 when bullets snatched all 26 years of Trav’s life. Trav was my aunt Lisa’s boyfriend, and my uncle Neil’s best friend. Trav treated me like I was one of his own, and the love was mutual.
I was 10 years old, and school had just ended for the year. I was chilling with Uncle Neil at his crib, waiting for him to get dressed, so we could go back around my way and meet up with Trav. I was awakened out of my sleep by a loud, “Nooooooo, not my nigga!,” an introduction to a phrase that inevitably became commonplace as I grew older. His shriek suppressed the lyrics of 50 Cent ’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that was blasting through the speakers. I woke up and saw Uncle Neil pacing back and forth throughout the living room while veins bulged out of his sweaty forehead. I was afraid to ask what was wrong. But my childlike curiosity burned. “Unc, what happened?”
A minute or two passed, and he sat on the couch beside me and cried. I didn’t know what was going on, but I felt his pain, and I started to cry, too.
“They killed Trav,” Uncle Neil said, as he struggled to get the three words out. This was also my introduction to “they.” “They” is a person or person(s) that I too would hear stories about for a lifetime.
Uncle Neil and I walked on Hillen Road and flagged down a hack, and were driven to my house, two blocks over from where Trav was murdered.
When we arrived, the entire neighborhood was in shambles. I can’t remember a soul who wasn’t crying. For the next few weeks I witnessed how Trav’s death tore Uncle Neil apart. The harsh smell of rotten teeth mixed with Steele Reserve 211 was rushing out of Uncle Neil’s mouth every time he spoke. Liquor was his fling turned wife.
This is my earliest memory of being spiritually and emotionally connected to death in Baltimore, and also my first time seeing how it affected the people around me.
However, this wasn’t my last. My aunt Lisa on the other hand, has had three of her significant others slaughtered in my city. Because her chin is always parked in the air, she doesn’t ever show the slightest glimpse of grief, but I’m sure she’s afflicted with pain.
My second encounter with death was later that same year of Trav’s farewell. This time, it wasn’t a close friend, and it wasn’t murder. It was my seven-year-old little brother Fidel and his 11-year-old brother Davon.
It was approximately 4:00 am when ambulances and fire trucks rushed the block. A firefighter pulled a limp salmon pink object from the hell-fire which ended up being Fidel. Some minutes later, they yanked out Davon.
The following day I walked to Johns Hopkins Hospital to visit Fidel. At this point, Davon had already succumbed to his injuries and died in the hospital before I had chance to see him a final time.
All of Fidel’s hair, gone. His head was swollen. Blisters the size of boiled eggs covered his baby face. Large tubes took an excursion through his throat, nose, penis, and other body parts. I shook his body with my small palms, as I whispered, “Fidel…Fidel.”
He didn’t budge so I shook him a little harder and my voice got a little louder. “FIDEL!…FIDEL!”
He didn’t respond or budge.
Later the next day, I received a call from my grandmother. She said, “Fidel died…We had to pull the plug.”
I wasn’t familiar with the word ‘suicide,’ but I knew that I didn’t want to live any longer, and I was coming up with all sorts of ways to make that happen.
After Trav, Fidel, and Davon all died a few months apart, I knew for sure that I was gonna bite the dust soon.
Keon was 16 years old when a bullet struck his dome while standing on an East Baltimore corner in 2009. I was 16 at the time too. Hours before his brains splattered on dirty marble steps, Keon rode through my block to holla at me.
“Yo, Ima bring some girls through the block later, they bad as shit.”
“Bet, just hit my phone, I’ll be around,” I responded, as I gave him a fist-bump and watched him wheelie away on his silver Mongoose.
A few hours later, my homie Dre ran up Jefferson Street wearing a sweaty grey wife beater. In and out of deep breaths, Dre said, “Yo…Guess What?…Keon…Just got popped!” I dropped my iced tea, and my homies and I sprinted towards Linwood Avenue where Keon was hit. As soon as we arrived, the street was decorated with yellow tape, blue and red lights, and women in pj’s, shaking their heads while tears drained from their ducts. A sight that became a day-to-day thing.
A white sheet covered a body, which I denied was Keon until I scanned the premises and saw his lone green 498 New Balance sneaker napping in the middle of the street. This was my first time seeing a visual representation of the term, “Blow a nigga out his shoes.” A phrase that’s popular in conversation in my neighborhood and in rap songs.
Where I come from, crying is a sign of weakness so I routinely rubbed my eyes, making sure no tears fell.
Keon was gone, and all I kept asking myself was, “Will I be next?” To hide this pain, I was freakin-off with a massive amount of women, I barely was eating, I drank Four Loko long past after my kidney felt like it was gonna burst, and I smoked hella blunts. I had hopes of going to college, but I just knew that the streets would do me in before freshman orientation because everybody’s melon was gettin’ cracked. Death was all around me, and it didn’t have an age limit or gender preference.
April 14th 2014, I was sitting in Gateway Hall, a dormitory at Virginia State University. Thanks to my ambition, and luck, I made it to college. I was working on promotion material for a collection of poems I was planning to release. I received a call from my little brother Antuane. “Yo, Shad got stabbed.” Shad was my best friend. We shared clothes, shoes, and money. Shad’s grandmother sold weed, but she always gave us dimes for free. One night she gave us something close to an ounce, and we shared it with these two sisters from our neighborhood and ended up bangin’ them both on the same bed. Shad was a friend that I’d give my last. My last kidney, my last shot of yak, my last piece of chicken, you name it.
I instantly hung up the phone with Antuane and started praying. I got another call from him 10 minutes later and I heard him crying through the other end. I screamed, “Don’t do this to me Tuane, why the fuck are you lying?” He continued to cry, then he said, “Shad is gone my nigga.” I left out of the lounge area and started walking back to my room. My motor skills conked; you would’ve thought Mike Tyson punched me in the stomach the way I dropped to the floor. My tears flooded the floor, as people walked passed, looking at me as if I were crazy. At this point, I wouldn’t have disagreed with them. I was broken.
I went home and found out that Shad got into an altercation with a guy at a gas station. A fight broke out and Shad got jabbed in his liver several times with a small sword. He crawled into his car and locked himself inside to escape the clutches of his new found enemy. Shad’s suede seats chugged liters of his blood, and he slithered into the opening arms of the grim reaper.
Ya’ll know what I did for the next few months: gave no fucks, and went to class drunk damn near every day, as professors gave me side eyes. I know they smelled that sauce seeping through my pores.
Every day for the next few months, alcohol bit a hole in my pocket, and I routinely locked myself in my dorm room for many nights with 2 Pac’s “Thugz Mansion” and Rihanna’s “What’s Love Without Tragedy?” on repeat, as I killed myself. They were the only two songs that could understand me.
I got disconnected from many of my college friends because I inched further away from the guy they once knew.
I became careless and dispassionate when it came to school and relationships. I wanted to be by myself, and many people just couldn’t understand. I thought that I was gonna drink myself into casket or die from stress before I even made it to senior year. I was ready for the ride.
D was 21 when he got splashed in West Baltimore. It was January, 2015.
I had just returned to my neighborhood after performing some spoken word poetry to a group of students. I was standing out front of JJ’s carryout in East Baltimore, watching cars bounce down the lumpy roads of Monument Street as I waited for my chicken box. Fifteen minutes passed and I walked into the store to check on my food. “Ayyeee Mama! Those 4-wings-and-fries ready?” I said, as I tossed my ticket into the circular plexiglass portal where money, food, and arguments about wrong orders get exchanged. I received my food, left JJ’s, and stopped inside of Rod’s Barbershop, which is a few stores down. As I gave dap to friends and associates, I received a call.
“Yo guess what?”
“You heard D got murked last night?”
I hung up my phone in disbelief and shrieked, “Fuck!” while everyone stared. I left the barbershop and did what I do best to cope. I hit the bar and grabbed a pint of Absolut and a pack of Black & Milds, and started my healing ritual.
D, Shad, and I all hung in the same camp. Every time I looked at old pictures of me and my friends, I saw fewer people, and I couldn’t help but to embrace an early death. I mean how could I not?
Suffering from the mental and emotional pain that stems from murder and violence is one of the many ways that black people die in America.
Every single day I ask, “Will the murder ever stop?” and the more I learn, I understand the hard truth, and the answer is, no.
Aside from the names of the people I mentioned above that died, there are countless of deaths that troubled me while living in Baltimore and being connected to her hip. I have stacks of obituaries, and I can’t count how many funerals I attended.
A list of things I’ve seen at funerals: fist fights amongst friends, family, and I’ve even seen a pastor get knocked out by a quick jab. Drunken fathers have jumped in the ground screaming, “I want to be buried with my son,” at burial sites. I even know of some people who committed suicide after losing a loved one. When anger has been bottled up for ages, anything is liable to take place.
I can’t count how many shoulders I cried on, nor the amount of people I lent shoulders to.
Everyone in my city knows someone who’s been murdered. Thousands of people are suffering from some type of mental anarchy that stems from violence. As I started to do research on violence and murder, the tragedies in Baltimore started to make sense.
I stumbled across an article in Bloomberg that said, “Baltimore is the worst place in America to grow up poor and male.” I know that my city is extremely difficult to survive in, but I never knew that it was the worst in the country. I did more scholarly lurking, and discovered that, Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren researched a child’s chances of future success by collecting a list of the 100 largest counties in America.
The two economists studies show that “Baltimore is at the bottom. But It’s really at the bottom for boys.” This is a result of what I call “zip code genocide.”
Baltimore is a city where “everyone knows each other.” This city has roughly 620,000 residents, and 63% of those people are black. The black people stay and hang out where they live, and vice versa for white people. Baltimore has two identities, and depending on where you reside, depends on what you call it. My friends and I call it ‘Bodymore Murderland.’ The white people call it ‘Charm City.’ We eat chicken boxes and other phony foods while standing on small blocks-adjacent to dice games-under blue lights, and we converse about: who got murdered the night before, the new chicks who moved in the hood, who got beat up by the cops that day, and we drink cheap vodka that burns our chest, and temporarily scraps our heartache.
White people walk their expensive dogs, do yoga, have avocado food fights in Whole Foods, and drink Non-GMO-Glutten-Free Pinot Grigio, I think. Nonetheless, there are two Baltimores, and your zip code determines whether or not you live or die.
Poor and concentrated poverty communities have lower employment, lower educational attainments, higher crime, and poorer health outcomes than other areas. The History, Public Policy, and the Geography of Poverty data reveals, “About 80% of Baltimore City’s poor live in a poverty area, whereas across the rest of the State, 17% of the poor live in a poverty area.”
Poverty is a modern day slave-ship with a little more leg room.
Poverty imprints barriers that deny black people the opportunity to achieve promising education, well-paying jobs, and sanity, which leads to murder, depression, and suicide. Suicide doesn’t always come with a rope, pistols, or prescription pills. In poor living circumstances, suicide is masked-up in drug addiction, self-doubt, murder, and other things, which stifles black progression and strengthen black people’s despair.
The large majority of Americans expect black people to “pull themselves up by the boot straps,” and become “better people,” and that will amend poor black people’s economic status, the racial disparities, and the racial discrimination they face. Placing these incriminations on black people and not the systems that enslave, murder, and oppress black people, is criminal. It is also one of the many racist ideas that keep black people chained to an inferior status in this society.
Poverty will remain undefeated, squeezing people into emergency rooms and graveyards. By the end of this year, if this pace continues, the death rate will be swollen like broken jaw bones, making 2017 the deadliest year ever in Baltimore. Grandmothers will outlive their grandkids and the smell of sizzling flesh will dangle over nappy fades and colorful barrettes.
However, I’m supposed to pretend that I’m happy, while I walk on ground where shy blades of grass grow plump from swallowing the blood of babies.
I’m supposed to pretend that I’m happy, while I wait on bus stop corners where deflated balloons choke dirty light poles, and hard melted candle wax covers marble steps; the cries of mother’s attending vigils ricocheting on my ear drums.
I’m supposed to pretend that I’m happy, although a million screams from absent sons and daughters ride my brain eternally. I’m supposed to pretend that I’m happy, while envisioning the faces of the crying children that killed you: the ones who pop pistols shed tears, too.
I’m supposed to pretend that I’m happy, knowing that death has said its farewell to “around the corner,” and is now dancing at my peephole. I’m supposed to pretend that I’m happy, knowing that many parents don’t have a fair chance at raising their children productively in this smoky city.
I’m supposed to pretend that our zip codes don’t determine whether or not we live or die? I’m supposed to pretend that zip code genocide doesn’t lead to depression, suicide, and homicide? Nevertheless, I don’t have any more patience in me to be fake-happy. I’m aching, my sanity has been shattered, and I don’t mind accompanying the rest of them in paradise, if there is one.
This isn’t a sob story, just my self-expression. I don’t want you to “feel me,” because 9 times outta 10, you won’t be able to do so anyway. Your harm reduction strategies won’t work around here because this is a no heal zone. There is more than 16,000 ran down vacant homes in my city, and we lose loved ones to murder and drug overdoses every day. Where I live, there are no “safe spaces.” Where I live, yoga can’t stop bullets from piercing through the livers of my homies. As long as there is poverty, there will be murder, and where I live, blood will continue to shed.
I don’t have a one-sized-fits-all solution to these problems. I do believe that as a people we need to get the ones who don’t understand the importance of literacy on board. This will lead to critical thinking, which leads to effective decision making; I believe in that, lies hope. Being devoted to changing the world using art is hard for anyone, especially a twenty-four-year-old like myself. Just like SZA, “I’m prayin that my 20-somethings don’t kill me.”
Rest in peace to all of the children who were born — a bullet wound, a bad day, a bloody skull, a body bag.
As long as guns thunderclap, striking holes through flesh; so long live the lost black angels, and the ones who are next. I hope that this song serenades forever.
Some locations and names have been changed.
Kondwani Fidel, author of Raw Wounds, has been featured in Business Insider, Mic, CNN, and elsewhere. He has been published in The Root, The Afro, and City Paper. Fidel is a 2016 recipient of the ‘Ford: Men of Courage Award,’ and a M.F.A. Candidate at the University of Baltimore, concentrating on Creative Writing and Publishing Arts. He is from, and currently lives in, Baltimore, Maryland. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Snap, and Facebook: @KondwaniFidel
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