Watch the video, then read the story behind it.
There is something about standing in the hallway of a school.
Watching the students walk by, wondering who these young people might be in the future. A political leader, entertainer or a visionary ushering in a new era in medicine or science? In some neighbourhoods despair hangs over the path ahead, streets and school hallways suffocating in poverty and violence?
A few years ago, I stood in the hall of a school where a former student was in the news for shooting someone at a major shopping centre. As two boys walked past me, I imagined the former student walking this same hallway, years ago: walking toward a decided fate? Fate is indeed not written in stone, as I’m sure many amazing young men took a turn and escaped certain destiny seemingly carved into the sidewalks.
I waited to talk with a room of thirteen year old young boys about the cycles of violence they were surrounded in and needed to escape. I planned to show them the video we had created for our dear friend Carlos Andrés Gómez ‘s poem ‘How To Fight‘, written after an incident at a nightclub in New York City. It would be the first time it would be played for anyone publicly.
I explained the story behind the poem to the group of forty wide-eyed young faces. Years ago, Carlos recalled a beautiful night out at the club in NYC. Last call was announced, which, for some men, is a sobering and dreaded ‘man-up’ bell that is rung.
‘It’s last call and I don’t have a phone number…’
If you don’t have a phone number, or aren’t going home with someone, can make some men feel like that not only was the night a failure, but that they are a failure as a man. This is why the fights break out, a need to prove to the boys, or to themselves that they are still The Man. Displays of violence as a desperate attempt to assert and prove manhood to others, and more importantly to one’s self.
Carlos recalls going to leave the nightclub in a good mood, turning a corner and accidentally bumping into another man. The other man took this as a sign of disrespect and aggressively pushed Carlos back. The man then got within inches of Carlos’ face, muscles flaring and sexist obscenities swirling as he challenged his manhood and demanded vengeance. It was time to fight.
Back in the classroom, a friend of the youth who committed the shopping mall shooting, stood up explaining that what the man did to Carlos was part of the code of the streets. “A price has to be paid” for any disrespect. This brilliant young man provided an emotionless recital of rules that determined his very life could possibly hang in the balance. For young men of colour, powerlessness in a racist society meant attaining some semblance of respect was everything. The rules devalued his own life and all life, all in order to prove that his life was of value.
I asked him ‘just who exactly is paying the price?‘
Going back to the story, I shared how Carlos recalled going from a euphoric state of happiness to quickly realizing ‘Okay …looks like I have to fight‘ He tried call upon adrenaline and urgent energy to battle against this exploding stranger speaking in tongues of warfare.
Just then, Carlos started to think about friends, people across New York City, and the planet, lives lost to such violence. Young men, ready to lay their blood on the floor over a pair of sneakers, over a hollow idea of their self-worth. The thought of this made Carlos well up with tears and start to cry. The man reacted to the tears as if Carlos pulled out a grenade. “WHOA, OK! OK! JUST CHILL!!” The man backed up and took off. The fear of vulnerability made this man leap back as if his skin was burned by flames. “He ran from my tears” Carlos would say.
Asking himself ‘what the hell just happened??’ Carlos went home and wrote How to Fight, the poem featured in our collaboration video with him. Here is an excerpt from Carlos’ new book ‘Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood’, where he talks about performing the poem before another group of young men…imagine standing in these hallways:
“Last year at Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail, I was visiting for an afternoon performance…I could feel the tension in the room as I walked in, the nearly two hundred young men, ages sixteen to eighteen, staring at me as though I were another added felony charge. I softened them up with goofy love poems and quirky lines, getting some of the guys to break through and finally chuckle and laugh. Then I read a poem about dancing at the club, approaching a girl on the dance floor and hoping she wouldn’t turn me down. Some of the guys were hooting and teasing in obvious empathetic nods to my own insecurities on a Saturday night out.
I had one final poem left for them, and I wanted to make it count.
…So I read them my poem “How To Fight.” I slowly delivered the lines about creating a new way for us to fight and engage in our lives. I talked about being fed up with the ways we lash out at each other, how I’m tired of seeing all of these beautiful men, especially Black and Latino men, die before they are able to even start pursuing a dream that is their own. I looked out on a room of entirely brown faces -black and Puerto Rican, Jamaican and Dominican, mixed like me- with painful stories tucked behind their proud eyes. I stared at Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings and young fathers. I stared at young writers and poets and singers and dancers and basketball players and science nerds and math whizzes and kids as bad at math as I am.
As I went deeper into the poem, the room fell completely silent for the first time. There was not a peep or a whisper, just a room full of thirsty eyes staring down at me as I read them a poem. It talks about the conspiracy against our people’s beauty and worth. It talks about the trickery of us ever viewing each other as enemies. It talks about the hope shining through out of our chests, in spite of the rigged game of roulette we are forced to play.
As I got to the last few lines of my poem, I moved off the microphone for the first time and addressed a pensive, sensitive-looking kid right in front of me in the first row of bleachers. His tight cornrows and deep brown eyes took in my every word as I moved closer to him. My voice choked with emotion as I began saying the last lines of that poem as though they were written for him…
And I moved even closer, now a mere half step away from him, slowly extending my open palm,
“Let’s start something…”
I knew that if i delivered that line the wrong way, there would be a price to be paid. There would have to be, because respect in jail is everything. If someone disrespects you and is allowed to get away with it, that moment alone could cost you your life. I knew this. But I believed they wanted the same dream I did.
As I leaned forward and put my hand out, I could feel the entire room hold it’s breath. My heart beat hard against my Adam’s apple as though it might break. Before I knew what was happening I felt a hard slap against my palm, as the young men in front of me clenched my fingers, pulled himself up, and embraced me in a long hug.
Everyone clapped, Everyone stood up, None of the corrections officers told them to sit down. I looked up and saw men with tear-swollen eyes and vulnerable smiles. The dream had been made real.”
Let’s start something.