My Truth, My Fiction
Fiction is more than just a genre. It is most often a mirror that reflects the world of which we live in. Sometimes the fictional worlds that we consume can tell us more about reality than we can understand on our own.
Cleveland is the basis for all of my writing. I was born here, raised here and I hope to make a living here. Artists have always reflected on their lives through their work. Picasso’s “Terror and Annihilation” depicted his negative feelings towards WWI and it’s no secret that Spike Lee shares his sociological views through such films as School Daze and Do the Right Thing.
When I first decided to pursue creative writing I had no idea how much of my subconscious and memories would unlock themselves and become exposed on the page. I started off as a hopeful journalist in high school but by college I had figured out that I wanted to become an author and screenwriter because of the power of creativity.
My first short novel, A Summer In Harlem, told the story of 14 year old Beloit, Alabama native Thad as he traveled alone to Harlem during the summer of 1948 to visit his aunt and three cousins. Originally I was trying to create my own Gatsby-esque storyline. The story in turn ended up becoming a representation of the urban life I knew growing up in Cleveland’s east side neighborhood of Hough. Much like a drive from Downtown Cleveland into the upper east side the scenery is telling of Thad’s surroundings.
A Summer In Harlem, Chapter 2:
“In New York the entire street was filled with cars and buses and trucks. And it wasn’t just one street. On every street it seemed like there was traffic from one intersection to the next. Thad hoped the scenery in Harlem was as beautiful as this...
The further the cab drove the less busy the streets were. The billboards were now far and few in between. He was expecting to see big beautiful jazz clubs and people in fancy clothes getting out of really expensive cars. Instead Harlem was turning out to be the polar opposite. Many of the streets were beginning to be full of abandoned and decayed buildings. Thad wasn’t sure what to make of it all. When the cab finally stopped in front of a medium sized apartment building Aunt Bird paid the driver and grabbed the bag she was carrying. “We’re here.” she said. Thad grabbed his other bag and got out of the cab.
As the cab sped off Thad took a look at his surroundings. Across the street a little further down from where he was standing was an old night club called “The Noble Veronica”. The windows were boarded up and the doors were chained. The kids in the front of the building were playing with pieces of the wood that had broken off of one of the windows. Now he knew what the man on the train was talking about. Harlem was a completely different Harlem from what Thad heard and read about. He remembered hearing of the great authors, poets, artists, and musicians who had flourished there just a few decades prior. The only thing Thad didn’t hear about was the state of decay Harlem was now facing.”
Abandoned buildings, young black men on corners with nothing productive to do, drug epidemics and crime all plagued and continue to plague my neighborhood. In fact, during the Harlem Renaissance many of the above mentioned elements were already impacting the black community at an alarming rate.
When Thad arrived in Harlem he was surprised to see drugs and violence so rampant in the former Black Arts Mecca. As a child growing up I was somewhat sheltered much like Thad had been by his grandmother. The only difference was that my mom did the sheltering. As I got older I began to see childhood friends take different paths.
By 14 I became desensitized to gunshots and malnourished fiends asking for change in the Church Square plaza parking lot on E. 79th and Euclid. Willie, Thad’s cousin represents this desensitization while Willie’s sisters represent the innocence of a child not completely aware of their surroundings.
Once I realized that the hood could become my muse is when If I Wrote A Hip-Hop Album or IIW (If I Wrote) for short was conceived. The prose offered in the short collection built upon the free flowing and cryptic depictions of urban Cleveland in A Summer In Harlem. This time the depictions of urban life had become systematic.
If African American males were a genus then what are the types of species hence the essay titled “The Types of Niggas I Know”. Who sells drugs and why, or more so what are the deciding factors of who does and who doesn’t.
Nothing I have ever written depicts my community more than the essay titled “Waterworld” taken from the nickname given to my neighborhood during the 90’s. As crack cocaine’s chokehold on the hood decreased, smoking formaldehyde also known as water or woo increased. The problem got so out of hand that the corner of E. 93rd and Hough, a block that is only a short two minute walk from my doorstep made the news because of the epidemic.
If I Wrote a Hip-Hop Album, Track 14 Waterworld:
“It’s crazy when I sit back and think about it. It’s almost like black people are still in Africa. The police are soldiers, the gangs are rebels, and the neighborhood dope boys are like black market smugglers. Too often a kid or innocent person is caught in the crossfire. The hood can consume people and shape their lives in very bad ways. I guess I was one of the lucky ones who got off easy. The hood shaped me but in a different way. The hood can’t tell you who you’re gonna be, but it can tell you what you wanna be.”
I’ll never forget watching two wooheads babble and praise God in an empty field at the corner of my street on E. 97th. One was so high he was only able to stand up with the help of a tree. I’ve seen white men uncharacteristically come to my neighborhood only to leave with a $20 bundle of heroin or a hand full of percocets. As Thad’s stay with family progresses he too witnesses the strangle hold that narcotics can have on a person. During the jazz age people referred to heroin as “horse”, but no matter the name this often brown powder has caused the black community great harm for nearly a century.
A Summer In Harlem, Chapter 7
“Midway through buttoning his shirt Thad looked outside and saw the guy with the saxophone. Two men were standing next to him and engaging in conversation. The young man was literally down on his knees begging these men for a fix. Thad finally saw the full extent of what this drug could do. It had made this man a victim. This talented and skilled musician was now just a starving and powerless junkie. After what looked like pleading the man handed over his shiny brass saxophone to the two men. One of them threw some drugs at him and walked away. Weeping, the young man picked his drugs up off of the pavement. For possibly the last time Thad watched the guy walk off into the night until he was out of sight.”
A year after graduating from Cleveland State I released my third project. The sort poetry collection titled When the Crows Come Home, was born out of sheer frustration. It’s so easy to think “If I was white I wouldn’t have these problems”. With the strings of violence in Ferguson and Baltimore my own struggle became just a foot note and that as a people Blacks are still struggling/
When The Crows Come Home, Just A Bird:
“The crow is a strong, intelligent, and resourceful animal. The crow has suffered a great deal throughout his existence. The crow first appeared in North America after being sold to collectors of exotic species during the early 17th century. Crows were mostly shipped to Latin America and the Caribbean with a fraction of them being shipped to North America. They were kept in small coops and forced to stay on farms that housed approximately 95% of the species’ total population.
When the crows were finally set free they began to establish their own identity as a culture. One separate from the negative stereotypes they were labeled by. The findings on their lack of intelligence and overwhelming ignorance was detested and found to be erroneous when they began to establish cultural and intellectual leaders. The crow began to immerse himself into the worlds of literature, music, politics and race relations, as well as the science and technology disciplines.”
Being white is truly a privilege because you know your heritage and where you came from. At Cleveland State every single white person knew their heritage. “I’m German, I’m Irish, I’m Polish…” We can’t say that. So I created the crow. A black bird believed to be the bringer of bad luck or news, only to be revealed as smarter than your average bird.
When The Crows Come Home, Da Evolution:
A man found another man
While he was looking for more land
He decided other man was less human
So he claimed ownership over the man
Now this man had a plan
To enslave the other man
And move him from land to land
He couldn’t forget to chop off the head
So he could control the hand
When the man freed the other man
He was left with no land
When was barely paid by the other man
He was finally able to understand
‘I helped build this country
With my own two hands
Just to get what you got
I have to take a stand
I am tired and exhausted
I tried to stick to your plan
I am no longer in bondage
So fuck you Man!’
The negro believed to be inferior or less than human has somehow survived this blatant century long genocide. I love my Cleveland but not the whites who look at me funny when I offer a friendly head nod. The racist descendants of West Virginians and other Appalachian peoples who populate the lower east side stretching over to the west side.
Cleveland is me and I am Cleveland. That means that my writing is Cleveland. My moniker Young Langston is Cleveland. With my latest project Camp ‘67 I will continue to disseminate my Cleveland experience. It may not be the prettiest nor the most pristine but it is authentically Cleveland. The Cleveland that I know and love.