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 – 3 Little Known Fun Facts About Dr. King

The best way to extend the legacy of those who came before us is not to talk but to do the work as they have done. That said, what did King do that we may not already know about? Here are the facts.

1. The Poor People’s Campaign

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., displays the poster to be used during his Poor People’s Campaign  spring and summer, March 4, 1968. King said the campaign would begin April 22 but he was murdered April 4th (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

King founded a program for the poor he called The Poor People‘s Campaign that he was just getting off the ground before his death. In December 1967, King wanted to bring together poor people from across the country to demand better jobs, better homes, better education, and better lives. The purpose behind the campaign was to, “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.” (Dr. Ralph Abernathy) King said, “If you are, let’s say, from rural Mississippi, and have never had medical attention, and your children are undernourished and unhealthy, you can take those little children into the Washington hospitals and stay with them there until the medical workers cope with their needs, and in showing it your children, you will have shown this country a sight that will make it stop in its busy tracks and think hard about what it has done.” Ultimately, King put together a plan that he thought would help solve poverty so that every American had a guaranteed income. His program was set to begin on April 22, 1968 but he was assassinated on April 4th.

2. Fought for Better Schools for Children in the Cabrini Green Projects

Civil Rights Museum, Lorraine Motel, 2018.

In 1966, King moved into an apartment on Chicago’s West Side as part of the Freedom Movement. At this point, he was less interested in Civil Rights and more interested in Human Rights which included fair housing in Northern cities. Chicago has always been a segregated city and was even more so in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. A system of redlining was implemented that prevented blacks from purchasing property in their own communities. Not only was the rent high but run-down apartments were divided into what was called Kitchenettes. Kitchenette’s split six-family apartments in half so they became one-room apartments.

“The Kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial, the new form of mob violence that assaults not only the lone individual but all of us in its ceaseless attacks.” – Richard Wright

The Projects were the answer to the slums but did not fare much better. People eventually abandoned public housing for the suburbs once offended that blacks were being treated as whites. Newspapers and Ads boasted Blacks and Italians living side by side, happy and positive. The public wasn’t having it. Riots broke out as whites pulled blacks out of their cars, beating them. Middle-class blacks were forced out as the screening process got more and more relaxed. Eventually, Gates were put up that made residents feel imprisoned. The once “promised land,” that was the newly established projects became just another ghetto. Black schools also suffered. One elementary school was overcrowded and King fought with residents to get a racist teacher fired. “The people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” he said after being stoned by angry white residents in the then all-white Marquette Park on the city‘s Southwest Side. When parents were in their third day of a planned strike, King met with them, saying, “Should you in any way be persecuted or prosecuted for attempting to seek the best education possible for your children, I can assure you that thousands of parents from all over the city will come to your aid and together we will join you in jail if necessary.”

3. Campaigned for Black Sanitation Workers in Memphis

King helped black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in March and April 1968. He compared their struggle with the poor people‘s campaign, saying, “a fight by capable, hard workers against dehumanization, discrimination and poverty wages in the richest country in the world.” He was in Memphis for a sanitation strike when he was murdered at the Lorraine Motel. The deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker brought the issue of the sanitation workers into the public eye. On February 1, 1968, in Memphis TN, these men were crushed to death by a trash compensation mechanism on a garbage truck that malfunctioned.

Their deaths highlighted the dangerous conditions and the strike that resulted from these men’s deaths brought it to the attention of Civil Rights leaders like Dr. King. However, at this time King was less interested in Civil Rights and saw this not as another opportunity to march but a chance to further the Poor People’s Campaign. “He saw the Memphis strike and the workers’ demand for union rights as embodying the goals and values of his fledgling Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that sought to bring a multiracial coalition of religious leaders, workers, and the poor together to fight poverty in a way that intentionally centered the voices of the marginalized. “(P.R. Lockhart, 4, April 2018) Sadly, he would be shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, later dying at St. Joseph’s Hospital, leaving his campaign unfinished.

King did the work. He didn’t talk about it or stand on the sidelines. MLK was more than an “I Have a Dream,” speech. He was actually on the ground doing the work. Read his books and listen to his other speeches, the ones that aren’t being promoted by the media (The Three Evils of Society is a good one).


PBS aired an excellent documentary this week on black business ownership. Boss: The Black Experience in Business, explores the inspiring stories of trailblazing Black entrepreneurs and the significant contributions of contemporary business leaders. From the collapse of the Freedman’s Bank, the lynching of black grocery store owner of The Peoples Grocery, Thomas Moss, to Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, a network of black entrepreneurs. By 1900 there were about 20,000 black owned businesses in the U.S. and I’ve got tons of ideas for future fun facts!

Watch Boss: The Black Experience in Business

Be sure to check out other Black History Fun Facts on the page here.

Appreciation

illustration_today_i_am_thankful1

One of my itty bitty’s (a nickname for the children I work with in the community) was upset to discover that their treat was not as exciting as those given to the other children. We had played a guessing game that utilized their spelling and vocabulary skills and they were now being rewarded as a job well done. I on the other hand, was not exactly prepared to end the lesson. For this reason I put the snacks in a box and blindly (without looking), chose each child’s snack. While some received potato chips and juice, others got things like cereal (no milk) and cheese crackers. Needless to say the one who got the cereal did not appreciate her inability to get the potato chips, and the one who received the crackers mentioned he did not eat cheese, and simply gave it back. They were more upset however at my unwillingness to give a different snack or to allow them to trade. The lesson here, as I explained, was Appreciation. Not always agreeing with what is received, but accepting it as a gift because it was given to you, even if you passed it on to someone else. I explained to Tommy (not his real name), that instead of giving the crackers back he could have given it to one of his brothers or sisters who was not present at the time. That led to the inspiration of today’s post.

 

How often do you appreciate the little things?

 

You don’t have to share in someone’s reason for being; don’t have to agree with the birds need to sing soulful melodies in the morning in fact, that just may irritate you. May make you abandon your sleep to shoo away the creature destroying your morning bliss. Or maybe the drunkard on the nearest street corner has asked for the last of your change for the last time. Maybe the blogger next door has stirred within you a fiery rage of disagreement, like the smell of dissatisfaction poured out in a bowl of incense, a useless sacrifice from your subscription, not exactly what you expected. But sometimes growing with people is about appreciating the little bit of good you may be able to extract from them for the sake of building up your own goodness.

 
As mentioned earlier, Tommy may not have seen any good in receiving a snack made up of what he did not eat (cheese), but seeing the good in the fact that someone had given him something, he could have accepted the snack as a form of appreciation even if he gave it to someone else. His acceptance would have then built up something good in himself, and may have then moved me to enough compassion to give him something else.

 

The Lesson:
Learn to appreciate what seems insignificant, and in a humble manner strive to grow with what seems poor.