Archives For Stapleton Projects

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I grew up white in a black world, and my childhood was rife with turmoil.

I was an outcast, taunted and beat up. I was vilified because I dared to love the black boy upstairs. By the time I was 11, white people called me “nigger lover” and black people ostracized me.

I belonged nowhere.

We were together for years – until that one day in junior high school, white boys chased us down deserted train tracks. My screams for help echoed sharply off the metal rails, as they beat on his arms with a crow bar. Until one broke.

We were never together again.

We have kept track of each other our whole lives. The scar tissue around our hearts preserves a wary distance between us.

Still, I dream of being reunited with him someday.

 

The great love of my life before I got married was a dark brown man I spent many years with.

He was undeniably gorgeous. Far better looking than I was or will ever be. One evening, on an overcrowded D train, a young black woman screamed at me for daring to be with this beautiful man, ugly fucking white bitch that I was.

Trapped in that subway car, I had no escape. He tried to subdue her, but she only screamed louder, said uglier things. I folded into myself, rendered mute by her attack. I was ashamed of my skin color. Again.

I stared down, hot tears dripping into my lap.

We broke up soon after that.

 

My childhood in a black NYC housing project has left me with a paradoxical mix of emotions and loyalties.

Although I grew up fearful of being persecuted because of my white skin, I also developed a fierce allegiance towards African-Americans, an allegiance that informs how I live my life today.

I loathe racism.

When I drive into Newark for my community service project, and people remark, “I wouldn’t even park my car there,” I SEETHE.  They are not saying that based on statistical data on street crime in Newark, which may even indicate that car jackings happen frequently there.

They just mean, “Newark is full of black people.”

 

I was sexually assaulted twice in my life. Once at a college frat party, and once in a seedy New York shooting gallery. My personal mythology tells me that heroes and villains come in ALL colors; that an Ivy League white boy is just as likely to rape me as a black drug dealer, and you will NEVER convince me otherwise.

 

My painful memories are valid. But I have not spent my entire adulthood fearful that I will die for the color of my skin.

I have had several skirmishes with police over the years, more than I care to think about. Yet, I never had to worry THAT I MIGHT NOT MAKE IT HOME ALIVE.

 

Recent events have left me completely paralyzed in my ability to write anything.

This is not writer’s block. I have lost my belief in the power of the written word.

I’m plagued by the thought that not just my work, but all creative expression, is in vain when the world suffers such tragedy.

What do my stories even matter, in the face of these larger, horrific events?

 

I am an inner city project girl at heart. I have the fear, rage, defiance and survival instincts of a project girl, and always will.

And yet, I am undeniably WHITE. To even suggest that I understand what it means to live life in black skin is offensive. I was able to shed my project girl past.

And I am alive, largely due to the color of my skin, whereas most of the people I grew up with are dead today.

 

For weeks I have walked around uneasily, with a cold knot of fear in my stomach.

Everyone is ranting on, and no one is listening. People are quoting statistics as if it matters whether one, or one million, dead bodies lie on slabs.

The Civil War was caused by racism. And I know it’s going to happen again. Right here, on American soil, we will be a nation divided, and make no mistake about it –

There will be blood.

 

I’M SO ANGRY listening to self-aggrandizing politicians drone on about change.

I AM TIRED OF THEIR WORDS.

I want to don army fatigues, dash into the fray like a warrior, and physically put my body in between black men and bullets; between policeman and bullets.

But I am a coward, just as I was 35 years ago, when I stopped loving the black boy upstairs.

 

 

 

The music of my childhood was 70’s R&B. I have loved and lived with dark skinned men. My first true love was black. My first best friend was black. The first house parties I attended were all black.

Black culture feels like home to me.

I’m going to get CRUCIFIED for saying that, because of my white privilege. How DARE I appreciate the positive aspects of a culture without suffering from oppression? If I talk about my love for rap music, dark-skinned men, soul food, cornrow braids – I’m appropriating a culture.

The world has become so divisive on the issue of race, I’m afraid of expressing my love of black culture. I feel shame, again, because of my white skin.

I am not entitled to love Black America because I am not willing to die for her.

Yet try as I might to deconstruct this, to make it more politically palatable, I cannot. I cannot stop loving black culture anymore than I can stop loving my son. It’s embedded in me on a cellular level.

No matter how angry it makes you, you can’t take that from me.

 

And so now I am finally AWAKE. And I will fight.

My weapons will be to speak out against anyone who says something racist and ignorant. I will forbid adults to spew their racist rhetoric in front of my child, ever.

I will speak out on social media, instead of hiding in desperate avoidance.

And I am moving my family out of this white washed, homogenous suburban neighborhood. I will raise my child in a culturally diverse neighborhood, because he deserves better than this.

 

 

I wrote this despite my overarching belief that right now, creative expression is useless.

I wrote this because until I did, I could write nothing else.

I wrote this because although I am afraid, I must do SOMETHING. And this is all I have.

I wrote this because I KNOW that fear is built into the racist society in which we live, and used to control ALL of us.

I wrote this because although I may not be racist, I enable racism EVERY DAY by participating in a racist society. 

I wrote this because maybe, MAYBE, someone else who has been asleep will awaken now, like I finally have.

I wrote this because despite all my fear, inaction and shame,

there is a speck of hope

for the possibility of change.

 

Click below if you’d like to hear my spoken word piece, “White Girl.”

 

Talk to me.
We all need desperately to start talking, and I’m REALLY listening. 

Join me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

My Origin Story

November 10, 2015 — 117 Comments

subwayc-couple-kissing-nyc-c-1987

 

If I go back to the beginning, if I start all the way back…

maybe I can figure myself out.

 

—–

 

I wasn’t always the *happening* chick you see on social media. I was a skinny unattractive nerd, a white outcast in an all-black neighborhood who got her ass kicked on the regular.

I grew up on Staten Island –  The Land That Time Forgot. It’s the only borough the New York subway system doesn’t run through, and this isolation from civilization has turned it into a caricature of itself. The amount of hairspray used on Staten Island is solely responsible for the hole in the ozone.

It also houses the world’s largest dump. A metaphor if there ever was one.

 

I grew up in one of the worst housing projects in all of New York City – The Stapleton Projects. My mom was a widow with six kids, and we were poor as fuck.

Fuck you, we had an elephant.

But fuck you, we had an elephant.

 

Mom did the best she could raising the six of us, and that best included beating the snot out of us. I got my ass beat inside and outside the house, so I suppose my childhood wasn’t very safe. I wasn’t aware of it then. Who has time to process psychobabble when you’re scrambling around, dodging beatings?

I do know that my mother’s approval was sacred to me, and I never got it. Nor any attention, unless it was at the receiving end of her fist.

This was how I began to mistake abuse for love. This was how I learned that if I just tried hard enough, if I did better, was better, I could make abusive people love me. 

 

You know how kids just LOVE hearing about their parents’ childhood?

Little Dude’s favorite anecdote of mine?

The time I was walking down the dark, dank staircase in my building. I was 7. I grabbed the railing, and felt something furry and warm. There, sticking up out of the banister at the foot of the stairs, was a dead cat’s bloody dismembered head. Still warm.

Ah, memories…

 

Stapleton was made famous as the birthplace of the Wu-Tang Clan. They went to school with me and NO I DO NOT KNOW THEM.

Wu-Tang was a gangsta rap group, back in the day when gangsta rap meant you had a prison tattoo and an unlicensed gun, not a trust fund and a beach house. I was a flat chested nerdy ginger growing up in a gangsta rap video.

Pippi Longstocking meets Ghostface Killah.

 

I grew up confused. I possessed a white-hot rage, but a desperate desire to love and be loved. I had a profound appreciation for the underdog, and a project girl’s survival instinct. If you fuck with me, or my kid, I will Take You Down. My Stapleton instincts have quelled some, but not entirely. You can take the girl outta the projects, BUT.

 

 

 

As I kid I was desperate to find an escape and an outlet. So I read. Constantly, because we were poor and books were available. And I wrote stories, to make sense of the world around me.

At 9, I tried to wrap my brain around “A Wrinkle In Time,” a masterpiece of Inter-dimensional time travel and quantum physics. This book twisted my mind up to where 39 years later, it has still not fully recovered.

 

I came from a family of overachieving geniuses. Five brothers, all brilliant, all musicians. My older brothers gave me an invaluable education in every genre of music.

And then-

In one of the true defining moments of my life, my older brother put a copy of Patti Smith’s debut single “Hey Joe,” into my 11-year-old hands.

Patti Smith. Skinny, brainy, gangly, unpopular.

patti

 

In the 1970’s, Patti Smith put her poetry to punk music and was eventually crowned Godmother of Punk.

The B side of her first single is “Piss Factory,” an ode to New Jersey factory work, and the experience of getting her head shoved into the toilet by the other workers.

 

She became my idol. Patti Smith gave me hope that I could escape, and reinvent myself somewhere. Someday.

 

The only public transportation to get to Manhattan is via the Staten Island Ferry, which is like the Love Boat – only when you get off, you automatically have herpes.  When I was growing up, the ferry was seedy and dilapidated. It sells beer and used to allow cigarette smoking, so at 2 am on a Saturday night, it was filled with homeless people and drunken degenerates.

The summer of 1982, I was going on 13 and about to enter high school. I fell in with a group of older kids and we starting taking that sordid ferry into Manhattan, the gritty, grimy, pre-gentrified graffiti-ridden city of the 80’s.

The Village was our playground. We bought loose joints and hung out with street musicians. We carried a boom box the size of a suitcase and blasted it as we roamed downtown.

We had a THEME SONG (don’t judge):

 

The following summer I enrolled in a New York City program that allowed poor slum kids to obtain their working papers at 13.

My first job – The Public Library.

The library owned every banned book – but did not circulate them. All illicit books were sequestered away in a super-duper top-secret file cabinet with a big-ass sign labeling it “Banned Books.” I cleverly unearthed these nuggets of literary rebellion.

And read every motherfucker in that file.

 

I discovered On the Road, an American classic of crazy adventure and freedom, and riddled with drugs, jazz, drugs, sex, and drugs.

I tore through Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

Naked Lunch? This isn’t a novel; it’s a twisted series of disturbing, drug ridden, sexually explicit vignettes. Burroughs wrote it while living in Tangiers, in a one-room apartment above a male whorehouse, strung out on smack and male prostitutes.

This was the shit I was feeding my 13 year old brain.

Are things starting to come together?

I THOUGHT THEY MIGHT.

 

We finally moved when I was in high school. Were you hoping for the happy ending?

Not. So. Fast.

Back in those days, if you were “bright,” you got “skipped” so I was 2 years younger than most kids in my grade. Get the picture? No more scary gangsta projects.

Instead, we’re talking TRAINING BRA in the GYM LOCKER ROOM. I think my pal Ghostface Killah did less damage to my psyche.

So, to heal all those psychic hits on my ego? I read. I listened to music. I wrote.

And I planned my escape.

 

I eventually got out of the projects when I left for college. The very first summer, I decided I would stay in my college town instead of going home for the summer. What was there for me?

 

I never went home again.

 

 

If I go back to the beginning, if I start all the way back

maybe I can figure it out…

 

To be continued. 

 

Have you ever tried to figure out how you came to be who you are? 
Tell me about your childhood. 
Talk to me. I’m listening.

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I hate thinking about where I grew up.

I’ve written about it before. That housing project. The poverty. The ugliness. The emotional damage.

The fear. The lack of safety.

Being a lone white face in sea of black. Persecuted for the color of my skin.

Hanging on the lovely terrace

 

RZA, the brilliant rapper, actor, producer and mastermind of hiphop group Wu-Tang Clan called out my neighborhood in what is considered one of his best songs, “Impossible.”

Stapleton’s been stamped as a concentration camp.”

Enough.

Today, I want to remember what was BEAUTIFUL about growing up in that housing project. And to reclaim, and yes- embrace,

BEING A PROJECT GIRL.

 

 

COMMUNITY.

It took work to fit in. But in a housing project, there is a sense of community.

My God, it was a beautiful thing.

In the middle of all of the buildings was a huge playground. ALWAYS filled with laughing children, even in winter.

KaBoom gear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You didn’t have to have anyone “watch” you. There were always parents outside, and they looked out for everyone’s kids.

Where I live now, in the suburbs, nobody plays outside. When I take my son bike riding around the neighborhood, we  spot the occasional kid running around in his back yard.

He’s always from Brooklyn.

In the projects, when you stepped outside, there was magic.

Skelly. Hopscotch. Bikes, scooters. Basketball. Really, really good hoops- banging a jump shot was an ART form. Little Dude is not that into sports, but he plays basketball every week at the local Y because…because.

And jump rope.

Heart. Squeeze.

I was REALLY GOOD at Double Dutch.

The TRICK is to enter from the side, not the middle– to stand close enough to the turner to where you could touch her shoulder.

I cannot adequately express how it feels to be a white girl working it on a housing project playground.

Executing a perfect Double Dutch circle turn, which is all about turning speed, leg position, and listening, yes, listening to the ropes…

Then touch the ground while jumping, and exit, all without missing a step.

Damn. If it’s even 40 degrees this weekend, I’d love to see if I still got it.

 

 

FIRE HYDRANTS

Everyone here has swimming pools.

What they don’t know is the sheer ecstasy of unleashing an icy cold blast of water from a fire hydrant on a 95 degree day. That oasis from the baking heat.

The city got tired of kids jimmying the fire hydrants open with monkey wrenches, and eventually installed sprinkler caps that could be opened on those hot days.

The only way my kid could ever appreciate this is to have him hang out in a blistering heat wave for 4 days straight –

with no air conditioning.

And then unleash the COLDEST WATER EVER on him and his friends, while they jumped and screamed like maniacs.

 

hydrant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know that the image of an opened hydrant for many signifies “ghetto.”

But for me, an open hydrant is a joyful NYC tradition of a working class neighborhood in the summer.

 

 

MUSIC.

I had older brothers school me in rock. But the soundtrack to the playground was R&B. That was the beat that throbbed through the projects, and in my blood, where it traveled to my heart and lives forever.

It gave me RHYTHM. Shit, I can DANCE.

I was 10 when that first explosion of rap tore up the housing project and laid eggs in my brain that never left.

Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight.”

I’m a sucker for old skool stuff. And those 90’s rap jams? When I was clubbing?

I know why I don’t always fit in here. Even though I turn down the music when I pick my kid up at his friend’s house, it’s so loud the parents can hear NWA blasting “Kill the Police” as I roll up the street.

And it probably scares them a little.

 

 

WALKING EVERYWHERE

Because you could. A housing project is it’s own microcosm of society. Everything is within walking distance. Schools. Stores.

Broad Street had everything.

Store of a Million Items, (you could DIVE in with 3 bucks and not surface for DAYS), Mauro’s Pizzeria, Tung Bo Chinese, Andy’s Candy.

And in the 70’s, a kid could walk 4 blocks to a candy store alone and it was okay. Which led to wondrous journeys.

The place I walked the most was exactly 5 blocks from my apartment.
And walk there I did. Starting at the age of 7.

 

THE LIBRARY.

 

My Shrine

My Shrine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I searched for pictures, this came up. This gloriousness.

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The original library is now THE CHILDREN’S ROOM.

The New York Public Library renovated my old library, doubling its original size. It now includes a light-filled, sleek, 7,000-square-foot addition connected to the original 4,800 square-foot-branch.

HUGE. HEART. SQUEEZE.  Right. About. Now.

 

TOLERANCE

I endured a lot of racism.

But I also grew up comfortable around all kinds of people, which prepared me for life in the real world, as it should be.

And I get to pass that on to my son. Although it’s challenging to find that kind of diversity where we live, he is growing up with the kind of acceptance that most adults around here lack.

We are surrounded by racism, but my background has afforded me the ability to spare my child, he who is the consciousness of tomorrow, that ignorance.

Perhaps, this was the greatest blessing of all.

I AM A PROJECT GIRL.

It’s such an odd duality of my existence – my educated side, the spiritual and loving person; juxtaposed with this ghetto project girl.

Being a project girl is a double-edged sword. It gave me a toughness and an ability to survive things that most people do not possess. But I sometimes respond to the challenges of life like a trapped rat, lashing out in anger.

As brilliant Brenda from Burns the Fire articulated it,
“I am fearless and filled with fear.”

 

 

I’M A PROJECT GIRL.

When my kid came home from kindergarten 6 years ago, and told me some kid had been messing with him at recess, I did not do any of the things a “typical” suburban mom would do.

I did not call the school. Email the teacher. Reach out to this other child’s parents.

I leaned in to my boy’s face, and said, “the next time he messes with you, you just PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE.”

And the next time this kid tried to mess with Little Dude,

SHIT GOT REAL, YO. 

And my kid, while no bully, has never been picked on since.

 

My then husband just laughed.

“You can take the girl out of the projects, but you can’t take the projects out of the girl.”

Werd.

 

I’ll lead you out with LL Cool J’s 1990 ode to the Project Girl, “Round the Way Girl,” which he was singing Just. For. Me.

meow.

 

 

What was it like where you grew up? Did you fit in?
Talk to me. I’m listening.