Thursday, November 19, 2015

An ex-Con, an ex-Pimp, and a Black Panther

tumblr_lzzjle825v1r7sptho1_1280I started collecting Marvel Comic books when I was about 8. My first ambition in life was to be a motor man on a train, but soon tabled that dream and shot for the stars: I decided I would be Spider Man. And not later in life...far as I was concerned, I was ready already.

I'd cut the pin-ups out of my Spider Man comics -- I had no idea what it meant to be a true collector then -- and paste them up in a cabinet that had fallen into disuse once my mother had gotten her hands on a new dining room set and wound up storing it in the room I shared with my two older brothers. It had a light inside and glass doors, was made of this orange looking wood, shellacked on the surface and raw on the inside. The shelves had been removed, as had all the dishes that used to fill it to capacity and, like so, it stood in our room just taking up space in a room with two adolescents and one pre-adolescent. In other words it was just waiting to be broken.

 My plan: I would build an altar to Spider-Man, light some candles and pray every night for a radioactive spider to come bite my ass so I could kick my brother Sekou's ass. Then my life would have balance and all would be right. His bullying ass would never fuck with me again. If he did I would toy with him, make snappy jokes while I beat him silly and web his ass up on the wall like a house fly. Simple and brilliant. But, alas, it didn't work. The first night, Sekou came in while I was in an almost meditative state in our darkened bedroom, heard the litany I was repeating over and over before the flickering candlelight that went something like: "Please Lord, grant me spidey powers! I understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and I promise not to hurt Sekou too badly!"

Yeah, that cost me a severe thrashing!

 So, I decided to do my own version of "fake it til you can make it" meets "prove your mettle" and started climbing all over everything; trees, furniture, jumping from my second floor apartment to the ground floor below, all kinds of shit. I wouldn't walk down streets if I could help it. I would scale staircases and climb banisters all up and down the brownstone lined streets, annoying the hell out of our neighbors. But I didn't care. I was on a mission, and if successful they would thank me later for I was destined to protect the block, the community, hell, the whole of Brooklyn from evildoers (superheroes being neighborhood / city based in them days). Yep, if I kept it up, I truly believed that one day suddenly I would develop the ability to stick to surfaces and sense danger. Soon I began the practice of dressing up in my spidey pajamas and attaching cassette tape cartridges from tapes I'd cracked open to my wrist and using them as makeshift web cartridges, tossing them around the house, practicing my aim on my little brother and sister. What a thrill it was to watch these streams soaring across the room, un-reeling in flight, leaving a trail of tape glimmering like tinsel. I felt very close to my dream. I was proving my worthiness of this great gift to the powers that be. How could they not bestow upon me this power I'd demonstrated I clearly deserve? "What the fuck did you do to my Earth, Wind & Fire tape?" Sekou asked one day, his foot already in my ass. That wasn't working out, either. So, after having a good cry and cursing the powers that be for ignoring my prayers, I resolved myself to just follow the adventures of Peter Parker as he lived out my dream.


One day, my mother went shopping at the Salvation Army, as she often did and I believe still does, and came back with a bicycle for me. My first.
My previous vehicle had been a Big Wheel, and...well, I'd outgrown it, eerily quick. The adjustable seat back had long since exhausted its three measly adjustments and the seat of the vehicle, which at one time had bore my weight admirably, had finally, and noisily, conceded to gravity's demands and begun dragging noisily along the ground as I rode. If it were made of metal, and not plastic, I would have probably left a fiery trail behind me like the Ghost Rider. Instead I was burning plastic daily and people knew when Baye and his Big Wheel were in or had been in the vicinity for the ruckus would announce my arrival and a stench would linger in my wake wherever I went.
So, yeah, my Moms bought me a bike, bless her heart.
The great thing about the Salvation Army is the prices are really low and though it's second-hand stuff, you can really catch some great finds...sometimes. The not-so great thing about the Salvation Army is it's second-hand stuff, and generally if stuff is still in fit condition it remains first-hand stuff. My bike was unfit, particularly in one crucial area: the chain. It had a faulty master link. That is to say, the first time I put some significant pressure on the link (which is exactly what one must do to, say, pop a wheelie or use the back-breaks to stop it) it broke and my chain came loose as I was cruising down the hill on Green Avenue from the handball court up on my way home. And since the bike, as I mentioned, had back brakes and not hand brakes, I was on a runaway bike on a fairly steep hill (they don't call it Clinton Hill for nothing) and early in my biking career. That is to say, helpless and screaming and wishing I was Spider-Man so I could do a back flip off the bike then snag it with my web in mid flip. But, being spidey powerless, I experienced my first traumatic crash, which threw me, Starsky & Hutch style, over the hood of a car and on my ass.
My brothers, who I'd been riding with, had a good laugh.
I decided I hated both of them and I would never ride with them again. After I got my bike fixed (which required my oldest brother to remove the master link from another bike and place it on mine) I was back in action. But, I had a flat. There was a reason why I only went riding with my brothers and I had forgotten that reason in my hatred of them, but I would be reminded this day. I patched up the tire and since we didn't have a pump I took a walk over to the nearest gas station, which was over on Fulton Street. Halfway there I remembered why I never really travelled off the block without a big bro in tow: We lived in a hairy-scary fucking community! I forgave them everything they'd ever done by about the three-quarter way mark, and actually started liking Sekou by the time I arrived.

"Hey Yo!"

I ignored the voice. I didn't know anybody on Fulton Street.
I bent down and grabbed the tube for the air pump and realized that I'd actually never done this shit before. My brothers had always done it for me. I knew if you did it too much then "BOOM" and I'd be outta commission until I could get a new inner tube...which in my household, as far as disposable income went, I might as well be waiting for a new bike. I studied the hose and tried to recall how my brothers would do it, cursing myself for not paying careful attention when they did.

“Yo, you need some help with that?” the voice came again, and I felt the hose being pulled from my hand. He squatted down before the wheel, removed the cap on the tire and began filling it, deftly. Wow, a good Samaritan! And here I was all scared of him. I felt almost ashamed of myself. “Here, squeeze that! Is that enough air?” I squeezed it. It was tight! I looked up at his face. He was smiling, but he didn’t look as kind as this act of kindness suggested. My makeshift spider sense was tingling but I told myself I’m not spidey. The gods had ignored my prayers. “It sure is! Thank you…” “No sweat…” he said, and looked around like he was looking for someone. “

Hey, can I get a ride? I just wanna go around the corner..."

I was getting ready to say what I had been trained to say to people I don't know, which is, 'my mother said don't let anybody she don't know ride my bike.' But I'd never been in this situation, and when I looked up into his eyes I saw just a hint of 'I'm going to ride your bike one way or another, and believe me this is the easy way for you!" But I admonished myself for being so suspicious. Don't be a jerk! He just helped you out of a fix. Where are your manners? Return his kindness.
So, my gullible ass said sure and handed it over. And I never saw him or my first bike again.
I cried for a week, maybe longer, and every time I stopped to think I would wonder, where the fuck were the cops? Where are the superheroes in the black community? Goddamn comic books! White people have superheroes out the ass. They save their cats in trees, help them out of robberies, all kinds of shit.  But in my community a kid can't even go get air at a gas station three blocks from his house without being mugged!
In the months to come I would begin to actively seek black superheroes! Amazing Spider Man had a couple of black characters but none were superheroes. A search of some comic book stores however revealed that there were several, and I became a fan and collector of three of them.
There was Luke Cage, Hero For Hire, an ex-con turned superhero...
And, Falcon, ex-pimp turned superhero...
cap and falc
And, my fave, T'Challa, The Black Panther, chief of the Panther Tribe of the advanced (fictional) African nation of Wakanda.
Not much imagination here, but at least they tried. I give them credit for that (particularly the GOD of Comic Book-dom himself Stan whom I sent my 2nd book, thinking it'd make for an interesting comic book, and received the following in response: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4=""][/video] Class act, right?) Anyway, Hell, even in the real world, Malcolm X was a drug dealing pimp thieving ex-con before he got himself together and started doing heroic deeds, right? These three were the first black superheroes in my life. They weren't there for me when my bike got stolen, or when my brother would torture me, but they were there when I needed to see us in tights, with rippling muscles and altruistic hearts, fighting crime and helping make our communities safe, if only in the Marvel universe. PS: Marvel has announced that a new Black Panther series written by one of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates will begin in 2016!!


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