I was eleven years old when my family moved from the eastern plains of Colorado to Denver. Culture shock! From roaming the banks of the South Platte River with my friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, building rafts and forts among the cottonwoods to creepin’ down the “mean streets” of the Westside ghetto. Scary! Of course they were not the mean streets portrayed in the films of Martin Scorsese but there were bullies always searching for targets of opportunity. In September 1950, I was about to learn the Code of the Streets.
“The Code of the Streets, a term popularized by the hip-hop duo Gang Starr and the sociologist Elijah Anderson, is the code of men who have come to feel that they have nothing to lose.” Not the streets exactly but in the dark bowels of my Junior High School, larger than any building in my village on the Great Plains, a group of 8th-grade boys backed me into a corner (no one else was around) with the goal of extorting money from me. “Got a git man.” (A git was a nickel.) I was boxed in as the four of them moved in to press their claim. I was afraid but also angry and I remember spreading my feet. I said nothing. My intuition reminded me of a universal law and one that is learned in communities of any size and any location. I call it the “Berserker Law.”
A berserker was an ancient Scandinavian warrior who fought in battle with frenzied violence and fury. And I would suspect that they were fortified with fermented honey (mead), a favorite beverage of those bleak times. I don’t think my stance was a genetic reaction (my ancestors were Swedes) but rather one supported by both my intuition and intellect.
I knew my entire future school and neighborhood experience was in the balance at that moment when I decided to say nothing and to fight back if anyone hit me. I could see the long-term big picture. I was no dummy, no “punk” in today’s parlance. I knew the score—it was all about respect and reputation. I was about to communicate my identity to my new community. I had one chance to get it right and this was it. If I showed any weakness, I would become a target of every gang of bullies in west Denver for as long as I lived there. Perpetual shame, humiliation and suffering would be my future and thank my lucky stars—I knew it.
Was my fear gone? No! It’s just that I feared losing my self-respect and the respect of my community more than I feared a broken nose or a black eye. That pain I could live with and it was temporary. A damaged identity would be permanent or at least, I thought so back then.
No git forthcoming? No use beating this punk up. He’s not going to back down. Let’s leave him alone. We need to find a more satisfying target. I had one more such incident in my junior high career—different bullies—same outcome. I then dropped off of the bully’s radar. I had a rep and respect and my body language communicated it. I had dodged a bullet and I knew it. I never had to fight anyone nor did anyone lay a hand on me until I moved out of the ghetto and up the socio-economic ladder. I was free but I had only changed ghettos. This next one would be much more challenging.
The berserker mentality is just below the surface of my fear-driven self. I am dangerous. I am intoxicated with the belief that it is better to die than to lose face. I am willing to do that. I have been conditioned to do that by my community. Many of the males in America are conditioned to do that. We are ticking time bombs—and the streets of American—and indeed the world have become much, much meaner during the last 60 years. Fast forward to the streets of Chicago, 2013!
The Code of the Streets is as old as P-B and the theme of Simple Reality is that far from becoming more civilized, the global village is becoming more dysfunctional, more dangerous. The “creature that reasons” has evolved into an unconscious and intoxicated berserker. A radical, nonsensical rant you say? Well, just compare my mean streets of the 1950’s with the mean streets of Chicago in 2013 and you tell me which direction we seem to be headed.
We will visit one of the locations of the “meanest” of American mean streets, the African-American ghetto and the young men that we Americans have so cruelly “disrespected.” Listen up America! We have disrespected them and they are behaving how? Like berserkers of course! If you had been shoved against the wall in a dark corner for no other reason than the color of your skin and threatened with the annihilation of your very identity, what would you do? You probably wouldn’t surrender, give in, cower and cry. Not if you know what’s good for you. You would assume your berserker stance and you would be ready to fight back or die doing so. And that is predictably what many African-American men are doing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates who grew up on the mean streets of the Baltimore ghetto, now in his late thirties, has escaped by virtue of his intelligence, intuition, seized opportunities and the usual, just plain luck. In Chicago with some black friends in similar circumstances they find themselves in a dark corner on State Street. It is spring time, fighting weather, and two “brothers” in a drunken, delusional berserker frame of mind, disrespect Coates and his three friends. We all know or should know the choice facing these four, now middle-class, African Americans—react or respond.
Coates remembers what happened. “I have all the repressed rage of a kid who was bullied—except now I have some size to match. At that moment, violent fantasies, wholly unmentionable, were dancing in my head. Contributing to those fantasies was a simple maxim inherited from childhood: “Thou shalt not be found a punk.”
These four black men having been disrespected and facing their lifelong conditioning did something atypical and something very wise. They breathed, counted to ten and “we let it pass.” They didn’t react; they didn’t express identification with their bodies, minds and emotions. Their intuition prevailed and they found a way to respond in a rational way and saved themselves a lot of trouble or worse. “Most tough guys don’t live long enough for memoirs.”
What is a deeper than usual understanding of what has led America to this tragic failure to offer its young black men a fair and compassionate nurturing comparable to what other children receive? “In America, the presence of melanin itself is too often a mark of criminality.” What is happening is that all of humanity is unconsciously looking for a scapegoat, both as individuals and as collectives. We all need someone, an other, on which to project our shadows. Sorting our fellow human beings by skin color is one of the easiest ways to find an other and with such an obvious difference we can then rationalize our behaviors more easily.
Unfair? Obviously! Irrational? Of course! Tragic? Heartbreaking! Then what can we do about this situation? Ta-Nehisi Coates has his solution. “Much of the struggle with young black boys and teenagers today lies in getting them to see all that violence endangers. At 13, I could imagine not going to jail, being a responsible father. I could not envision much more. I could name careers and other paths, but I had no real sense that it was possible for me to get there, or how.
Will we ever be able to see that this story is about the general human condition? All of humanity finds itself on an infinite variety of “mean streets.” The struggle of most people to simply survive involves adopting various desperate “berserker” activities so that they are benumbed to the realities facing them and they can mindlessly charge into battle not so much to win the war or improve their lives but just to “get it over with.”
The battle, chasing plenty, pleasure and power, ultimately leaves us in despair, trapped with no light, no tunnel, no hope. Can we find the courage to stand our ground, refuse to be victimized by our old identities and face the reality that we can let go of the old story and the old behaviors and claim the right and the freedom that comes with Self-liberation?
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Who Am I? The Second Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Where Am I? The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival