Wednesday, June 20, 2007

'Old Neighborhood Boys'

When I returned home to New York City after a year away in PA, I decided to take a long walk through the streets of Corona to see if the neighborhood might have changed in some small way since I had been gone. I was wrong. After walking a few blocks I began to think about what the narrator in James Baldwin’s in Sonny’s Blues said about his New York neighborhood after being away from it for years: “These streets hadn’t changed, […] houses exactly like the past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air found themselves encircled by disaster.” I found an eerie reality of Corona that mirrored the lines Baldwin use to describe Harlem of the late 1950s: a trap. “Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a arm and leave it in the trap.” As someone with a college degree and now working towards a graduate degree, many of the same people I grew up with looked at me as an outsider - as one of the few who had escaped the “trap.”

When my family immigrated to the United States, we settled into the neighborhood of Corona because it had one of few Masajid (Mosques) in Queens and an apartment my father could afford on a blue-collar job. My sister and I enrolled in the local elementary school where more than ninety percent of the students were the children of immigrants and spoke a second language other than English at home. While I struggled with English, I learned the language quickly because no bilingual classes existed like those available to my Spanish-speaking friends. With a majority of the students enrolled in bilingual classes, overcrowded classrooms and pressure from parents and the Board of Education district officials to prepare students to pass citywide exams, elementary school teachers focused on teaching us enough to ensure that we would pass the citywide exams – the sole indicator of our and our teachers’ success. We passed through middle school with a work ethic that emphasized doing just enough to succeed, and believed high school would be no different.

However, high school brought new academic challenges because teachers no longer repeated lessons that students did not initially grasp and were willing to fail students without a second thought. It didn’t help that a culture of gangs and sex dominated the social scene during high school and encouraged people to skip classes or drop out. Some of the boys I had played with in the park as a kid were now eager to prove their loyalty and physical toughness through violent and criminal acts to gangs like the ‘Latin Kings and ‘Dominicans Don’t Play.’ When a triple homicide occurred outside of my apartment building due to a long gang rivalry between members from two different towns in Mexico, I found it hard to believe that such disregard for human life existed over seemingly trivial matters. It was often worse for girls – their beauty became their curse as it attracted the attention of older teenagers and men who showered them with jewelry and clothing in return for being their girlfriends. It wasn’t uncommon to see girls from my neighborhood getting pregnant when they were only beginning to start high school – sometimes by the same boys aspiring to be gangsters. Issues of teenage sex, pregnancy, and abortion became a norm in our school to the extent that it didn’t seem unusual that our high school’s Junior Pageant winner was a sixteen-year-old mother with an infant son.

In order to cope with these social problems, many Muslims in our neighborhood, including myself, found solace our Islamic faith to help resist the surrounding social pressures. Coincidentally, some of the aspiring gang members became Muslim after spending time in corrections facilities and speaking with incarcerated black and Latino Muslims who were former gang members. Unfortunately, when they were released, they found it hard to stay away from the same friends and were often found staying in the Masjid to avoid going back to their troubled homes or friends. I once recall helping a seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican friend named Jafar who grew up with me and became Muslim after being spending time in a juvenile detention center, prepare for the GED tests confess to me how he had been spending most of his time in the Masjid (Mosque) and didn’t mind being back in juvenile detention because he was safer there than around his old friends and our neighborhood. A few weeks our planning for the GED tests, I saw Jafar with his old friends – he ignored as he walked on by with them.

After returning home this summer, I met Jafar on the streets again – this time he didn’t ignore. He told me that he had recently gotten married and his wife was pregnant and expecting soon. I wanted to ask him about whether he ever thought about the GED test we once spoke about but I felt as if I was a stranger asking him a personal question. If I did escape the trap that is my neighborhood, as everyone believes I have, I know that the metaphorical limb I have had to sacrifice is a part of my psyche; my identity of being one of the ‘old neighborhood boys.’


At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should write books or at least publish memoirs.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger The Dynamic Hamza 21 said...

I have the same experiences going back to my neighborhood as well. It's as though I lived two lives one before Islam and another after Islam. I didn't fully realized how much my perspectives and habits have changed through the years until I spent sometime with old friends in the neighborhood. I felt like stranger in my old hood. I never thought I could have felt that way.

It's a little sad because out here in California what neighborhood you're from defines who you are. 99% of the people you know outside you family come from your neighborhood. To be no longer defined by "where you come from" is an experience I find hard to cope with and a little strange.


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