Category: Limitless

The original Batcave was a basement apartment a few blocks down from Memorial Stadium.  It was the first time I lived without roommates: it was glorious!  I’m no one’s playboy, but the extra privacy and freedom loosened me up alot.  Out of the Greek life, I was content to ‘serve out my time’ before heading to either coast.

I forgot the exact circumstances, but one of my closer friends from freshmen year asked if I was down to roll out for Spring Break.  The Colonel.  Why do we call him the Colonel?  Because to this day, the Colonel is one of the most charming brothers I’ve ever met.  Even now when I sense he’s not telling me the whole story, I’ll yell at him: “Man I’m not one of your girls!  Don’t be trying to charm me, just tell me what’s up!”  The Colonel is a New Orleans native; my mother made him gumbo one holiday when he couldn’t get back home.  My family’s loved him ever since and vice versa.  If we were a wrestling stable, I was the ‘brains’ and the Colonel was the ‘muscle’.  So that leaves out what?  That’s right: the ‘clown’…

The longest running friendship I have is with a kid who grew up two houses down from me.  We rode the school bus together until I got my first car.  From that point on we were Beavis and Butthead (it was in the mid 90s, cut us some slack).  Beavis (as I still call him sometimes) if by far the funniest cat I’ve ever known.  I’m a professional storyteller, but this cat has the Gift of comedy.  Beavis is the one guy I know who could tell the story of the most humiliating moment of my life, and have me dying laughing at my own humiliation.  I’m a year older, but he’s an artist, he came to KU, he eventually pledged Alpha.  He’s very much the younger brother I always wanted.  And he was the third Musketeer in our spring break trip.

It’s a movie cliche but it’s true:  taking a trip with somebody inevitably enhances or destroys the relationship.  You’ll have inside jokes and memories that will only make sense to the people you share the experience with.  I’m not going to spend paragraphs talking about ‘Check Out Time’, Similac, ‘sippers and tippers’, Everclear, or Redman’s ‘Doc’s da Name 2000’ album.  But I’ll say a lifelong clowning session started that week.

The years after that have been filled with episodes.  Pimping out on a memorable Miami trip.  Wrestling and talking crazy in New York City (my first national TV appearance).  I don’t consider it coincidence that in two of the most infamous stories of my sexcapades, well the Musketeers weren’t in the room, but they damn sure were in the vicinity.  But that was many, many, many years ago, we’re all good boys and decent gentlemen now…

Beavis was the first of us to get married.  The Colonel and I are still looking, even though I’m a lot closer (Yeah I said it fool if you’re reading this!)  The glory days are over and all good things must come to an end.  One of my major life creeds is maximizing your life potential while minimizing the amount of stupid shyt you do.  Well these two guys (and the self proclaimed 4th Musketeer, Linus) have seen me do a LOT of stupid shyt.  To put it another way, these guys have all seen me be human.  And I love them for it.


“That’s how far the world is from where I am.  Just one bad day…” – the Joker, the Killing Joke

I had been biding my time for three years to get back to a point where I could follow my true ambition.  My grades were fine, I was in a grad school training program; as long as I avoided doing anything stupid, it was in God’s hands.  Going into my last year, the Frat had a nice nightclub, we won the big stepshow in April, we won Chapter of the Year.  We had a lot of momentum from anyone’s perspective.  Naive as it may sound, my plan for my senior year was to follow the lead of the oldheads who brought me into the Game:  show up at the Burge at 12:30, shake a few hands, maybe one stroll around the party.  Defend the stepshow title in April.  Pass the torch to the neos as it was passed to me.  The Greek version of the hip hop head I guess.

What happened next was entirely different.  A brother who didn’t pledge me (i.e, someone with no rank) decided I needed to be put in my place as far as the Frat was concerned, and me being apart of ‘their’ plans.  I was completely blindsided and frankly, extremely insulted.  But it raised a good question: In what ways did I need them?

  • I had a Chapter of the Year plaque on my wall.  I was on multiple stepshow championship teams.  Did I really have anything left to prove as an Alpha?  (Nope.)
  • I adopted my Islamic name since joining the Frat.  And I had also chosen my career path.  So even on the best of the days, the Frat was the third biggest part of my identity.  Was it irreplacable?  (Definitely not.)
  • One thing I’ll always give KU credit for was making sure I had fun in the midst of whatever I was working on.  It was my senior year of college.  Did I have any interest in getting into a pissing contest?  (Hell no!)

The separation was clean and surgical: I didn’t wear paraphenalia on campus, I no longer went to the Burge, I didn’t show up at the nightclub (it would shut down anyway after what I’ve been told was one of the great club fights of the Jayhawk years).  If you were a freshman that year, you probably didn’t know I existed.  It would be the beginning of what has carried into adulthood: we’re all still friends to various degrees, but we’ve also all established distinctive individual identities, we’re all friends with different groups of people from Kansas, et cetera.  So I spent my whole senior year buried in textbooks right?  Hardly…

I focused on my other interests.  I was the last of my generation’s ‘hip hop’ Alphas.  The radio show had to go on: by the grace of God (literally) a couple of the Muslim brothers under me loved hip hop the way I do, and took the reins of the show.  I would still pop in once in a while to crack jokes and freestyle with them.  I made a couple guest appearances at house parties with my boys who weren’t Alphas; it would be the beginning of what would actually become my adult inner circle.  More on them in the next chapter.  I wanted to have fun my last year at KU, and I had a ball!  I really can’t complain. 

I ended up applying to the same schools I wanted to apply to out of high school.  It was an afternoon in the spring when I got a phone call from the Den Mother of the Peter Stark Producing Program.  Now I have no idea how someone looks when they win the lottery, but I know I woke up a neighbor or two that night.  I can still recall the acceptance letter I recieved: “…your classmates will be coming from Harvard, Yale, Boston College, Dartmouth, Kansas…”  I didn’t care.  I wasn’t intimidated at all.  I busted my ass for many years to create an opportunity, and I got it.

I wish I could tell you that after I got what I wanted, I chilled out.  But I didn’t.  I wasn’t at the point in my life where I could say ‘success is the best revenge.’  I felt I dealt with a lot of naysayers, a lot of haters, a lot of fake friends.  Just to put myself in a position where I could do what I love to do, live where I wanted to live with whoever I chose to live with.  My teenage ideals revolved in large part around putting black women on a pedestal that the mainstream rarely does, and showing black people the beauty of our culture.  Now idealism was meeting pragmatism for the first time.  It wasn’t some old white man in some ivory tower who was discounting me; it was much, much closer to home.  I came to Lawrence with the expectation I would make no lifelong friends, I wouldn’t meet my wife, and I proved myself right (granted in a completely Anakin Skywalker sort of way).

In time of course I would be proven wrong; we’ll get to the how and why of how that part of my life played out in time.  My next step was packing my car and heading to a place where I heard it never rained…

Limitless XI – Alpha

There was no history of Greeks in my family (too country) so I was something of an open book.  The first day on campus I met a Greek…kind of.  I was just walking around and saw this cat with a cane.  He was one of the first black people I saw so I said, ‘What’s up Black Man?’  His response to me was “Pfft!”  Really?  Right at that moment I decided I was against Greeks.  I was a disciple of Malcolm now; we all have different styles and standards, but even the President would get ‘carded’ if he was wearing the wrong outfit, or driving the wrong car in the wrong neighborhood.  There are few things that rile me up more than some black person who carries themselves like they’re better than the rest of us.  Anyway once I had my freshmen clique I figured I was set.

Second semester things had changed.  There started to be some flaws revealed within the clique (13 teenage boys, what are the odds?), and like I said, I was getting friendly with some of the most down to earth friendly cats on campus.  It was a great ‘coincidence’ they happened to be the Men of Distinction.    Did I know what I was getting myself into?  Well I had seen School Daze obviously.  As long as I wasn’t fearful for my life, I had been through enough where I felt I could deal with the process.  I had been called enough names and smacked around enough, a few more love taps weren’t going to break me (or so I thought).  It’s definitely not for the weak hearted; my mother tried to talk me into quitting.  But by the time I told her I was pledging I had already been on for 3 weeks, so it was too late to turn back.

I know everybody says they rolled with the best crew in college, but really my first two years as an Alpha are as much fun as I’ve ever had.  You have never met a bigger group of clowns than the Alphas in those days.  Anytime brothers would get together it was high comedy (pun intended).  Fat jokes, short jokes, dark skinned jokes, body odor jokes, we had them all!  We’d see our brothers from K-State and that opened a whole new can of worms.  For anyone who was in the Frat at that time, all I have to say is ‘Teeth Sweat and Nurse Squirrel’ and there would be an easy half hour of laughter to this day.  That was our thing though, we’d talk trash once in awhile on the other frats of course, but it would never be as funny as what we said about each other.

Saturday nights were something else.  On top of DJing the Burge parties, the Alphas who were DJs were doing a show on the college radio station, ‘the Hip Hop Hype.’  I got into that real quick!  Doing a radio show from 8-10, going to the Burge from 11 until and hopping our asses off!  I’m not being arrogant, years after the college days had swiftly passed, females would tell us how they knew on Saturday nights you wouldn’t see our feet touch the floor for four straight hours.  Oh, did I mention the girls?  This will probably sound naive to some, but I really had no idea that being Greek was the ‘status symbol’ it was.  The party walking obviously was also a major boost.  I always smiled like a proud father the first time some Neo came off the floor talking about some chick just snatched them right out of the line.  And they doesn’t include the infamous Inroads party where a girl grabbed my ankles and literally wouldn’t LET me get off the dance floor.  Like I said, good times.

Of course, the step team was another level.  The natural comraderie of the guys who made up the team.  The silliness of the guys involved (which eventually trickled directly into our step routines).  And for me personally, the opportunity to get on stage and perform.  Even in my line of work, there’s only going to be so many opportunities where you step on a stage, and girls start screaming your name, and the homies start yelling ‘That’s my n***a!!!”  I mean, assuming you’re on point with yours, it’s tight.  It’s real tight.

Our Burge parties became so crazy the walls would be sweating (literally).  We had a tight little nightclub (ironically called LA’s) that fools would come to from as far as Kansas City and Topeka to kick it on Thursday nights.  We were making so much money we starting doing free events as a sign of goodwill to the community.  I was the President of the Frat and I was in the middle of all of it.  The cutest and prettiest AKAs, Deltas, Zetas, SGRhos and ‘indie girls’ knew who ‘Spike’ was.

So of course, you can guess what I did going into my senior year at KU.  I quit.

Limitless X – Linus

Out of the other black guys in my dorm, one was from Kansas City.  He was from the Missouri side, but he loved sports like me.  We were on the same floor, so would meet up in our floor lobby to watch Sportscenter.  That’s how it started.  Now I’m not one of those big ‘I always knew we would be friends’ type of people, but sometimes there are moments that make it seem like you’re tied to a person. 

One Friday early in first semester, I was pulling out of the parking lot, changing the dial trying to find my favorite radio station.  All I heard next was “SPIKE!!!”  WHAMMO!!!  I straight ran this cat over with my car!!!

He was on his bike at the time (thankfully).  I wasn’t a complete jerk; I took him to the bike shop to get it fixed.  But yeah, that was one of those times you think, “I’m going to be friends with this cat…”

I am beyond terrible with names, so it’s not uncommon for me to give friends of mine nicknames.  One morning in particular I was starving and ready to get down to the cafeteria, Mrs. E’s.  I go across the floor to bang on this kid’s door; he’s still laying in his twin bed; rocking some hideous brown and white plaid pajamas.  His blanket wrapped up in his hands.  He’s been Linus to me ever since.

The inherent comedy of the bike incident was the perfect embodiment of our friendship.  I watched the OJ Simpson verdict from Linus’ dorm room.  The mood change from ‘here we go again’ to pure elation to celebrating past a bunch of pissed off future Republicans who were seeing the flaws in our justice system; that was a funny experience.  Out of the two of us, Linus was the first one to get a multi-page love letter.  Unfortunately, it came from his roommate, leading to this exchange I’ll never let him forget:

Me: (seeing him standing outside my door looking like a Vietnam Vet) What the hell is wrong with you?

Linus: (voice barely above a whisper) He loves me…

The second half of my freshmen year, I moved out of the dorm and into one of the scholarship halls.  I didn’t see Linus everyday anymore, but our friendship kept growing when I found another common bond: movies.  Linus, as it turns out, was a huge Star Wars fan, even more than me even.  They re-released the original trilogy when we were in college; me and Linus rolled to Ward Parkway to see the ‘new and improved’ version.  Don’t ask me why I did this, but when Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan, I leapt out of my seat and started running up and down the aisle like I was in shock.  It got a good chuckle out of Linus, but the cat whose chair I kept kicking…truth be told he should have taken me outside and whipped my ass.  It would be fitting a couple years down the line, for my farewell get-together with all the boys, we all went to see Episode I – the Phantom Menace.  It would be a very solid foundation that would be worth a lot down the line…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  It was my second semester of college, I moved across campus to the scholarship halls, setting myself up for something big…

Limitless IX – Jayhawk

My people will never let me forget this, but I was um, a little less friendly and approachable when I arrived in Lawrence.  Fists balled up.  Chest poked out.  Hardcore scowl.  Every shirt I owned was black, one even had ‘Danger – Educated Black Man’ printed across the front.  One kid I met that week told me his dad took one look at me and said, “Son, stay away from THAT brother!”  I smiled once my first week in Lawrence, and would pay for that mistake for the next four years…

The week before class started, there was a big ‘Welcome to KU’ event called Beach and Boulevard.  On the main street (Jayhawk Boulevard) the main hangout spot was known as Wescoe Beach.  Yes in Lawrence, Kansas.  Don’t ask.  Anyway, one of the Orientation Assistants happened to be a young lady I went to high school with.  She was in the same class as my godmother’s daughter, a Hall of Fame class of fine sisters that came through those halls.  I had no idea she even knew who I was, something that would become a recurring theme as I went through college…

We started chatting at the Beach and Boulevard, and this white kid with a camera asked if he could take a picture of her putting a ‘lei’ around my neck.  My initial facial expression: I still want to know what happened to that picture!  He timidly asked if I would smile for one, and I begrudgingly cracked the sides of my mouth up.  ‘One more?’  Sigh…

Now I was irritated.  I just wanted to be left the hell alone!  ‘You want a smile huh?  OK.’  So I pulled a 180, and busted out the biggest Sambo, over the top, “This is the greatest day of my life!  Rock Chalk Jayhawk!” 32 teeth special I could muster. 

Even if you’re not a storyteller, or you didn’t go to KU, if you know how comedy works, you know what happened next.  That picture started popping up everywhere.  For years.  Orientation pamphlets, multicultural student recruitment newsletters, the works!  I’ve got a good enough sense of humor about it all to tell you that picture is floating around online, but I won’t say where.  If you do find it, at least now you know the real story.  It wasn’t some ‘great times at KU’ picture the way it got spun.  I was being a complete ass and she was laughing at me being a complete ass.  I learned a real important lesson about media and image that day though.

I make this next statement not to make you laugh, but as an expression of my mentality when I stepped on campus:  I had no intention of making friends, and the absolute last thing I planned on doing was find a girlfriend or a wife.  The events of my senior year had turned me into Robert DeNiro’s character from Heat:

“A guy told me once, don’t attach yourself to anything you’re not willing to walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat coming around the corner.  Now, if you’re me, and you gotta move when I move, how do you keep a…marriage?”

In all sincerity, my Plan was to go to class, go to the mosque when I could, figure out how the hell I ended up here and what I had to do so that in four years I wouldn’t be in this situation again.  I wasn’t completely naive, I was a Black Muslim in Kansas.  All the possible odds were stacked against me.  In high school, I felt I had the drive and the talent to make films, but I had a very small margin for error.  After what went down, now I felt like I had no margin for error.  So I guess I was turning into my favorite comic book character without fully knowing it.

Fate would step in of course to keep me from completely becoming a recluse.  This was college after all!  That kid whose dad warned him about me?  He was a Muslim!  We’re still friends to this day.  Over the first couple of weeks, a lot of us freshmen black men would find each other and start hanging out.  Amazingly all these years later, most of us are still friends.  As I get older I appreciate how rare that is.  Anyway, none of us could pledge straight out of high school, so we ended up giving our crew a Greek like name I won’t repeat here.  The initials were NTN though.  You can probably fill in the blanks.  Being black at the University of Kansas, you really had to go the extra mile to stay off the radar.  We quickly learned about the unofficial hangout spot on Saturday nights: the Burge.

Those little student union parties seem so innocent now.  For our intro into this college version of the Club, we stomped down the Hill, reciting the Chain Gang theme from the film ‘Cadence’.  The party was from 10 ‘until’, so of course our green asses showed up at 10!   The girls we had been eyeballing in Mrs. E’s cafeteria all week in their oversized T-shirts and sweat pants?  On Saturday night boy, they cleaned up quite nice!  Oh yes they did… 

For me especially as a hip hop lover, as soon as I could feel the bass coming from the basement, I would get hyped.  I could still put together a nice little playlist of the jams from those first couple of years:

  1. Do You Wanna Ride – Do or Die
  2. Hay – Crucial Conflict (our first hype song)
  3. Player’s Anthem – Junior Mafia
  4. Get Money Remix – Junior Mafia
  5. Drop – Pharcyde
  6. I Got 5 On It – Luniz (the NTN theme song, even though none of us smoked, still can’t figure that one out)
  7. Dolly My Baby (Remix) – Super Cat (still my favorite reggae song, I sweat just thinking about it)

I would jump in for the hype songs and our little NTN group dances, but beyond that I usually hung back.  Michael Jackson, Hammer…I could do a choreographed routine like nobody’s business.  Hell, I learned to Electric Slide to Ditty by Paperboy.  But freestyle dancing and grinding? That was new to me.  The females noticed and (naturally) would flirt a little more to try to get me to come out of my shell.  There was one in particular who would do the ‘come here’ move in front of me for like 5 straight Burge parties, trying to be funny.  That 6th party though, my damn 18 year old hormones decided to pull rank on the Plan, and I had her ass posted against one of those light blue columns, her legs wrapped around my waist, me gyrating to Shaggy’s ‘Boombastic’.  And it was fantastic, just like the song says. 

Normally though you would find me where you will still find me today if I happen to hit the Club:  hanging out on the dance floor, right in front of the DJ booth, bobbing my head and playing Junior Hype Man.  I’m one of those brothers.  In time I naturally started to make friends with the brothers who were DJing the Burge parties. 

As it turned out, they all happened to be members of the same fraternity…

If my father was my benefactor, my biggest fan in the family was his brother’s wife, my godmother.  My father is very laid-back, which is where I get it from.  My aunt was the one who would stick up for me (all of us really) if someone was bullying us.  I chuckle at how many times I pouted my way into a Happy Meal whenever my older cousins picked on me.  The first job I ever had was as a bagger in a grocery store.  My grandfather made his sole visit to Kansas City, and the family was taking him to a Royals game.  My boss told me straight up not to come back if I took the night off.  Well…I told my aunt, and long story short, I got the night off paid and still had a job.  My godmother was that black woman.

Not long after that, my godmother was diagnosed with cancer.  The downfall was quick; the chemo left her bedridden after only a few months, and she passed before my senior year of high school.  Deniece did make it to my high school graduation; I was the ‘black’ student speaker at Commencement.  But our dynamic had changed.  She was a year older than me, so she went to college first.  The phone calls and hanging out became a lot more sporadic.  Losing both her and my aunt within a 12 month span put me in a very ill mood, truth be told.   I didn’t understand why college was such a big deal, but I would stand corrected soon enough…

Spike’s movie about Malcolm had made black nationalism as ‘cool’ as it had been in decades.  I started to mimic Malcolm physically (horn rimmed glasses, goatee), and in terms of speaking out.  I joined my high school speech team and took to it pretty quickly.  I had my first couple run ins with the police, so I wrote a speech about the stereotypes young black men always face.  I ended up winning a few contests and started to get noticed.  The first time I appeared on TV, it was on the Kansas City version of the ‘Black Perspectives’ show that airs on Sunday at 3:30 in the morning.  My teacher/coach took a shine to me and asked me if I had any interest in acting…

The first acting piece I tried was based on the play ‘The Meeting’, a short piece about a fictional meeting between Malcolm and Dr. King.  I picked the scene apart and started breaking down the cadences of each man until I felt comfortable in each role.  I was 17 years old, so nobody was calling me the next Brando now, but again I would win competitions and end up going to State.  I enjoyed it but I didn’t care for the attention just yet.  All of this looked good on my college applications…

I had dreams of filmmaking so you can guess what my college choices were: NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA.  A tier below that I had some contingency schools, Florida State, Northwestern, TCU and Xavier showed interest in me.  I got a letter from Harvard which was nice for my ego, but I knew I wasn’t going there.  Naturally I had a couple HBCUs on my radar: Grambling and Prairie View to be specific.  After I filled out my film school applications, my father took me on a College Road Trip through his alma mater and Texas.  I still had respect for these places, but I wasn’t a kid anymore.  KC had made me way too ‘city-fied’ to want to spend four years there.  I came back home ready to mail in my apps to film school proper.  One problem.  Moms had thrown out all my film school apps.

There’s a sequence in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy meets a kid who can prove his innocence.  So the Warden has the Kid murdered, and Andy’s sent to the Hole for a couple months by the Warden as a way to set him straight.  This was how it went down with me and her: all the different daily arguments about my hair, my clothes, my grades were love taps compared to this.  This wasn’t the Argument of the Day; this was my life.  I had done everything that was asked of me, and I come to find out it didn’t mean shyt.  I had to start questioning my father too; if he wasn’t part of the plan, he was enabling it.  In retrospect, I had no business in LA or NYC at 18.  The real issue though was I wasn’t given a logical excuse (like money, since all the top film schools were at private schools).  The reason I was given was ‘distance,’ which coming off a massive road trip through the South smelled of extreme hypocrisy.  Of course I lost this battle.  What could I do but take it?  So for the first time in my life, I was waking up every day pissed the phuck off.

Like Andy, I had to momentarily take my sentence and deal with it.  Four years without the possiblity of parole.  I no longer trusted anyone; it was a hard way to learn it, but I began to appreciate the fact that playing by the rules and being the ‘nice guy’ sometimes leaves you assed out.  Sometimes to get your way, you just have to straight be an asshole and hustle your way out. 

With a chip on my shoulder the size of a Redwood, I made my way to my version of the Hole.  Also known as the University of Kansas.

I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 16 years old.  The pages are turning yellow, but I still have the paperback version I bought half a lifetime ago now.  In nearly every chapter, there was something in it that struck me like lightning.  I flip through these pages now and see things I annotated back then that still stick with me today:

“I said I respected every man’s right to believe whatever his intelligence tells him is intellectually sound, and I expect everyone else to respect my right to believe likewise.”

“I knew that in any society, a true leader is one who earns and deserves the following he enjoys.”

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”

Malcolm’s journey, as a child born in Omaha who would eventually find his destiny and legacy out on the Coast, appealed to me on a variety of levels.

I wasn’t ‘the preacher’s son’ by any means, but I was part of the church growing up.  I was in the choir briefly before finding my niche on the usher board.  I’m not the type to belittle what anyone else believes in; the historian in me was already well aware of the key role the church has always played in the black community.  The entertainer in me has always loved the showmanship that a great gospel choir can bring to the table.  But if religion is about spiritual fulfillment, I definitely wasn’t getting that.  As I’ve stated earlier, I was well past the point where ‘that’s the way it is,’ or ‘this is what everyone else is doing’ would satisfy me as a reason for anything.  Another major element of my personality was making its way to the forefront:  while I don’t always work my way into the ‘born leader’ position, I’m definitely not a natural follower.  To a fault at times, but if I sense something amiss or someone coming at me sideways, I immediately start questioning their motives and looking for an agenda.

The only Muslim I knew personally worked security at my high school.  He was in the Nation, which I was leery of because of what went down with Malcolm.  But he always took an interest in me, especially when I initially got interested in black history.  And yes, as a matter of fact, he wore glasses as well.  I started chatting him up with questions I had.  For the first time I could bear witness to how a Muslim prayed.  He gave me my first copy of the small book with the hard green cover.  The summer before my junior year, I decided I was only going to read two books: the Bible and the Qu’ran.  I started with what I knew.

Studying everything from Genesis to Revelations gave me a deeper respect and appreciation for the Bible than I ever had.  Whatever your stance on Christianity and religion in general, it’s a beautifully written book.  I’ll come back to this point at a later time, but no matter how vocal the minority, no religion will thrive based on the actions and attitudes of its more extreme members.  I spent a month digesting the verses, the parables, the message of the Bible.  When I was ready to pick up the Qu’ran, I was ready to learn an opposing point of view.

Because this is how Islam has been presented ninety percent of the time.  Islam is the opposite of Christianity and Judaism.  The religion of Islam hates America.  As a student of black history, I completely understand the politics behind why the Nation of Islam presented itself the way that it did.  But as Malcolm learned in his final years, the true nature of Islam does not in many ways run parallel with those politics.  Certain verses in the Qu’ran ring as true in my ears today as they did the first time I read them:

Let there be no compulsion in religion:  Truth stands out clear from Error:  whoever rejects Evil and believes God hath grasped the most untrustworthy handhold, that never breaks.  And God heareth and knoweth all things.” (2:256)

“And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear God.” (5:46)

“Those who believe (in the Qu’ran), those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness – on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (5:69)

It was a feeling that I’ve found many converts to Islam had expressed: this was how I already felt.  This was how I already looked at the world.  I wasn’t ‘converting’ to anything; I had just found a name for my spiritual feelings, and it was Islam.  I started to study the five pillars of Islam: the shahadah (that there is one God and Muhammad is his messenger), salah (ritual prayer), zakat (alms giving), sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and hajj (the pilgrammage which I have not done yet).  I was comfortable in my prayers at 16; I fasted for the first time at 17.

As you can probably guess, Moms wasn’t feeling it.  So I spent the last couple years under my parents’ roof by playing into the facade: going to church on Sundays, coming home and doing my religious study on my own time.  I had already chosen my Islamic name, but it just wasn’t smart to rock that boat just yet.  The mix of my spirituality and social consciousness provided the core to my adult identity.  Going into my senior year of high school, my full attention turned toward my career ambitions, and finding a college on either the East or West Coast.

I can remember with clarity the effect Roots had on me the first time I watched it.  Awe, shock, pride, anger.  I cried pretty good the first time I saw the scene where they whipped Kunta Kinte until he said his name was Toby.  I was one of the first in my family to be born outside Louisiana.  I knew the towns my parents grew up in.  I had been to the homes of my grandparents, my great-grandparents.  But like many others, Roots made me feel as though I knew nothing of my own heritage.  I was always an avid reader as a kid, so it didn’t faze me to search out and read the novel the miniseries was based on.

Diving into the history of the civil rights movement and the history of black people in this country altered the way I looked at life to say the least.  I took to it like a fish to water.  I hardly digested one book when I was already seeking out something else: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eyes on the Prize, Go Tell It On the Mountain.  The more I read, the more aware I become of an ‘angrier’ side to the Movement.  But I personally wasn’t there.  Yet.

The next logical step, once I became a true student of black history, was to become a conspiracy theorist.  My grandfather had the prototypical three way portrait of JFK, Jesus, and MLK sitting above all the family photos.  It struck me for the first time that all three of these men were murdered; now I wanted to know why?  And how was it possible Jesus looked the way he looked on all the church fans if he spent his entire life in the Middle East?  My questions no longer just had teeth; they were growing fangs.  The Tuskegee experiments, the ‘war’ on drugs, Rodney King…I was swiftly morphing into a nice little cocktail of paranoia, social consciousness, and teenage rebellion. 

The mid 90s also doubled as the second perfect storm of my life:  Spike brought a lot of social consciousness into his films.  He broadened the audience for guys like Wesley, Sam Jax and Denzel to eventually become what they became.  Hip hop was going through its political phase, where acts like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and Arrested Development could get major airplay.  One man’s name kept appearing over and over again in a lot of the things I was reading, watching, and listening to.  I eventually found a picture of him: another brother who wore glasses like me.

Of course I really loved Roots the novel, more than the miniseries even.  I went to the library one day looking for other books written by Alex Haley.  And I found one…

Limitless V. – Deniece

I subscribe to the theory that relationships are like investments: the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.  I’m not going to reveal all the various forms of physical and sexual Kryptonite I have a weakness for, but I will say this: I’m a man.  I’m reminded of an old Eddie Murphy joke: if a woman spends enough time catering to a man’s ego or libido, well, it’s no guarantee he’ll fall in love or sleep with her.  But she’ll definitely end up on his radar.  Men are simple like that, even me.

Right before one of my high school summers, my guidance counselor pulled me into her office and asked me if I would be interested in going to some type of multicultural summer camp.  I have no idea what possessed me to do it, but long story short I spent a week out in the country with a bunch of other city kids from both sides of the State Line.  I’m not trying to undersell it; it was a very moving experience for us, especially at that age.  That said, we were still teenagers with out of control hormones; there were more than a few sparks developed over that week.  I had a thing for this nice, light skinned cheerleader from the Missouri side.  I talked to her for a quick minute; I remember she was the first sister who expressed anger at me that I would consider dating someone other than a black woman…

Later that summer there was some type of camp reunion and I ended up hanging with Deniece.  I believe the line I threw at her was, “Hey, hey woman!  Why don’t you, bring your pretty little self over here?  Find out what it’s like to go home with a real man!”  OK, OK, I didn’t go all Clubber Lang on her, but that was always the tone between us.  I would just start cracking jokes and acting silly and she would crack up.  “Make her laugh” was the first of many life lessons I would pick up in my relationship with Deniece.

In a way I feel sorry for her looking back.  I was in full bloom as ‘the firstborn teenage son’, which translated into constant arguments and disagreements with my mother.  Like clockwork, every Saturday night I would storm into the basement (which was becoming my favorite part of the house) and call Deniece ranting about whatever I was heated about at that particular moment.  I pride myself now on being both a good listener and someone who will protect your secrets if you confide in me (because that’s what I demand if I become close to someone).  Anyway she’ d just let me blow off steam, knowing when I wasn’t mad, I turned into a straight nut.  I was cordial with everybody I went to high school with, but we weren’t hanging out together socially, and I wasn’t really dating anybody from school, so at the time Deniece saw that part of me no one else knew existed.    She was the first girl who complimented me on my biceps (Lesson 2: keep the physique tight); she was also the first woman to expose my jealous side.  This is a funny story she may not even remember, but it wasn’t even from another guy in Kansas City…

I’ll never forget this; we went to go see Above the Rim with a couple other friends.  Pac was in that movie, a young Wood Harris is in there, Duane Martin.  But they were all about some Leon boy!  This cat…really?!?  Some skinny fool is really going to go down to Rucker Park in some cordoroy jeans in the middle of summer and ball up on the best of the best?  Are you kidding me?  Leon…anyway since I’m nowhere near a hothead personality-wise, it was a great tell of the nature of how I felt.  We were going to prank a mutual friend and tell him I got her pregnant right before college…which ended up crashing and burning because he really did get his girl pregnant (and couldn’t go to college).  Yes, that was foreshadowing…

We’ve gone our separate ways since college, but through the magic of current day technology we’ve refound each other as adults.  I still smile when I get a random note from her once in a while; I like to believe I can still make her laugh with my foolishness. 

But back in my teenage years, she was probably the only one who saw that on a regular basis.  I was about to get a whole lot…darker…

My earliest memories of the movies were from the summers in Salina.  The local theatre would play these Sinbad serials as matinees, and we’d all ride our bikes home afterward and play out in the street.  Pirates, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, what have you.  E.T. was the first ‘Hollywood’ movie I remember seeing at the theatre; the Goonies was the first film I remember trying to imitate with my friends.

Fast forward to 1989 was the number, another summer.  Even in Kansas City, you couldn’t escape hearing about it.  One of the best movies of the year was a story about black people, written and directed by a young black guy…

I remember the first time I saw a picture of him: he was a little guy, he wore glasses.  I was a little guy who wore glasses; he didn’t look much different than me.  As much as I enjoyed movies, never in my wildest dreams, had I thought, “I can do that.”  Until now.

A few times in my life, I’ve found myself in the middle of a perfect storm.  This would be the first time for me a series of things all seemed to happen at just the right time.  First, my generation was the first to grow up with VCRs in our home.  (These preceded DVRs and DVD players for any young people who might be reading this.)  So if we missed a movie in the theater, we now had the ability to wait a few months and watch it at home.  This is how I came to see She’s Gotta Have It, and School Daze.

The other great blessing that fell in my lap was home video cameras becoming increasingly cheap.  My father always gave me more than I deserved, but his greatest gift to me was giving me the chance to fail.  As I’ve gotten older, I understand that for alot of people, when they’re told “You can’t do this,” “You’re not good enough for that,” that’s it.  End of story.  They don’t even try to do whatever it is they want to do.  I idolized Michael Jackson first, so he hooked me up with the cassette, the poster, the glitter gloves and the socks.  Yes, the socks.  I’ve always loved dancing, but tragically I wasn’t even passable as a singer until my mid 20s.  My first sports hero was Magic.  When I was two feet tall, I had a toy hoop in the basement.  When he moved up to having a home with a garage, we put a regulation hoop up, and the guys in the neighborhood would come play.  I had the most hideous, purple and gold, half varsity letter jacket, half turtleneck, Magic Johnson sweater ever made.

But outside of my historic triple single against Northwest for my 7th grade team (2 pts, 1 assist, 1 steal, I still remember), genetics killed my hoop dreams.  When I first showed interest in filmmaking, my father decided to buy ‘the family’ a video camera.  I think he used that thing 10 times.  Seriously, to this day, I have no idea what my father’s favorite movie is.  I know he likes westerns, that’s about it.  But somewhere down the line, he decided he was going to encourage me until I figured out what I was good at.  And I’m eternally grateful.

The first videos were me, my sister and cousins singing and dancing in front of our grandfather’s house.  There’s a pretty good one of me, baseball cap cocked to the side, dancing to ‘2 Legit 2 Quit.’  (That video will never see the light of day by the way).  I did a little rapping when hip hop started taking off nationally; I started shooting the basketball games when the guys came over.  Best Buy sold a little mixer, so I learned how to edit by putting the VCR and camera together and making music videos.  I was getting better at it.

And could there have been a better time to be a fan of black cinema?  Hollywood had jumped on the bandwagon and I was along for the ride.  The main mall in Kansas City Kansas was Indian Springs; I was down there for three reasons: to get an Orange Julius, to see what dimepiece they had working in Harold Pener, and to go downstairs to catch a show.  House Party, New Jack City, Juice: I saw all these on the big screen.  And it was usually kids like us running the ticket counter so normally I didn’t have a problem getting in.  There was one time though: my father had to take me to go see Boyz N Da Hood, which was written and directed by another little brother in glasses, who came from some school in California…

Like I said, it was a perfect storm for me personally.  I found something I was passionate about and good at.  I loved every minute of it.

And I still do.