My Memoir Writing Journey

What exactly am I working on now? A lot of things but mostly my memoir. Now that Keep Yourself Full is on its way out, I really want to get this done and I will have to deter a lot of projects to do it. At least until I finish the first draft and then I can work on other stuff and just work on the memoir from there.

This is the hardest writing job I’ve ever undertaken. I have deleted everything I ever sent my email list as a sneak peek two years ago (can’t believe I let you in on that *insert eye-ball roll*) and have started over. I am fifty pages and nine chapters into the first draft so it’s not so bad considering starting over. What I don’t want this memoir to be is an autobiography. I’ve always wanted to write an autobiography, but that’s before I learned the difference between the two.

I learned memoirs differ from autobiographies. Memoirs are popular because they center on one theme and read like novels, making them much more interesting than the chronological format of the autobiography.

Theme

One thing I am working on is not making this psychoanalytic, if that’s the right word. While I’ve endured much trauma in my life, I don’t want this to be a dark history of my crazy. I don’t want this to be a therapy session. This is difficult because I’m not a sugarcoat type person and neither is my mother. I gotta keep it all the way real. I gotta be honest. How do I do this without going too far?

My title is “I Wasn’t Built to Break,” so my theme is to take all the things that have been obstacles and challenges in my life, that could have broken me physically, mentally, and emotionally, but didn’t. This means that I will not go into every single detail of my life but I will focus on certain significant events, starting with growing up in the Robert Taylor Projects.

Anyone who grew up in any of Chicago’s projects is a survivor in my eyes, a warrior. It meant they not only escaped the drugs, violence, poverty, neglect, and gangs, but they also escaped literal death. Perched above the high-risers of Robert Taylor and Cabrini Green, snipers (aka Gang Members) with high-powered rifles would sit on a top floor (in a vacant apartment) and shoot their rivals. These bullets though, often hit innocent bystanders, mostly children. I remember my Uncle coming to school to get us early because the buildings were shooting, and we had to run to our building. When I say it was a Warzone, I mean that literally. And none of us project kids ever got counseling or therapy for the things we saw. Not even the classmates of the seven-year-old Dantrell Davis from Cabrini who was shot by a sniper on his way to school in 1992 in front of his mother, teachers, police officers, and classmates.

Historical

Writing a memoir is no easy task so my approach is to research and write this as if I am writing a Historical Fiction novel, except everything is true. Since I enjoy writing Historical Fiction, I’ll use history as a buffer. Instead of focusing on my experiences only, I want to take us back into the politics of some of what was going on in the world I did not have knowledge of as a kid. There’s my world where I can only see what’s in front of me and around me. As, a child my view is limited not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. I can only understand my current surroundings and circumstances from an eight-year-old‘s perspective (which is the timeframe I am focusing on in the beginning of the book). Then there’s the world at large. How did the decisions of others affect me, one of 21,000 children growing up in what became known as one of the poorest urban communities in the United States, a concentration of poverty they called it, the Robert Taylor Projects?

I want to go into how the projects under the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) replaced the Chicago Slums, the discriminatory policies like redlining that kept blacks from purchasing homes in their own neighborhoods, the kitchenettes and one-room basements blacks lived in during the 30s, 40s and 50s, the beacon of hope the projects promised as a replacement, the mixed-community that was there (because whites and blacks both lived in the PJs!), the racial riots that never made the news, and the racist policies that caused many white families to move out of the projects and into the suburbs. Also, the Plan for Transformation that demolished Public Housing and replaced them with a mixed-income community of condos and townhomes and what this cultural mix meant for former public housing residents. (There is even history behind the name Robert Taylor. He was a black man on the board of CHA who opposed building the projects on the same land as the slums. He wanted to spread them out, so they fully integrated blacks throughout Chicago. After CHA refused, he quit. To name a building after him in the same location he worked against was disrespectful and an insult to his memory.)

I hope that if I do this, it will be a much more enjoyable read. I want to incorporate both history and personal testimony with the testimony supporting the history. I remember for instance that whole “Homie the Clown” Scare of the early 90s. I remember that because I had nightmares of the clown coming into our apartment and chasing me around the couch. In 1991, rumors surfaced that a man who we called “Homie the Clown” was riding around in a van kidnapping and killing kids. “Homey the Clown,” was the name of a character played by Damon Wayans on the early 90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color. The character was an angry black ex-con who carried a sock for knocking bad kids upside the head. His catchphrase was “Homey don’t play that.” Our “Homie the Clown” was allegedly dressed as a clown and went around kidnapping kids. Rumors said that he rode in a van and liked to stand next to mailboxes eating bananas. This sounds silly now, but it was serious back then, just like the recent clown scares. We got let out of school early and children were afraid to walk by mailboxes. It also didn’t help that Stephen King’s IT had also just come out.

Community

It wasn’t all bad though so I want to talk about the close knit community that existed there too that never made the news. Generations of families grew up together in what is rarely seen today. My mother’s friend, who lived next door, helped her to babysit. People watched one another children, shopped together, stepped up when someone was in need and shared food. We could go next door or downstairs to ask if someone had sugar or flour. We bartered services and passed along information about job openings or what was new at the Aid office and the candy lady was an entrepreneur. She used her food stamps to open a candy store back when you can get one piece of candy for every penny you had, better known as Penny Candy.  People threw house parties and sleepovers. Robert Taylor was not just a concentration of poverty. It was also a thriving community. When things were good, they were really good, and everyone was family. But you didn’t see this on the news. We were not all crack babies. We were not animals.

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Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Short Violent Life of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer: So Young to Kill, So Young to Die.

On Wednesday, August 31, 1994, Yummy “Robert” Sadifier was shot in the back of the head with a .25 caliber pistol at a viaduct at 108th & Dauphin Avenue in Roseland, Chicago, IL. At 12:30 am police found him lying on dirt and bits of broken glass according to newspaper reports. They pronounced him dead at 2:20 am, on Thursday, September 1, 1994. He was the city’s 637th murder victim of the year.

On January 3, 1993, The Chicago Tribune ran a headline, “Killing Our children,” that read: “In 1992, 57 children age 14 or under were murdered in the Chicago area, felled by snipers, sacrificed by gangs, killed by parents. It was a year for burying the young.”

In early ‘94, when I was just in the second grade and we lived in the Robert Taylor Projects on Chicago’s south side, my uncle came to pick us up from school early because the gangs were at war and there was a lot of shooting. We had to run to our building, shielded by our uncle.

This is the kind of environment Yummy’s growing up in.

Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was born on March 12, 1983, the fourth of ten children born to Lorina Sandifer. His father, Robert Atkins, went to prison three months before he was born and Lorina was a prostitute who neglected her children, according to news reports. On January 19, 1986, they removed Robert Jr. from his mother’s home when police found him and his older siblings in the house alone. DCFS, the Department of Children and Family Services, intervened in August 1986 and turned Robert and his siblings over to their grandmother Jannie Fields. But a Cook County Probation Officer, according to Time Magazine, said that Field’s home was not a nurturing place for Robert. The young Robert found refuge in the streets among gang members as most young black males do who grow up poor, no family, no friends, no education and little opportunity. Yummy joined the gang and racked up a record too long for his young age.
  • January, ’92 – Arrested
  • July ’92 – Prosecuted for robbery, case dropped, witness doesn’t show
  • January ’93 – Attempted robbery, trying to steal jacket, witness doesn’t show, case dropped
  • May, ’93 – Attempted Robbery, key witness doesn’t appear
  • June, ’93 –  Robbery Charge, sentenced 2 yrs probation, he is only ten

Yummy was charged with 23 felonies and 5 misdemeanors in his short life. He was prosecuted on eight felonies and convicted twice; sentenced to probation – the most punitive penalty available under state law, at the time, for children under 13. Even for murder, state law barred jailing children under 13 in an Illinois Department of Corrections youth facility.” – https://newafrikan77.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/the-forgotten-story-of-robert-yummy-sandifer/

Yummy also used guns, allegedly killing Shavon Dean, a 14-year-old girl who lived next door to him two weeks before his own murder.

“Police hunted Yummy, putting descriptions of him in the paper and pounding the streets for the eleven-year-old on the run. By midnight, August 29, 1994, the Chicago Police were working with FBI agents with 20-30 officers involved (Detective Cornelius Spencer). “Dozens of police officers – tactical units, gang crimes officers and detectives –joined by members of the FBI’s Fugitive Task Force fanned out searching for the boy as far away as Milwaukee, nearly two hours away, where Yummy had a relative, Nevels told The Chicago Sun-Times. The case was discussed at roll calls at every police district in the city.” – https://newafrikan77.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/the-forgotten-story-of-robert-yummy-sandifer/

Grandmother fields also searched for her grandson. She received a call from him asking why the police were looking for him. He was ready to come home. They agreed to meet on 95th Street but when she got there Yummy was gone. She waited until 10:00pm. The boy never showed. Yummy was murdered at 12am, a sad end to a 77-hour boy-hunt that put Chicago on the map for its violence.

Robert had no mother, no father, and no family to nurture him. In fact, he was abused. He was taken to the hospital at 22 months with cigarette burns on his body.

“There were 49 scars,” said Donoghue at the trial of Derrick Hardaway. “I had to use two diagrams.” There were so many scars on Yummy’s body he could not use the one chart typically used by medical examiners.”

He turned to the streets and was said to be an impressionable kid. He looked up to gang members and was a member of the BDs or Black Disciples. Based on the descriptions of the robbery charges and the witnesses “not showing,” it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern that the crimes Robert committed were being ordered by older and higher-ranking members of the gang. They had to silence him before the police got to him. “Dead men tell no tales,” said a 37-year-old uncle of Robert. “They put him to sleep.”

How does one judge the criminal life of an eleven-year-old with no stability? I can only imagine how scared he must have been with the FBI and police looking for him.

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As a kid, Robert was small for his age. He loved to swim, draw, and loved cars. He loved Gyros, Chocolate Chip and Oreo cookies. He loved cookies so much so that it gave him the nickname Yummy. A neighbor interviewed says he was bad, fought and broke into people’s houses.

The mayor of Chicago admitted that Yummy had slipped through the cracks. Just what cracks were those? The sharp crevices that trap children and break them into cruel little pieces. Chicago’s authorities had known about Yummy for years. He was born to a teenage addict mother and a father now in jail. As a baby he was burned and beaten. As a student he often missed more days of school than he attended. As a ripening thug he shuttled between homes and detention centers and the safe houses maintained by his gang. The police arrested him again and again and again; but the most they could do under Illinois law was put him on probation. Thirteen local juvenile homes wouldn’t take him because he was too young.

-Nancy Gibbs, Time Magazine

“Nobody didn’t like that boy. Nobody gonna miss him,” said Morris Anderson, 13. Anderson used to get into fistfights with Yummy. “He was a crooked son of a___,” said a local grocer, who had barred him from the store for stealing so much. “Always in trouble. He stood out there on the corner and strong- armed other kids.” (Murder in Miniature, Time Magazine)

“Everyone thinks he was a bad person, but he respected my mom, who’s got cancer,” says Kenyata Jones, 12. Yummy used to come over to Jones’ house several times a month for sleep-overs. “We’d bake cookies and brownies and rent movies like the old Little Rascals in black and white,” says Jones. “He was my friend, you know? I just cried and cried at school when I heard about what happened,” he says, plowing both hands into his pants pockets for comfort before returning to his house to take care of his mother. “And I’m gonna cry some more today, and I’m gonna cry some more tomorrow too.”

According to Yummy’s aunt:

“He wasn’t violent and he wasn’t bad. The way they talkin bout now, that’s not true. He was this and he was that and I know that he was not. He was very short to be his age, he was real short. He was very smart he could draw, he could read, he could write.”

Gloria, Robert’s Aunt, Weekend TV, September, 1994

According to news reports though, Robert was illiterate and personally, I believe it. I think he was smart (as his friends says he used to invent stuff and at 11 he already knew how to drive cars), but I also believe he had no guidance and no one there to nurture him. I believe his aunt that he was smart but I also believe he struggled in school. Coming from a broken home and struggling as he did goes hand in hand with not excelling academically. I wish there was someone there to nurture his intellect. It makes me sad to think he had no one.

Shavon’s aunt, the teen Robert killed by stray bullet, also says in the same video that she never had a problem out of Robert. “He respects me,” she said in the film. She has even taken him on a trip with her. She says, “I can’t say that he killed my niece because I wasn’t there. It was at nighttime and nighttime has no eyes and bullets have no direction.”

Was Yummy innocent or guilty? Did his age make him innocent or did his murders make him guilty? How does one judge the criminal life of an eleven-year-old who was about to turn himself in when he was shot in the head? And what of the two young brothers found guilty of his murder? They were young too and ordered to kill Yummy by the same gang in exchange for their own lives. This story is sad because ultimately, four babies lost their lives: Shavon Dean (14), Cragg and Derrick Hardaway (16 and 14, currently spending their lives behind bars for Yummy’s murder), and Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.

Only Yah can judge them.

 

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On September 2nd, the Chicago Tribune ran an article called Robert: Executed at 11, calling Yummy a Victim and Victimizer. September 19, 1994, Yummy stared out at the country on the front cover of the September edition of Time Magazine with the headline:

“The Short Violent Life of Robert ‘Yummy‘ Sandifer: So Young to Kill So Young to Die.”

Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Atlanta Child Murders

If you’ve been paying attention, there is great fear surrounding Chicago and the Illinois suburban area. Young women and children are going missing and are being found murdered. The murders are graphic with some of the women being found with body parts missing and found in garages. The terrifying accounts have been reported in the West, South, and suburban parts of the city. While it is starting to be shown on the news in the city now, I am not sure if it has made international news (they aren’t showing it in Georgia. I had to hear it from my sisters and the internet.)

This has brought back thoughts of The Atlanta Child Murders. I thought I’d recap what this was for those of us who may not have known.

What became known as “The Atlanta Child Murders” happened in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, when about 29 Black children, teens, and young adults were kidnapped and murdered. A majority of the killings shared common details. In 1979, for instance, Edward Hope Smith, also known as “Teddy”, and Alfred Evans, also known as “Q”, both aged 14 and from the same apartments, disappeared four days apart. Their bodies were both found on July 28 in a wooded area, Edward with a .22 caliber gunshot wound in his upper back. They were believed to be the first victims of the “Atlanta Child Killer”.

On September 4, the next victim, 14-year-old Milton Harvey, disappeared while on an errand to a bank for his mother. He was riding a yellow bike, which was found a week later in a remote area of Atlanta. His body was not recovered until November of 1979.

On October 21, 9-year-old Yusuf Bell went to the store. A witness said she saw Yusuf getting into a blue car before he disappeared. His body was found on November 8 in the abandoned E. P. Johnson elementary school by a school janitor who was looking for a place to use the bathroom. Bell’s body was found clothed in the brown cut-off shorts he was last seen wearing, with a piece of masking tape stuck to them. He had been hit over the head twice and the cause of death was strangulation. Police did not immediately link his disappearance to the previous killings.

On March 4, 1980, the first female victim, 12-year-old Angel Lenair, disappeared. She left her house around 4 pm, wearing a denim outfit, and was last seen at a friend’s house watching Sanford and Son. Lenair’s body was found six days later, in a wooded vacant lot along Campbellton Road, wearing the same clothes she had left home. A pair of white panties that did not belong to Lenair was stuffed in her mouth, and her hands were bound with an electrical cord. The cause of death was strangulation.

atlanta-child-murders-victims

I won’t go on as the accounts get more and more disturbing. The FBI joined the multi-agency investigation in 1980. The investigation was closed following the conviction of Wayne Bertram Williams for two of the murders in 1982. After the trial, law enforcement linked Williams to 20 more of the 29 murders. Not all of the missing children have been found and not all the murders were attributed to Williams. Some believe he was falsely accused.  Those days, it was hard to know what to believe. Tensions were high and rising with each body found. Hundreds of residents volunteered for a community watch program at schools, playgrounds, and shopping centers. Others took up baseball bats and patrolled the streets.

Children teased each other about getting caught by “The Snatcher” as the assumption was that it was just one killer but officials at the various local, state and federal agencies working the cases couldn’t agree.

In the wake of missing children and young people again, this time in Chicago, it’s imperative that we all be careful. These are dangerous times and it really doesn’t matter where you live. Be careful out there people and keep an attentive eye on your children.

Sources:

‘It’s terrifying’: Chicago community fears 4 missing females may be linked

https://www.myajc.com/news/crime–law/why-five-atlanta-child-murder-cases-are-still-unsolved/CdHuMiEvsBelz1TZDZy5oJ/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta_murders_of_1979%E2%80%9381

Body found in garage identified as missing woman Shantieya Smith

http://allthatsinteresting.com/wayne-williams-atlanta-child-murders

I’m Still Here

Just so you know, I have not fallen off the face of the Earth. I miss you guys!!

And, I’ve still been reading your blogs, commenting, liking, and sharing on Twitter and all that good stuff. I just have not been blogging but I am in tune. I don’t think I’ve spent this much time away from the blog since I’ve started! What in the world is going on?

A lot actually. Some good and some not so good. I definitley have a lot on my mind but let’s talk about the good.

Let me get you up to speed:

Blog Posts – I have some articles written up and saved in my files so I have still been writing and will have plenty for you soon. We’ll also get back into the usual blog segments, Black History Fun Facts, Throwback Jams, etcetera.

No laptop – You are not going to believe it but I have been traveling and left my laptop in Memphis! Here’s how it happened: While leaving my in-laws, I saw the bag in the trunk of the car  and thought the laptop was in it instead of checking to make sure it was. Long story short, I won’t get it back until next week sometime so all those blog post ideas we just talked about are uhh….stuck in Memphis.

Introduce Yourself – This thing is growing! I think I may put a listing somewhere so you can see what dates are available. Would you like that? Authors? Right now I am booking for August. (Wait, no. There may be one more slot left for July) That’s just how much it’s grown! Because of this, despite my absence, you can look forward to being introduced to a new author and his/her work every Monday. Those are scheduled to go out so even if I am not around you’ll get those. (This feature also introduces established authors as well or authors who are not necessarily new.)

Travels – So, where did I go?? Out the country? Nope. I wish! I went to Chicago and Memphis but I’ll give you the short version.

Ethiopian Diamond

In Chicago, I sat in on a Lecture presentation at the Dusable Museum of African American History, visited some family and ate at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant downtown for the first time. (Despite growing up in Chicago I’ve never eaten there.) For those of you who have never been or have never had Ethiopian food, the style is like a community where everyone at the table eats with their hands from a large platter of food (see image). While everyone can order their own food, it is all on the same platter and designed to be a sociable experience. I can honestly say there were no looking down at the phones. There were a few of us so we were at different tables and at my table we had three large platters. On the bottom is a flat, round stretchy pancake-like injera bread with the other dishes on top in a circle.

These dishes include a combination of several stews like key wat (beef stew), tibs (lamb, beef or goat cubes which is what I had), ground beef (those beef patties or whatever you call them were delicious), and several types of lentil and split pea and tomato stews. You basically tear off pieces of the bread and use it to scoop up food you want to eat. Don’t just stick your hands in like I did at first lol. All in all, I enjoyed the food, the tangy flavor of the injera, the stews, salads, and of course, the quality family time.

Coffee – Speaking of which, the restaurant let us take home a container of coffee beans! Hubby and I had fun roasting them ourselves the other day. It was easier than I thought. Just brown them in a cast iron skillet (don’t put anything in it) and once they brown to your liking (dark roast, etc) grind them up in a coffee grinder and bam, coffee.

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I thought it would be stronger since we made dark roast but it was flavorful nonetheless.

A Love Letter To Some of the Black Women Writers Who Inspired Me

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Image Credit: Black Girl Lost – Sunday Kinfolk

Mildred D. Taylor

Just so you know, I fell for you first. Maybe it’s because that Logan boy and I shared the same name I was birthed with. I mean, back then I had never been to the deep south and I’m sure Stacey Logan knows more about the land than I do. Anyway, I was in 6th grade when we met. You didn’t know it then but you introduced me to black literature and I’m not afraid to claim that title or to separate black writer’s into a category of their own. How could our experiences not be likened to the Roll of Thunder? You were that seed planter for the rooted passion I now carry with me.

Sista Souljah

You always kept it real so Imma return the favor. You see my eyes hypnotized every young man who lusted for my lil sweet self. All fresh and new and walking all lady like. And then you came knocking at my consciousness like the Coldest Winter Ever but claimed No Disrespect. I’m sure we connected by way of the struggle. You see I was brought up in the Robert Taylor projects on Chicago’s south side so crack heads, rats, and hunger didn’t alarm me. I fell in love with the way you never sugar coated the truth and anyone whose been where we’ve been knows just how real your words are.

Maya Angelou

How long must the caged bird write before she sings? I can’t credit myself for coming up with that line. You showed me how a poet can use metaphors to write fiction too. Even though your memoir is all truth, your talent transformed it into something that can be considered just as poetic as phenomenal women. Your voice was passionate and strong and thundered like waves of air across the sky. Even in death is your memory, still that uplifting arm rising like dust and written down in history.

Ntozake Shange

Speaking of poetry, ever since I heard you speak I wanted to write for colored girls. You brought me back to those Souljah days with your raw tongue. How it unfolded from the very bottom of your gut and lifted the skirt to every pain black women have endured since the days their slave masters told them that rainbows weren’t enough. You didn’t write the way that I was taught in school, you wrote the way that I spoke. Like when my friends and I crowded around de front porch and ma boyfriend waz whispering quite literally, sweet nothin’s in my ear. And I laughed stupid like “You pretty” was something revolutionary enough to show my privates for.

Toni Morrison

By the time I got to you my thoughts started to evolve into a wanting I couldn’t put my finger on. My mind had gone from reading for entertainment to studying the books I read. I was on a search for something deeper than cotton fields, magnolia trees, and project rats. By the time you came along I was reading in-between the lines and trying to find that thing called freedom. And I wondered just how deep I had to look for that Tar Baby.

Gwendolyn Brooks

As soon as I found out you were from my home town we bonded. Was real cool like besties from the low end on the South Side. Bonded like 47th Street and State, Bronzeville, or Englewood. You see your lyrics had depth like the deep south you was born in, but had that look about it that screamed Chi-Town. Simple poetry that spoke volumes. You taught me that if I loved him the right way, saw him the way I was supposed to, that a man became more than just a body.

Terry McMillian

This relationship of ours! I can read you anytime and Lewis will always seem like the same Ray Ray and Pookie we all know. You perfected the art of black family life and character development. Every book I read of yours sends me into that world and I’m just laughing and shaking hands with your people like they my people because they are. I have stayed up plenty of nights turning pages and laughing and trying to figure out just what it means to be A Day Late and Dolla Short.

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A Love Letter to the Black Women Writers Who Liberated Me Read the title of an article written by Ashley Gail Terrell, a freelance writer from Michigan working on her first novel. Her post was inspiration for this piece.

I believe there are stepping stones to everything in life. That something that leads and guides us from one place to another so that we can reach the place we’re supposed to be. It can be anything from music, movies, television, people, places, things, and even books. Now, because of choice we do not always see these stepping stones for what they are; do not always notice the impact they are having in the moment in which we experience it and for some of us, perhaps we never will. But when I read this title, I thought back to the writers who I have come to love over the course of time and I began to meditate on how they have influenced my writing. When I was not yet where I am, spiritually, mentally, and physically, these writers (although not just these writers) became valuable launchpads on behalf of my writing today, sparking a flame of passion for the art that I still carry with me.