It wasn’t when I jumped off the roof. Or when I ran down the street naked. Or when I started shouting Bible verses as I went. It was when he tackled me. When Curtis, my best friend in high school, a man whose homework I had to do to keep him on the track team, came shooting off of my mama’s front porch after me. And tackled me… naked to the ground. That was when I realized the man I thought I was going to be, the man I told everyone else I was, and all that man ever wanted was charring beautifully on a funeral pyre.
I couldn’t play football like my brothers ‘cause I wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t run track like Curtis ‘cause I breathed funny. But I could be smart; I could be a man of knowledge among a gang of short-sighted niggas. That was something my brothers and Curtis couldn’t do no matter how many games they won, no matter how many finish lines they crossed. And that’s the way it was for a while. I was smart enough to graduate high school without all of the extra “help” the jocks at the school got from the teachers. I was smart enough to get a good paying government job that Negro boys just didn’t get in 1972. I was smart enough to show my boss’s secretary that me being Black and her being White didn’t mean that we couldn’t make each other happy. It was nice. She was nice. Maybe it would have stayed that way if we hadn’t been pulled over while I was taking her home. Turned out they were looking for my brother.
After I got out of jail—and then out of the hospital—being smart wasn’t as much of a comfort anymore. Not being able to take the stares and goddamned pity at work lost me that good government job. That meant I had to move back into my mama’s house and it wasn’t too much longer that that voice in my head telling me to get back up on my feet became voices that told me to watch my back. They understood that all of the things I trusted, like knowledge, weren’t meant for me, not unless the Sears catalog had a cure for the niggardom I forgot I had. The disease I was born with. Stay alone and stay safe, they said. I believed them ‘cause they knew me well. The day they told me to look for a home in the sky was the day Curtis tackled me. Naked to the ground.