Editor’s Note: Brian Davis, a then-senior at Bard Early College New Orleans, was given an assignment to write something that harnesses and evokes the same feeling as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me. He chose to elbow his way through his life and write a letter to his brother in jail.
2123 Humanity Street
New Orleans, LA, 70122
Louisiana State Penitentiary
17544 Tunica Trace
Angola, LA 70712
A while back I was interviewed for a scholarship and the interviewer asked me why am I so determined in life and what gives me the strength to make it through adversity. After I answered these questions, he then looked up at me and his face became very serious. He wrote my thoughts on a sheet of paper and when he was done he returned to a question of how does the color of my skin contribute to my success, though he did not mention it specifically. At this point in my life I am now fully aware of how many people try to avoid this social construct which is race. Moreover, the interviewer wanted to know the things that I have been through as a young African-American male that has shaped my determination, and what role society has played on my journey. Being asked this question did not trouble me one bit, but it did make me think of you in a way. Suddenly, I realized the answer was you: It was the comparison between the path you took growing up in a poor community and the path I took.
“Every person who has grown to any degree of usefulness, every person who has grown to distinction, almost without exception has been a person who has risen by overcoming obstacles, by removing difficulties, by resolving that when he met discouragement he would not give up.”
–Booker T. Washington
When we were kids, growing up in a poor and dangerous neighborhood did not really matter to me. As long as there were kids outside for me to play with, my surroundings did not really faze me. I did not know much about the environment that we were in. When we first moved to Golden Heights we barely even left the house. These were the times when you taught Bobby and me how to dance and catch a football. These were the times when you played video games with us all day and night. As days passed, you became more social with the neighbors and adapted to the environment quicker than we did. As a result, you spent less time with us and more time outside with the new friends you made. By the time I became 13, I started to get a sense of what was going on living in this rough neighborhood and the role that you played in it. I never actually saw you do anything illegal, but I always heard stories about you being a part of a gang and all of the things that people said you did. I had no choice but to deny these rumors because I never thought you would do anything like they said you were doing. However, seeing police in our my neighborhood nearly every single day–stopping and checking your friends– started to scare me. Mainly because I feared that one day that would be you, and plus, the police who were on duty in Golden Heights were very aggressive and demanding. By the age of 14 I was fully aware of everything that was going on in Golden Heights. Things were getting more hectic, the number of police grew, and territorial wars were on the rise. I remember running from gunshots as gang members came through Golden Heights attempting to kill some of your friends. After a while, gunshots and police sirens were just a part of our everyday lives in Golden Heights. I remember one night there was a shootout around the corner from our house and several shots were fired back and forth. Suddenly, all I could hear was the sound of our feeble fence wobbling as someone tried to get over it. A few minutes later there was a knock on my window, and it was you whispering, “Come open the door for me.” I started to asked you about the gunshots, but I knew keeping my mouth shut was the best thing to do. Some nights were even more terrifying; I remember sleeping balled up with my knees almost to my chest in the top bunk bed because there was a handgun at the bottom of my bed that you tossed in through the window and told me not to touch.
One morning while playing a video game in the living room with my uncle Ralph, there was a loud knock on my front door. Before getting a chance to open the door, there was a loud boom and it was the sound of a policeman hammering a door breaching tool through our front door. About a dozen police armed with assault rifles entered our home with guns pointed at Bobby, Bobbionne, Uncle Ralph, and me, while you were in the back of the house. As the police checked our home in search for you I held my hands above my head, listening to our little sister cry. A few minutes later you were arrested and recklessly carried out of our house. The police completely tore our house apart. They threw everything everywhere, and even broke a lot of things in search of evidence to use against you. After you went to jail I realized that it was time for someone in the house to step up, while our mom worked two jobs to make ends meet.
This is where my determination comes from. It hurt my heart to see mom cry because of the actions you made. It hurt Bobby and me to lose our relationship with our brother because you chose the streets over us. I now strive for excellence because I never want to see mom cry her heart out again. I never want mom or my family to live in a community like we did! I never want our brother and sister to ever feel abandoned again! I am so determined because I literally came from the bottom. My ambition to succeed is outrageous and I will not settle for anything less than my goals! You have given me this determination, brother.
Society has played a factor, too, especially with the inequality of race. As a young African-American male, sometimes I feel like I am not provided the same opportunities as everyone in the United States, and this has only made me stronger. Many schools have been rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina. But somehow over 10 years after Hurricane Katrina my school was still operating from trailers. Everyday I had to come to school and learn in a trailer; I had to take notes from textbooks that were hanging together by pieces of strings. Sometimes I never was able to practice because we didn’t have enough light to practice during daylight saving time.
This is a result of the 100% of minorities that attend my school. We do not have the same amount of resources and facilities available to us like many other schools. Moreover, as an African-American male, I am labeled as a statistic. I am acknowledged simply because of how fast I can run, not how fast I can think. Society only gave me strength to help me become successful.
‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.
— Alice Walker
With all of this being said, I want to simply say thank you. I want to thank you for not spending time with us like you used to. This may sound a bit harsh, but I wanted to be like you so bad. You know and I know that if you would have spent more time with us we may have been dead or in jail, because those are the only two options available when you choose to live that street lifestyle. At this point in my life I understand why you did not want to take us to the park when we asked you to. I understand that you were just protecting us from the dangers of being with you. Even though you barely came home and spent time with us, you still motivated us to stay in school. You still gave us a few dollars everyday so we could get a snack or ice cream after school, and because of this I thank you, brother. Thank you for giving me this strength to succeed in life.
Looking forward to seeing you soon,