Sometimes an epiphany can creep up on you in the damndest places, usually when you are doing something as mundane as standing online at a burger joint, in this case Master Burger on Vernon and Western, smack dab in the smoggy heart of South Central. After placing my order for a double chili cheese mad cow disease to go , I was lounging with my head on a swivel and my ears turned way up because it was a shade after dark and shit pops off quick in this part of my city. To my left, seated on a worn out graffiti scarred lunch table are two serious O.G.’S who are about my age. I can tell how old they are because of the gear they rock: dark indigo blue Levi 501’s starched stiff with razor sharp creases, sparkling white leather Nikes laced over and under, 3x white tees pressed neat with wife beaters underneath. Their clean shaven baldies barely conceal the receding hairlines that reassert themselves with silver bristles of new growth. As we scan each other on the low in that “lemme size this nigga up just in case” kinda way that is second nature to black men , our eyes meet and we nod a wordless “wassup playa”. As we complete our customary risk assesment, a noisy pack of Black and Mexican skate rats comes clattering up the craggy side walk. They carve the pavement with an effortless, ragged grace as they pass a blunt between themselves. These kids are definitely on their own shit for real: skinny jeans that sag below their asses, beanies pulled back over their heads like Santa’s elves, dreads, snug fitting band T- shirts emblazoned with the logos of old school punk groups they probably don’t even listen to, and feet covered in shabby slip on vans, chucks, and old school addidas. The scratchy hum of their collective wheels rolling off into the descending night is rudely punctuated by a sudden blast of raspy cackles from just over my left shoulder.
The O.G’S are weighing in on what we have just seen “Cuzz , how the fuck a nigga gon’ be hard riding a goddamn skateboard?” the smaller of the two poses this rhetorical question to no one in particular as his comrade shakes his bullet shaped dome in righteous disapproval. I take up the question in my own mind and smoke it over my cerebral coals as I scarf down my burger, season salted fries and super sized cup of bubbly, strawberry flavored carcinogen. “I gotta quit eatin’ this shit” I say to myself as I inhale the last sacrilegious bite of my ghetto manna from heaven. Then it hit me like a Marvin Hagler right hook to the jaw…..these youngstas have said “fuck being hard and all the negativity that comes with it”. Damn , now that’s some revolutionary shit to live by in the heart of the Rollin’ 30s, 40’s, 60’s or any other hood in America. “why there was a time when…..” i hush the thought when I realize I sound like the 50 year old veteran of South Central that I am. Still the back door has been left unlocked and the question arises “How did my generation of black men get caught up in trying to be so damn hard in the first place”?
Coming up as a four eyed, scarecrow skinny, uncoordinated, bookish stepson of an upper echelon coke dealer on the west side of South Central L.A. in the 70’s was no Crip walk through Saint Andrews park. In the post civil rights, post Slausons , post Panther , nascent Super Fly- Mack-Willie Dynamite-Sweetback-Black Cesar-Shaft-Black Belt Jones-Supernigga era an updated paradigm of Black Manhood was being downloaded into our collective afros by two precocious mad scientists of uber thuggery , Stanley “tookie” Williams and Raymond Washington.
The deep impact these two hoodlum savants had on every black boy in the city was immediate and visceral. Even if you wasn’t Crippin’ you better have that mindset, otherwise you were going to have problems. And the ice cold nucleus of that mindset was hardness. To us, to be hard meant to never back down, to hold your own, and above all it meant you had to be brave in the presence of danger. You didn’t necessarily have to win, but you damn sure had to fight. Much blue ink has been sprayed across the pages of recent history about the sociopathic progeny of the c-walking Romulus and Remus, Tookie and Raymond, but little has been said by those of us who actually lived alongside these marauding renegades and their rampaging horde of angel dusted feral lost boys.
If you were young, black and male at the dawn of the “me” era, you were not at a loss for larger than life heroes.
Muhammad Ali taught us how to talk shit and back it up
Bruce Lee showed us that you didn’t have to be the biggest to be the baddest
Evel Knievel made us believe that we weren’t really living unless we faced death every once in awhile.
Each one of these men ; a skinny brother from Louisville who learned how to fight after being jacked for his bike, a quiet Chinese dude from San Francisco who spoke with his feet and hands, and a poor white boy from Montana who defied gravity because it was in his way. Each of them taught us that to be a man meant having what we called “heart”, which we defined as facing whatever or whomever challenged you, no matter the odds, even if you were afraid, and to act in spite of your fear.
Our heroes would inject us with their palpable courage; inspiring backyard boxing matches with tube socks wrapped around young fists, Enter the Dragon reenactments fought with homemade nunchuks crafted from broken broom handles, rusty nails and frayed pieces of jump rope, and side walk stunt shows we put on by jumping our Schwinn Stingrays over improvised ramps made from rickety plywood and milk crates weighted down with bricks. Busted lips, chipped teeth, cranial lacerations, and bruised testicals were the achy medals of valor we often won in pursuit of honor, pride and respect.
Our emulation of these unlikely icons was due in no small part to the absence of our fathers, uncles, and granddads in our daily lives. We, the sons of the civil rights striver generation were handed a house key and told heat up a T.V. dinner while Mom worked for the city, the county, or the state by day and went to school at night. And Pops either got shown the door by the Family Court system or disappeared in a vapor of recrimination, excessive indulgence of his appetites or shackled deep inside the belly of the American Gulag. Meanwhile, on the other side of the 405 fwy. White boys were going through some of the same shit minus the economic insecurity, crime and police related misery. Of our generation it would be written:
“Boys have had to attempt to develop a masculine identity in the absence of a continuous and ongoing personal relationship with their fathers, uncles, or other male elders….the boy’s major source of instruction about the masculine derives from the cultural images of masculinity promulgated by the masculine mystique….for generations boys and young men faced with father absence have had no alternative but to turn to the mystiques destructive dogma as the primary teacher of what it means to be a man” – (pg. 40, Masculine Mystique)
Ali, Bruce Lee, and Evel knievel those cats were down as four flat tires underwater, but they did’nt live on our block. You never saw them knocking niggas teeth out with one punch at the skating rink or throwing a football an entire city block , or hitting the three wheel motion while busting a left onto Crenshaw off of Slauson ,clowning for the kids on the bus stop headed to the Fox Hills mall on a Sunday afternoon.
These feats of ‘Hood super heroics were performed by our own street legends. Ghetto Stars with ringing names like Mad Dog, Big Lurch, Monkey Man, Buddah…these brothers forged a cast iron mold black manchildren have been literally dying to fit into for nearly half a century.
One thing you’ll notice about many of the roughest neighborhoods on the west side of South Central is how clean and quiet they are during the day and most of the night. Lawns kept neat, fresh coats of pastel stucco on Spanish style houses with bright orange terra cotta tile roofs, and driveways lined with late model car notes testifying to the benefits of getting up early every day the lord sends and going to work. Behind these beautiful facades lived many boys who lie awake at night listening to the hypnotic sound of police sirens singing in the street backed by the helicopter blades steady beat as the lyrics whisper “……get it fast like those niggas up at the park…..the ones your momma told you to stay away from, but your sister- cousin- aunty and the girls in your class all find so irresistible.”
You seen him ‘round…..44 inch chest, 28 inch waist, arms like chiseled black steel anacondas. Hair permed and set on blue magnetic rollers. Always seems to have a fat knot of cash money in the pockets of his heavy starched Levi’s that fall crisply across the tops of his spit shined Stacy Adams “bisquits”…. You seen him ‘round
…. He ain’t no buster like the man next door raising two kids with his wife on dual school teacher’s salaries. He ain’t no mark like the black cop who lives up the block and drives a corvette. He ain’t even like your uncle who works at the post office and has that big ass Winnebego that he keeps parked on the side of his house and drives down to Louisiana every summer.
He is flyer than them, cooler than them, he is HARDER than them…..and even more than that, he is who YOU want to be….the men fear him and the women want to fuck him….You seen him ‘round. Gliding thru the hood , skatin’ on triple gold Daytons in the middle of the day, while the tricks are at work, he is at play, free as the breeze, one half a cloven hoof ahead of the pigs…..You seen him ‘round.
The Hard nigga archtype incarnated in human form on the day the first black man said “to hell with this shit”, threw down his cotton sack and strolled off the plantation with a slow, deliberate, stagger lee swagger that begged to be fucked with, but seldom was. A rebel stride perfected in a roiling, red hot cauldron of rage, fired by the broken pieces of deferred dreams shattered against an alabaster wall of irrational, implacable, impenetrable blind hatred built long before he was ever born. With nothing to lose besides a life only worth 3/5ths that of a white man, no one to notice, and even less to care about, he is free from fear and gives no fucks. He parries the blows of time, refutes the lies of history, and greets society’s merciless indifference with two bumpy knuckled, balled up fists ready to bomb first. Best believe it’s finna’ be some , cuz he gon’ start some…. From the jump….off top….out the gate….coming from the shoulders throwing boulders like a mighty black Hercules.
In every generation he manifests….a spectral presence in the ‘hood. If you were there, you felt him. Bumpy Johnson…Frank Matthews…Tootie Reese…Felix Mitchell…BIg Meech…Like a wise , winged serpent he spits game without uttering a word to ears unfit to hear what is being sold and never told. In the park, on the street, in the back of the club, under the red light at the house party…. his visage shines like a mystic black sun illuminating the shadowy left hand path of back alley shortcuts to a hyper masculine paradise of pistols, money, hoes, clothes and Cadillac doors……and the penitentiary. No question , to come off the porch and run with the wolves you got to buy an overpriced one way ticket to the felonious life….and you bet’ not cry neither cuz the only tears in this life are made out of hollow point lead, shards of broken glass, and warm blood.
Those of us who lived in South Central L.A. east or west of Vermont or further south down into Watts , Compton, Carson and Long Beach , we had to come pass him on our way to finding our identities as men. Some of us stopped, looked and then kept it moving while others jumped in his car and rode off. Either way you were somehow shaped by the experience. Our concept of manhood always rocked up to be about being ready to die fighting to take and defend what is ours be it real, imagined, mental or spiritual. Somewhere in our DNA the hard nigga climbed onto the helix and hid in the cut. Willie Bosket or O.J. Simpson , mega square or super thug , push us hard enough and he will show up, often to someone’s detriment…..usually our own.
And so it went for at least one hundred years or more. Lives lived out in bright, beautiful flames of spectacular crashes or magnificent phoenix risings. Steady pushing against the limitations on who and what we could be , definitions of manhood blindly accepted by wide eyed boys too young to make life choices we would have to pay for as grown ass men. Often you can find us roaming through life with burnt fingers trying to guess where tomorrow’s consequences may be hiding behind today’s decisions.
Then at the dawn of the new millinium a subtle, almost imperceptible shift began. The youngstas began to quietly expand the palette of colors they created their identities from. The nihilistic spectrum of do or die , life constraining , soul killing options represented by the hard nigga, noble suffer head, humble wage slave and their polar dopplegangers the dancer/ rapper/ athelete/ entertainer was being expanded, digitized , sampled , remixed, chopped and screwed by some kids wearing big , black framed nerd glasses , riding skate boards and wearing skinny jeans. These kids were quicker to bang on computer keyboards than they were other black boys. Some of them read Japanese Manga, hung out at Comicon, rocked out in Metal bands, played chess at the master level, rode on motorcross teams, started little businesses, and embraced difference in themselves and others. They created new ways of being.
This isn’t to say that the archtype of the hard nigga isn’t still with us wreaking havoc and reaping souls, but he ain’t running shit quite like he used to. He’s got a new hood to hustle in and a legion of televised minions to do his bidding.
You seen him ‘round….spinning fictional tales of endless kilos being slung out of southern trap houses to an infinite stream of fantasy dope fiends still smoking rocks like its 1985…..You seen him ‘round…..
a former prison guard dry snitching over hot tracks under the stolen name of a real hustler, rapping about shit he ain’t never done, coke he never sold, bodies he never dropped, guns he never popped…..
You seen him ‘round….bragging about how many times he’s been shot for talking half a dollar’s worth of shit to supreme gangsters then running to the police when they come for his bitch ass…..
You seen him round …..getting caught buying machine guns with silencers from undercover alphabet boys, each charge carrying 25 years, yet he only does a bullet…down at head quarters going platinum into a tape recorder…..
you seen him ‘round…..on facebook and Worldstar flashing dope, guns and money in the same damn place, at the same damn time! at the same damn time!
Yeah, the hard nigga is still around but he seems to exist mainly in music videos and on computer screens. He’s still calling the unknowing to meet their destiny in the graveyard or the penitentiary, but not like before. Though some still struggle to resist his tragic , magnetic pull as they pass his way on the road to manhood, more and more simply slide by on a skateboard wearing sagging skinny jeans with a kick…..push……kick…..push…..and that’s a good thing…… a real good thing.