The Savior of the South

By: Shalynn McNeal

I was 15 when I held my first gun, 16 when I pulled my first trigger. 
“Pulling a trigger takes you to a whole new level, and people shoot for a reason.” 
I never thought I would be in a position like this. I never thought I would live in a moment like this and at this point in my life for the first time in my life “I wasn’t feeling this lifestyle anymore.”

Everybody was in gangs at my age; it was a family away from a broken family. The gang life was my lifestyle and I loved every part of it. The chill I got from being with the bros; the rush I got from ripping and running through the streets.

I remember the process, the initiation process. My bro Malcom was right there with me through the entire thing.

“Jay man you sure you down, I mean I know you wanna be in bro but I’m not tryna push you if you ain’t ready, you know we gone be bros regardless.”

Malcom gripped my shirt, that crooked smile and sincere, yet devilish, look in his eye he always had growing up. 
“Yeah man I’m ready I been prepping like you told me to,” holding up my shirt to show him the five different layers of clothing I had on.

I was prepared for the beating of my lifetime and believe it or not I was more ready than I had predicted I would be. At least that’s what I thought.

The five boys dragged me out back, the darkness casting over us; the moon as our only light. I stood in the center of the circle and waited, I waited for them to pounce on me all at once. I waited with clenched fists, head high and eyes closed. Malcom began to count down. “One.” I heard him say as my stomach began to tighten up. “Two.” My legs locked to the ground. “Three.” My eyes squeezed tight as I felt my first blow to the stomach. The force threw me back and before I could fall back I was thrown to the ground, eyes open; all I could make out was one blow after another to my face, my ribs, my chest. Each blow breaking down my soul, my face eating the dust of the Earth, my chest on fire from the constant beating on me like a drum. The Holy Ghost came down on me and my body went numb. Eyes swollen shut, legs unstable, body broken and I rise.

I rise up a man no longer a boy. Met with the Devil in my own backyard, wrestled for salvation and sold my soul to the Chicago south side.

Malcom began to count down again for them to stop the beating initiation. I heard him “one.” I could taste the red juice from my teeth. “Two” my head heavy as I concentrated on the moon. “Three.” The pain raced to my legs and everyone stopped. Cars zooming by the traffic lights reflected in the distance. The five guys helped me up, wiped me off, and welcomed me into my new brotherhood. This brotherhood was the start of a new journey in my life and at this point I was a part of something.

“Ay, Malcom, bro, where you going, we got class in 10 minutes.” “Javon, go man, I gotta handle this problem.”

Malcom had that same stupid look in his eyes that look you get when you’re up to no good and for some reason you can’t bring yourself back to reality to think straight. So you go through with the situation no matter how dumb your conscience tells you it is. 
“Malcom man, I’m coming with you.”
 “You forreal Jay.” 
His expression never, changing jaw flexed and sweat dripping down his face. “Yeah man I’m down.” 
A phrase I found myself saying all too often these last past months. As I ran down the hallway to meet Malcom I heard the school bell ring, looking back towards my class and then shaking it off.

I charged through the door and out into the sunlight.

The first time I can remember getting into trouble was at my high school, Urban Prep, Prep is what we called it for short. We was waiting in the hallway for the boys when a rival gang of ours came down the hallways throwing up signs and talking deadly talk. The head leader, Michael had it out for me and before I could say anything he threw his fist in my direction. I swung my hand against his mouth bashing his jaw into the locker next to me. The roles switched in an instant and somehow I ended up on my backside, my head hitting the cold glossy tiled floor. Head ringing like the school bell in the morning, dizzy from the impact, I saw my boy tackle him to the ground and the teachers racing toward us all yelling unknown words I couldn’t make out. We all jumped up running towards the Prep doors, taking us out into the day, squinting our eyes and shaking off the pain from the blows. We ran down the streets like wild men thinking we ruled the south side and the world.

The next couple of months were crazy. We met on Damen Street nearly every day discussing our next moves on how to keep our territory ours and what we was gonna do to any fool that over stepped their boundaries. It was crazy the things they had us doing but Malcom didn’t seem to mind any of it at all, I could tell my best friend was sinking into the lifestyle more than any of us. I remember him telling the group about this little black lady he mugged the other day, making the story sound like he accomplished something heroic. I felt disgusted at the thought of some lady being pushed to the ground and robbed at gunpoint. It’s like he couldn’t stop or something. That night I decide I was gonna talk to my best friend but he never showed. Two weeks later he came climbing through my window like he often did back in middle school. Startled at first I turned towards the window to see Malcom’s face in the reflection of my bedroom mirror.

“What’s up, bro.” Malcom rushed into my door, his tone high pitched and his speech sounding more eager than usual. I started pacing back and forth, my mind cluttered with different thoughts and I didn’t know where to completely start so without thinking I blurted out. “BRO YOU REALLY NEED TO CHILL OUT.” Malcom’s face turned into a cold stale expression, his eyes targeting on mine.

“I need to what, what I need to chill out for bro, I’m just living the lifestyle we always wanted.” “Malcom, you doing too much robbing old ladies, stealing cars, I even heard you was sellin now down there on Ashland, man.”

Malcom rose up his eyes blood shot red.

“Okay Jay what are you trying to say man, you been acting funny lately. This is what you wanted right; we are men now and this is what men do. I’m just out here tryna get this money and I’m getting it any way I know how.”

I felt the rage in my heart start to boil over and my words started to jumble over one another.

“Malcom, I know that but I just feel like we doing too much now and you know Ashland that’s not even our territory you gone mess around and get.

“IMA GET WHAT JAY?”
 Interrupted by Malcom I shut my mouth.
 “IMA GET WHAT JAY?” 
Interrupted by Malcom I bit my lip, closing my mouth shut. “Ima get what, killed?” Malcom pulled his shirt up and pointed to his 3–8 Glock and his nine.

“Ain’t nobody gonna kill me hommie. I’m packin, if anybody shootin it’s gonna be me.

“Where did you get that. We killin people now Malcom come on now. You taking this too far and I’m not tryna see nobody else I know in a body bag.” The tears hit my lips and the taste of the salt streamed into my tongue.

“We gotta get outta this, Malcom man, before it’s too late.”

“Naw man, maybe you can but not us, we can’t all be like you, Jevon. You got a purpose in life. I don’t. I’m just another broke black man tryna make it.”

Before I could say another word, Malcom climbed back out my window leaving the nine on my dresser and he went back into the darkness with nothing more than his glock and no real purpose in our world. 
At this point in my life my mom starts hounding me, asking me where I’ve been, where I’m going, and who I’m going with. Lying to her constantly just makes me feel like less of a man but how could I tell my mother I was a part of a gang? It would break her heart. The lying continued for a good five months until the night she found my nine. 
It was midnight when I walked in the door, before I could reach my bedroom she calls my name. I tried to play it off, pretend I didn’t hear her and go on about my business, but as I approached my room her voice got closer. I opened my door to find my mother standing next to my bed, her eyes streaming with tears, her hair a mess instead of her usual slick bun, her hands trembling.

“Mom are you okay, what’s wrong? 
Before I could say anything else she held out the nine that Malcom had given me months ago.
 “Little boy do you want to tell me what this is, and better yet where the hell did you get it from?” 
My mouth dry and my legs weak and without thinking I screamed to the top of my lungs. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU IN MY SHIT FOR, DAMN.” Her head shot around to me, her hands balled into a fists and with one quick motion she came at me and tripped me to the ground, my head hitting the wooden floor. She knelt down to my level and in a tone I had never heard from my mother before she asked me the question again. “Where did you get this damn gun, little boy.” My tears hitting her clenched fists that held onto my Polo shirt, I mumbled the words, “Malcom.” She released my shirt with a force so strong I hit my head for a second time against the floor.

“So you wanna be a dead man cus you know exactly where he is gonna be in the next couple of years, Jevon. We both know he is not that same little boy you used to run around this block with when yall was kids. I refuse to report to a scene to find another black boy killed because of a gang related cause; or because he was just stupid, and I REFUSE to put my own damn son in a body bag DO YOU HEAR ME, JAVON. Get it together NOW!!”

Throwing her hands in the air she slammed the door dropping the pictures off the hallways walls. She stomped through the house the rest of the night and the rest of the month we said nothing to each-other just hard stares and waves as we entered and left the house each and every day. You see, my mother was a police officer she had worked her way up to the top, had heard a lot and seen a lot of young men my age dying every day on the streets. I guess seeing me go down this path must have put her over the edge because the routine went on for months until one morning at breakfast she handed me a piece of paper.

“What is this?” That is your new class schedule. I enrolled you at Urban Prep and you start next Monday.”

Without a word she left for work while I sat at the table with my new schedule and for some reason I felt relieved. I half smirked at the thought of going to Urban Prep with none of my homies; no trouble, a fresh start. Maybe this was my way out.

The next day I met the guys on Damen Street to run our usual rounds and talk business. Turned out we had new beef with this group around town that didn’t know how to stay on their own territory. We gathered that night to discuss what we was gonna do. James, our head leader, had us form a circle and lay out the plan we would proceed with for the night. I kept zoning in and out throughout the conversation cus I really didn’t wanna be there, but the words “drive by” caught my attention.

“Drive by, James, for what?” James flashed a hard look at me. “What you mean “for what” -to prove to these chumps we not no crew to mess with that’s for what.”

Now are you riding with or not? Without thinking I said yes to a journey I would soon wish I was not a part of.
We all hop in the car James in the driver seat and Calvin, his right hand man, in the passenger seat. We drive down the streets with nothing but trouble as an agenda and stupidity as our best friends. Calvin spots one of the guys that has been on our territory and before I know it, the car picks up speed in his direction. As we approach the spot, the guy starts to become easier to see but before we could stop the car another car pulls up behind us.

The white Hummer was huge and before I could even make out a face in the truck, what seems to be about a million spiral bullets shot through the back window one hitting James causing him to lose control of the car and crash into a streetlight nearby. The car spun around in circles the glass flying through the air like rain. The other four member’s run from the car, James, however does not, he lies motionless, face down. My heart racing a million miles an hour, head spinning and the world dark once again, I drop to my knees, my head hits the ground and my eyes begin to close.

I open my eyes only to find nothing. No car no gun. Confused, I darted from the sidewalk, still dark and tripping over my feet trying to remember where I was and where I was going. Without thinking I sprint down the street with no other destination but home. My eyes blurred and my head still spinning I managed to find my way home, climbed up to my bedroom window and sunk into my bed for the night sleeping off the confusion. But never the face of James, who died that night alone without a so-called brotherhood that was nowhere to be found, when he needed them all. 
The next few days I went to Urban Prep trying to forget about the drive by. I hadn’t talked to any of the guys since then and I was glad. Then it happened. Sitting in my history class I heard my name from the hallway. It grew louder.

“JAVON JAVOOOONNNNNN!! JAVON!!” My teacher stopped teaching and looked at me with a glance I’ll never forget, motioning me to move from my chair. But I could not move. Before long he walked into the room me. “Javon- man.”

“Calvin what’s wrong?”
 His face a bright red, his fists clenched together as they often were. “They… they got him Jay.” My face a dumb expression of confusion. “They got who, who are you talking about bro, what’s wrong.” Walking towards the door, extending my hand on his shoulder.

“They shot Malcom, Jay, they shot him and he’s dead.”

At that moment my heart stopped beating and my world fell to a cold nothingness. I saw Calvin talking but heard nothing and saw nothing but flashbacks of me and Malcom riding bikes as young-ins. Playing cops and robbers in the backyard, chasing the ice-cream truck on hot summer days. Tears streaming down my face I thought about the first time we met back in grade school, how we clicked instantly. We would play ball together on the court and talk about how he was gonna be the next Michal Jordon if anything better. He coulda been. He was one of the best ball players I’d seen, never missed a basket. Malcom always had a ball in his hand and I knew that was his ticket outta here until his big brother got shot and he turned off his dream to find the boys that shot his brother. Malcom stopped coming to school, got kicked off the team freshman year of high school and traded his ball in for that nine and glock. I stood there frozen solid not wanting to believe what I heard.

“Jay, man, I’m sorry.” Calvin touched my head, I threw his hand off mine. “You don’t know shit about him Calvin, this is yall fault.” Pushing him against the lockers, the tears falling from my eyes harder than ever, the bell rang. Eyeballs staring at us yet no one moving towards us. “Jay we gone get him back, are you down?”

“Yea I’m down.” We ran towards the doors, the same way we ran out the doors before, except for this time I didn’t look back I just looked straight ahead and sprinted down the street for Malcom. It was all for Malcom and I kept repeating it. 
We ran to my house. Wiping my tears on my sleeve, I grabbed the nine Malcom had given me months ago, pulled the trigger back and repeated over and over,

“This one’s for Malcom.” Calvin was in the driveway yelling “Let’s go.”

“Bro I’m coming.” I paced back in forth in my room repeating “This is for Malcom; this is for Malcom.” As I paced I noticed my reflection in the mirror. I saw a young man in a clean shirt with a tie- khaki pants and my new Jordan’s I had bought just last month, a fresh cut, a clean face, and a gun in my hand. I kept staring at my reflection and the gun troubled me. It didn’t sit right with me but in the background Calvin kept calling my name and so threw off the feeling and raced out the door onto the driveway.

“I know where they at right now we just gone roll up, get out, scare them and we out Jay.”
We rode in the car in silence but I couldn’t get Malcom’s face out of my mind. I thought back to the last argument we had about him going too far. I thought about my mom and how upset she was and how she did everything in her power to keep me away from this ending point. I couldn’t do it.

“Stop the car man.”
 “WHAT?” 
“Stop the car man I can’t do this and you shouldn’t either Calvin.” 
Stopping the car, I hopped out and Calvin followed. 
“Jay I thought you wanted this for Malcom.” “Man I do, and I will do something for Malcom but it won’t be this.” 
Calvin walked away while mumbling “alright Jay, you trippin.”

I slowly walked home just thinking about Malcom. My best friend had lost his soul to the gang; died for the gang. I made up my mind that day I was not. I was going to do something for us all, the whole south side That night I went home and applied to several different colleges with no real hopes of getting into any of them. But the idea of college made me feel like I could actually make a difference and with that I went to bed. The next day I got a text from Calvin telling me to meet him after school. I showed up to Calvin’s house around five expecting the worst but hoping for the best. Calvin closed the door behind me, his voice unusually soft as he stumbled over his words.

“Where you been Jay, no one’s heard from you, we’re worried about you.” Without hesitation I went straight for it. “Did you kill him, Calvin?”
“Damn Jay this is my momma’s house we in, calm your voice down. Yea I shot him.” My mouth went dry and my body began to get weak. “I mean I pulled the trigger, I saw him fall but I don’t know if I killed the dude.”

Speaking quickly, I started to pace from one side of the room to the other, hands shaking, heart racing with impulse. “Do you think you killed him or is he still alive Calvin, forreal?”

“I mean Jay man I can’t say for sho, but I mean I don’t see why you trippin, you didn’t pull the trigger, I did.”

Still pacing the floor, I stop in an instant, falling to the ground, my hands covering my red face and my hot tears hitting the dark brown carpet. 
“I can’t keep living this lifestyle man; I’m not tryna be a part of none of this anymore.”
 
“I understand that this is a rough spot to be in bro but at the same time you need to decide who’s side you on.”
 
 The sweat streamed down my face, hands and arms shaking with hesitation, no longer confident, stuttering over my words, “I feel like we should just ….”
“We should just what, Snitch?” 
Calvin springs up from his chair, grabs Javon with a tight grip, throwing him up against the wall. He is no longer calm.

“You wanna what Jay, you wanna run, you wanna snitch? You know damn well we can’t do that bro, man.” “Pull it together cus I aint no snitch bitch!!”

I threw my hands in the air “I know Calvin but you didn’t have to kill him; we was just supposed to scare em.”
“Yea and what about Malcom, they didn’t give a damn about him when they shot em and he supposed to be yo best friend. We did that shit for you Jay, now you wanna run.”
We slumped back into our chairs eyes low to the ground, the room only full of nothing else but sounds of Chicago. The nothingness soon filled the room and the guilt began to sit in the room with us both. I soon break the silence.

“I applied to college and if I get accepted, I’ll be leaving in August.”

Calvin looked up at me as I walked out the front door and back to my house, my head low and my hands tucked deep in my pockets; my head a blur of confusion and hope.

The month of August approached faster than what I thought it would and in an instant we were loading up the car with all my bags. My new journey was just three hours away. I had made it out of the gang, and the hood and there was no way I was going back.

My momma and I arrived at Indiana State University three hours south and it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. 
Growing up in Chicago you get used to the sounds, the traffic lights, the never ending rush and the gang bangers working their daily posts. So from the first day they called “Welcome Day” I knew this was going to be a completely different scene to adjust to. My Momma helped me get checked in and I met my roommate. He was skinny nerd looking white boy, and I thought to myself if my hommies could see me now they would jump me for sure. He introduced himself as Michael and even though the dude was weird, he was cool people.

“Where are you guys from?”
 That had to be his first question, I wanted to come up with some place I wouldn’t be judged from first off but my mom was in the room and I didn’t want her to think I was embarrassed of where I came from even though I was. 
“I’m from Chicago, man.”
 “Aw that’s stellar dude we used to take trips up north all the time for track in high school. Nice place man.” I laughed without trying to covering my face before answering him.
 “Naw Michael you aint never been to the part of Chicago I stayed at.” 
His parents interrupting the conversation asked, and what side is that? 
“South side.”

The expressions on their faces changed suddenly and atmosphere in the room shifted as Michael’s parents excused themselves and told Michael to follow behind. I looked back at my mom and she smiled at me.

“They don’t know you Jay; you’re gonna be fine.” 
She always thought everything was gonna be okay.
 Michael and his parents were just one example of what I was going to experience for the first couple of weeks at ISU. In every class we introduced ourselves, where were from, and our major, and every time I said south side, Chicago, all the white kids had that same dead expression on their faces and for the first time in a while I felt ashamed of where I had come from.

The breaks back and forth from school to home were weird for a while. Leaving campus to go back to the south side was troubling cus I didn’t know if my homie would still be down for me like they used to be. I pulled up to the house after my first semester to find Calvin and the rest of my boys waiting for me. They all had these expressions on their faces as if someone had won the lottery. Confused, I asked “What’s up?” and all at once they all rushed to form a huddle around me. Laughing and smiling, pushing me around, Calvin spoke first.

“Bro we just proud of you man, it ain’t everyday one of us make it out you know, you like a savior you know.” Then all at once they all started laughing and calling me the “Savior of the South.” That stuck with me, savior; the savior of the south. The next couple of days the guys came over and we just played games reminiscing on old times, and laughing about the studio stuff we was into. Calvin stepped out the room to take a call and then all at once they rushed out the house, I yelled out the window to see what was up but they didn’t respond back. 
“I gotta go back to school tomorrow.”

Finishing out the semester wasn’t as easy as I thought. I struggled in the majority of my classes and I always found myself completing assignments late or forgetting I had any at all. I noticed this dude that sat behind me in most of my courses, Thomas. He was one of those guys who barely tried in class but always ended up with a good grade. Although, Thomas irritated me because of this I knew he could help me and so that day after class I asked Thomas for help. Surprisingly, Thomas agreed to help me and we became close. Who would have known he would become one of my best friends throughout my college life?

We went for lunch after our study sessions like we normally did but except for today was different. Along the way we stumbled upon a few guys wearing black and gold. They were chanting different words, walking around campus like they owned the school.

“Thomas, bro, what are they doing?” “Aw them are the Alphas bro, yeah they cold as hell.”

From the blank look I gave him he understood I had no idea what he was talking about. So that day at lunch Thomas told me all about the Alphas, who they were, what they stood for and how they were a lifetime brotherhood. This stuck out to me and without trying I laughed the loudest I ever had before. My cheeks hurting from the explosion.

“A brotherhood I been there done -that you talking about like a gang bro, I didn’t know the campus had gangs?”

Thomas returned my blank expression I gave him and I returned the favor by explaining my understanding of a brotherhood. He looked at me with a straight face and said, “Naw man this aint that, do some research, I’m tryna pledge in the spring, you should pledge too bro.” That night I stayed up and researched the fraternity of Alpha Phi Alpha and I meditated on this new brotherhood.

The next two semesters were hell. I worked hard to get my GPA up so I could pledge Alpha Phi Alpha in the spring. Thomas drilled me on my history and somehow I managed to pull through. The process was difficult. We lost sleep; they tested us, wanted to see how much we could take. Pledges dropped out every day because of the things they had us do, but I wanted this brotherhood and I was determined to get it. The process taught me discipline, respect and integrity and for once in my life I felt like I mattered. I felt like I could do anything.

“You ready man?”
 Thomas looked at me and I looked back at him. 
“Yeah I’m ready.” 
The day of the probate was wild; the whole campus turned up. It was time for us to get the recognition we deserved and I was more ready than I had ever been. Everyone was there including my bros from back home and I hoped they wouldn’t take this change personal but it was something I had to do for myself and I would.
 My alpha brother yelled at me “GREEK ALPHABET.” With all my might I screamed, my head held high, my feet planted to the ground, my fists clenched, just as they had been when I went through my first initiation years ago. This, however, was a new initiation where I didn’t have to hide from my momma. Didn’t have to lie to her day and night, didn’t have to hide a gun, and didn’t have to see her cry with frustration.

I screamed the Greek alphabet form the top of my lungs and they drilled us through the night. The time came for us to reveal who we were, and when my time came I felt the tears boil in my eyes. I felt the pain from Malcom on my back and the hope for my future on my mind.

They called my name. “JAVON BROWN.” I stomped around the stage forcing my body to the ground, throwing my hands in the air, spinning around until I hit the ground. I chanted from the bottom of my heart. 
“Alpha Phi Alpha is my fraternity and Ima die an Alpha for eternity, I ride for my brothers they die for me to Alpha Phi, Alpha, ALPHA PHI ALPHA.”

Every word touched my soul, every movement washed away my sins and all my hurt was left on the stage with the old me. I fell down a boy and rose up a man of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. I was no longer ashamed of where I came from. 
That Monday I sat in my history class thinking about all I had been through, and what I could have done better. I think about Malcom and I wonder if he is proud of me, if he smiles down on me.

“Ay Mr. VP you ready for this chapter meeting, bro.”

Thomas walks in the history class with that same dorky smile he always has. 
“Yeah bro I’m ready.” “This last semester had been killin my ass.” 
“I swear man we almost done though we came a long way.” Thomas says placing his hand on my shoulder, “especially you man.” 
I looked up at him. “Yeah man you right.” 
We walked into chapter ready to share all the crazy party plans we had but I was soon interrupted by a phone call. “Excuse me yall this my momma.”
 I answered the phone to hear my mother’s voice low and crackled.

“Mom what’s up, are you okay?” Her speech slurred and separated. “It’s good baby; it’s just it’s about Calvin. 
“What about Calvin, mom?”
“He was shot last night in his house, said something about some money he stole from one of them local gang members.”

All at once I felt my heart drop once more, my head spinning once more, the words ringing over and over again in my mind. I rolled my eyes to the sky to stop the tears from falling. 
“Are you okay sweetheart?” 
The same calm voice she always had back then. 
“Yeah mom, I’m good, did they say when they having the funeral?”
“It will be this weekend baby. “If you’re going to come home Jay, please be careful, I don’t trust none of them boys. 
“Okay mom I will.” 
And with that the conversation ended. The news brought me back to reality. It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t run away from the issue. Our black men are dying every day by their own brothers.

I pondered on the next move and instead of running away as I have done all my life I made a decision. I decided to take this as a sign to be that leader for our young black men in the hood.

I would give back to the community; the community I ran away from, turned my back on and tried to hide from. When I graduated I would educate our young men in the hood by instilling in them the qualities to make it out of the hood just as I did. I had a new brotherhood and just as Malcom had told me so long ago I had a purpose in life.

I had finally found it.