“My Journal Became My Confidant.” Coming of Age as a Queer Jamaican Boy in the Belly of America
Prince Shakur on Seeking Solace in Books in His Tumultuous Early Teenage Years
During the winter months when I was eleven, I started crouching in front of the heating vent in my room to read. I got to know Anne Frank while sitting in that spot and reading her diary. The photo on the book’s cover showed Anne Frank beaming at the camera, which I always loved. The more I read, the more I felt that I was right there with her as she packed her things away, went into hiding with her family, and essentially did whatever was necessary to grapple with the antisemitism overtaking the world around her.
Her aspirations planted a seed deep inside of me. In one entry she wrote, “I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me. I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear; my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write anything great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?”
If writing could help her, a teenage girl trapped in a hiding space in Amsterdam who was also trying to understand her family, then it could help me, a Black boy trying to do the same. Anne’s diary was red plaid and had a button to close it. My journal had a heavy wooden cover and an elastic cord to keep it closed. It became my confidant.
When I read her entries about Peter, my stomach flipped every time she described her desire. Anne wanted to be beautiful, brazen, argumentative, seen, and ultimately loved. She described Peter as “tall, slim, and good looking with a serious, quiet, and intelligent face.” Anne found a way to love even while locked in her tower, a sort of wounded freedom that could only be manifested by the kind of pressure that made pearls from oysters. My mind wandered to the many times that I snuck into Aunt Vick’s bedroom to watch her VHS copy of Titanic. I fawned over Jack as he spoke exuberantly about art and life or as he stared at Rose during golden hour. I wondered if I would ever be loved or looked at that way.If writing could help her, a teenage girl trapped in a hiding space in Amsterdam who was also trying to understand her family, then it could help me, a Black boy trying to do the same.
I lived in a household where we were meant to report on things that had happened that day at school and encouraged not to hide anything from my parents. I was beginning to learn that I had thoughts worth protecting.
The more I thought about Peter and Jack, the more I thought about how puberty was warping my body in ways that I never expected and the more I felt like I needed to write through the changes. Soft patches of hair grew under my chin. I was taller and suddenly, I couldn’t stop glancing at the boy in my seventh-grade class during lessons. Deon was boisterous, athletic, charismatic, and everything that I wasn’t.
Deon liked to touch himself during class and wink in my direction jokingly. He was considered the most devastating catch by the girls. Deon watched from afar or simply never noticed when our peers were teasing me. He was also nice enough to chat with me sometimes during class, possibly a symptom of him clocking me as nonthreatening. Even at twelve, I was already aware that there were some things that I wouldn’t be in life, being smart and popular included. Navigating both, in my mind, required a degree of slyness and performativity that I didn’t possess.
Through all of the changes, I read more voraciously while propped in front of my room’s heating vent. With my stepfather Dennis gone, the house took on a ghostlike quality. My books became a way of battling or confronting these ghosts.
In Dear Mr. Henshaw, eleven-year-old middle schooler Leigh Botts becomes pen pals with his favorite writer while his parents went through a divorce. In one letter, Leigh penned, “Sometimes I lie awake listening to the gas station pinging, and I worry because something might happen to Mom. She is so little compared to most moms, and she works so hard. I don’t think Dad is that much interested in me. He didn’t phone when he said he would.”
In How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, a middle school girl runs away from home to find out the truth about her father’s death. The book reads like film noir and ends with an explosive, almost ridiculous realization that her father may have faked his death to hide the fact that he was a werewolf. The night that I finished Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, I stayed up late and returned to my favorite passages: Salamanca Tree Hiddle reading poetry in front of her class, rushing to the hospital as a cute boy sucks the snake venom out of her grandmother’s bite, and staring down into twisted remnants of her dead mother’s car wreck while standing on a roadside.
Through these books, I learned the honor of asking questions and seeking answers for the gaping holes in life. Death, or unexplained loss, was often the biggest catalyst for curiosity in the young mind.
“They say that time heals all wounds, but I don’t know if they’ll heal this one. I just have so much hate in my heart for whoever did this,” said my mother while she, Dennis, my brother, and I sat at a restaurant booth. It was spring of 2006 and her brothers, Senel and Derrick, were only murdered two weeks before. She returned from Jamaica with a VHS of their funeral. Grief followed her like a duppy trying to steal my mother.
By the winter of that same year, we had another loss to contend with. I was thirteen when one of Dennis’s other sons knocked on our door and told my mother that Dennis had been arrested. My brother and I sat in our parents’ bed as our mother told us the news. My mother, the master of fate, appeared helpless. I buried my face in my hands. My brother and mother sat silently until I lifted my face, then my mother asked, “Why are you crying?”
I wanted to run to the bathroom and vomit instead of answering her question. I was witnessing the disintegration of my family (and of the truth) just as my life was meant to start. In all my despair, I realized that I couldn’t visualize the last time I had seen Dennis. Was it when my brother and I struggled to clear the driveway of snow so he could leave? Did his gold tooth glint as he smiled and waved? Should we have stopped him from leaving?
More importantly, I couldn’t remember how it had felt when I’d seen him.
One night shortly after we found out Dennis had been arrested, my mother handed each of us trash bags.
“We have one hour,” she said. “We have to pack up as many of his things as possible and move them.”
I held on to the bag, looked at my brother, and then my mother. Our house was dim, so the darkness played at their faces. The entire world was contorting, folding in on itself. Room by room, we gathered as many of his things as possible. We stuffed khaki pants, gold jewelry, sneakers, and more into bags. I stowed away two of his shirts to have when I missed him, hoping that my mother would never find them and be angry. We drove to our cousins’ house and hid the contents in their garage. Staring at the garage while standing under the moonlight, my brother asked why we had to hide his things.
My mother replied, “It has to be like he was never here.”
I wanted more than the scavenged shirts that I had saved. I wanted the winter Sundays when he watched football and my mother handed me mugs of hot chocolate. I wanted the long summer drives down to Florida, where I could stand next to Dennis on the beach as he squeezed my shoulder. The clearing away of him felt forced and mystic. It was also a clearing away of the illusion of our normal family. His imprisonment was one layer of cement encasing this new world. All of our family’s coping mechanisms were the other layers. There was no space, imagination, or time for me to bust open the door of his east-side apartment with a crowbar, find him sitting on the musty couch, and have a conversation with him about how quickly things were changing. The change was here—the Jamaican child born wayward on a boat now consumed by the belly of America.
Winter turned to spring, but the passing weeks brought no reassurance. My brother and I were still prohibited from telling any of our classmates about our father’s arrest. I continued to eavesdrop on phone calls and casually ask my brother questions about what was going on. It was only through this method that I learned that Dennis had been living with us illegally after being deported back to Jamaica years before, that the police were attempting to pin him with trumped-up drug-dealing charges. My brain short-circuited. I couldn’t distinguish if what I was feeling was heartbreak, shame, or a mixture of both. I knew that I wanted things to be like they were before. I also knew that that was impossible.
I wrote in my journal about how it became our jobs to turn Dennis into a ghost, something that appears in a dream and fades away as soon as you begin to open your eyes. I used my laptop to start researching some of the feelings that I was having, especially toward other boys in my grade. The more I searched, the more I found a world of teenagers online either afraid or all too ready to speak their truths.The chaos inside of me was being unleashed onto the world, but I didn’t want to destroy any more of my life and my world before it even began.
I looked up gay porn online, tried to rewire my brain by forcing myself to watch straight porn after and attempted to read the Bible from start to finish in the sixth grade. The more I stared at the words, went to school, was mistreated by my classmates, and saw how teachers evaded pointed questions about God, the more confused I became. I thought of all the Sunday services that I’d attended as I stared around at all the Black bodies jumping up in exuberance. Women flung their hats from their heads. Their feet stomped furiously at the ground. Others cried and kneeled at the altar. The preacher always called people in need of guidance to the front. My grandma nudged Princess and me toward the fervor every once in a while. The churchgoers descended and rested their hands on our shoulders, speaking in tongues. I felt the weight of their faith, then and now.
As we walked away from the church, I’d asked Princess, “Did you feel anything?”
“I think it takes time to feel something. Sometimes I do.”
I tried to embody this logic through all of my religious due diligence. I believed in God as a means to dismantle the disease inside of me. Even after praying and crying myself to sleep as I thought of the years ahead, I still awoke with the same sensation in my gut. The chaos inside of me was being unleashed onto the world, but I didn’t want to destroy any more of my life and my world before it even began.
Following Dennis’s arrest, our house was robbed. Closets were opened. Drawers and dressers were overturned. Clothes were flung off the racks and all our gifts were stolen. Someone real and alive had come to take our things. In my mind, the robbery was some manufactured plan from the universe trying to search for the man that we had erased. In order to earn an insurance payout for the robbery, we called the police to get a report. After the police left, my mother came into the dining room and revealed, “Your father is upset. Said he cried in his jail cell because he couldn’t help us.”
Sundays were no longer for church visits or family dinners. Instead we sometimes showered, ate a heavy breakfast, and drove to the sterile gray building in Youngstown, Ohio.
Past the barbed wire, the ringing doors, and metal detectors was the waiting room. I learned to empty out all of my pockets quickly and hold my head high under the gaze of the mostly white prison staff. Sometimes as I walked by, I glared at them and wondered if they noticed that most of the prisoners were Black, brown, or poor. What did it feel like to be a captor or a part of a history repeating itself?
The visits were not the time to be brutally honest with Dennis in the way that I wanted to be. I desired time alone with him to begin to tell him some of the feelings that I was having, the arguments at home with my mother, and the prospect of high school around the corner. Instead, my mother and Dennis embraced. He clapped his hand on my brother’s and my shoulders. We performed stories of our most recent life updates. We were puppets on strings as the cameras in all corners watched.
Excerpted from When They Tell You to be Good by Prince Shakur. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright © 2022 by Prince Shakur.