The Souls of Latarian Milton
When Young Black Boys Come to a Crossroads
Been thinking a little bit.
Remembering the homeboy at the literary conference.
Ripped, dread-head, heart-pump-diesel looking brother, call himself a poet.
Posturing, all sorry-not-sorry, in a red tee two sizes too small.
The shirt with the bold Helvetica quote from a seven-year-old Latarian Milton.
Words said, “I just wanna do hoodrat stuff with my friends” across the chest.
Probably not really fretting over dude, but his shirt.
What the shirt means. The intention.
Don’t know. Bugging a little bit.
Remembering lil cuz, Robbie.
Robbie didn’t relate to me genealogically.
Our families were close.
Cuz grew up in the burbs around the way from my mother’s townhouse in Montgomery County, Maryland.
But I met Robbie one summer when we both happened to be visiting our grandmothers in a small town in South Carolina. Robbie taught me to twist my fingers into gang signs, bend my digits to spell out B-L-O-O-D.
Taught me how to strip a Swisher, pack and roll a blunt.
Robbie guided me through the darkest parts of the Southside on bicycles, stopping to chat with older boys gathered on corners.
Some lil pups are thirsty for juice.
Most days those corner boys told Robbie and me to leave, but sometimes they sent us both to fetch snacks from a gas station or convenience store. Whenever they got bored, they invited Robbie and me to join them. They instructed us on how to walk and talk, how to stand to fight. They taught me softness was something to despise, pinching and punching my belly, thighs, and chest—parts of my body larger and less masculine than other middle school boys.
My short choco-chunky ass looked like Latarian in that news clip that went viral back in ‘07.
Sometimes I noticed Robbie, a year younger than me, would nod in agreement with those older boys as if he already knew gentle parts amounted to weakness; that thriving as a man of color required trimming one’s tenderness.
On occasion, while Robbie mimicked the older boy’s taunts about my weight and demeanor, I would notice cars ease alongside the corner, and one of the older boys would lean in through the open passenger-side window slapping cash into the driver’s waiting palm.
I knew what was up, even if I didn’t have words for it yet.
Robbie understood too, and he wanted desperately to take part in whatever economy drove the corner.
No lie, it did look cool, on some Peter Pan’s Lost Boys style. Probably seemed better to Robbie than slaving all day in coveralls as a custodian like his dad in D.C. Always working overtime. Never around.
Robbie and I knew better than to aspire to sell drugs on a quiet intersection. But like Latarian suggests in the WPBF-25 news segment that made him famous, doing what we should doesn’t always hold the same pleasure as doing what we shouldn’t.
Guess Robbie also thought like Latarian, “It is fun to do bad things.”
But there has to exist more to this shared ideology than thrill seeking. Because humans have complexity, I can’t reduce Robbie and Latarian to caricatures.
I remember Robbie leading me to a rust-spotted, sun-faded-yellow, trailer home. He knocked twice before pushing through the front door unannounced. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim inside. The blinds were closed over every window, and dark wood wall paneling and shaggy maroon carpet swallowed the thin beams of light sneaking through the plastic slats.
I smelled rot, mold, the musk of weed and stale malt liquor. Robbie pulled me deeper into the space. The floor sloped to the center of a living room. The support beams squealed and bounced under my weight.
Reminded me of moving on a boat. Feared I might sink through.
On a loveseat, two blue figures shared a cigarette. Both of them wore fitted sport caps. One leaned forward to speak. The voice, grim and feminine, cursed Robbie for barging into the house. She warned him. She could have shot us.
Robbie introduced her as his Aunt, Tits.
“Tits.” I repeated, nodding in acknowledgment, resisting a smile.
Tits had on a basketball jersey and the muscles in her bare arms, speckled with tattoos, visibly constricted when she moved. “This is my girl,” Tits said, tendons tightening up through her neck to tilt her head to the person next to her on the couch. Tits snatched the cigarette from her partner’s mouth and inhaled it. For a moment the burning ember lit Tits’ eyes shrouded beneath the brim of her hat.
Saw a slash cutting through her eyebrows. Looked like she’d been cut up once or twice.
Tits’ girl stood and walked to the kitchen adjoining the living room and fumbled through the cabinet below the sink. Tits asked Robbie about his grandmother and then inquired about my mom. I stammered about calling home earlier that day.
Tits’ girl returned with an innocuous backpack. She stood still for a moment, considering Robbie before handing the book-bag to me. The weight felt comparable to a ream of printing paper from my mom’s office at Bell Atlantic.
Tits told us to run the bag north to Lincoln Village. She gave us the street name of one of the boys known to lurk around the corners.
She issued a few simple rules . . . Don’t open the pack. Don’t stop to talk to anybody. Stay cool if we saw cops. And, if anything happened to the bag, keep riding forever because if she ever caught up with us she’d murder us.
Tits didn’t give a euphemism. The two syllables, Mur-Der, bam, boom, bellowed in the darkness. Tits waved Robbie and me out without another comment.
Outside I slipped my arms through the straps of the backpack. Robbie picked his bike off the ground and I did the same. Over a decade later, I’d go online to map the distance of our delivery to Lincoln Village. 1.1 kilometers. 0.7 miles. Straight on Sixth Street, left on Washington Street, a right onto Eighth Street and a final turn into a subsidized housing complex. Approximately three minutes, but the distance traveled that day breaks out of time in my memory, scrabbled in the heat of fear and summer.
Operating on a kind of instinct, Robbie and I rode in silence. He pedaled in front and I remained a car-length behind. The contents of the book-bag slapped my sweating back in rhythm with the rise and push of my legs.
A whole mess of stuff was running though my head . . . Curiosity about whether the bag carried weapons or drugs or cash, questions about what other people might do to get what I had in my possession, visions of where law enforcement officers might be hiding along the route ready to arrest me.
Daydreaming about escaping the police on my bike, Robbie started slowing down. I followed him into the parking lot of Lincoln Village, a horseshoe of narrow two-story apartments resembling row houses.
Robbie and I spotted the older boy Tits had named. He stood out in a red shirt—looking like that poet I’d see at the lit conference twenty-something years later. Robbie and I rode up to the corner boy and he seemed to have been expecting us because he walked us both into one of the apartments. Inside. Half a dozen brothers, lounging, smoking and drinking. An older boy from one of the corners reached for the backpack and I passed it to him. Everyone in the room looked at me with new respect. They praised me and Robbie on a job well done, and another homie gave each of us a $20.“I remember Robbie leading me to a rust-spotted, sun-faded-yellow, trailer home. He knocked twice before pushing through the front door unannounced. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim inside.”
I can’t deny beaming, climbing down those stairs onto the street.
I wished some of the hood kids that laughed at me in school could glimpse me leaving a trap spot.
Robbie suggested we head to the gas station to buy some snacks. On the bike ride over, Robbie prattled about street credibility and legitimacy. He reflected on the ease it took to make twenty dollars in less than an hour. More than his father makes at work, probably more than my mom made at her job. He said he would return to Tits again soon, and welcomed me to join him. This had been a test, and now he assured we both could make regular deliveries.
We reached the gas station on Fifth Street, and parked our bikes.
Followed Robbie as he strutted past the cashier. Picked up sodas and sunflower seeds. Robbie offered to pay since more money was sure to come.
The gas station attendant scowled. He asked where Robbie had acquired a twenty-dollar bill.
Robbie responded, “I got it from your momma last night.”
The cashier closed the register, handed Robbie back his banknote and told us both to get out. Robbie stormed to the exit, cursing the man and threatening to involve some roughnecks from the Southside.
Outside the gas station, Robbie couldn’t stop grinning. The shit that day had excited him. I pulled each of my fingers, cracking knuckles, like I always do. Nervous.
Robbie asked me what I wanted to do next, and I told him I was hungry and tired. I said I wanted to return to my grandmother’s house for lunch.
Robbie teased me about always being hungry. He suggested we both go back to the corners.
I told him, “Kinda getting tired of all that.”
He sucked his teeth, shook his head and said, “Whatever.”
Dismissing me, Robbie hopped on his bicycle.
He didn’t bother saying goodbye. He disappeared.
I rode off too, in a different direction.
Didn’t hang with cuz the next day when he came round to the house. Gave him some excuse about feeling sick or something. I didn’t spend time with Robbie again. I saved the $20 in my wallet, where it stayed for months. After that, I don’t know the details of Robbie’s life. Last I heard, years later, Robbie’s pop told my mom that Robbie got kicked out of high school for some hood shit, dealing and stealing. Now, I don’t often think of Robbie unless prompted, like in the instance I see a prominent African American literary scholar in a tight-ass t-shirt propagating an idea that appears lighthearted but carries deeper implications.
Is the poet in the tee aware of what happened to Latarian Milton after the height of Internet celebrity, after Latarian made primetime cable television appearances, after a popular late-night animated series satirized the seven-year-old for stealing his grandmother’s Dodge Durango, hitting four cars, running over two mailboxes and then crashing into a curb, sideswiping a realty sign? Does the poet know two weeks after Latarian became a viral meme and ushered in a new expression of Objectivism, Latarian beat his grandmother inside of a Wal-Mart because she refused to purchase fried chicken?
After public fascination with Latarian Milton dwindled, he appeared to change. WPBF-25 interviewed Latarian again in 2015 as he graduated middle school. He seemed well—“on the right path,” the reporter said—a model for how young men of a certain race can reinvent themselves. However, three years later police arrested Latarian for the armed robbery and carjacking of a Lyft driver. When cops came for lil cuz Latarian, he removed the stolen car keys from his pocket and threw them on the ground . . . Bruh. Like Robbie, Latarian might have followed the principles shared by older boys lost on a corner.
To those born into the fallout of centuries of subservience to a nation that has consistently attempted to erase them, Latarian’s words echo an inherent desire to be known and seen, to live free without apology or obligation to anyone; the freedom to choose a life driven by one’s own sense of purpose.
Maybe the poet at the literary conference wears Milton’s words ironically, to convey the absurdity some folks face when the pursuit of their own individual gratification and well-being is always weighed against the rise and fall of an entire population.
For Latarian, Robbie, the poet, and me, whether we learn to thrive by conforming to a society not designed for us, or elevate ourselves by operating beneath that society—endangering our own life—we will always serve as examples of others who look like us. When the challenges of our environment evoke a survival response, we must also contend with the knowledge that our choices could contribute to those same problems for someone who shares a resemblance.
This pressure can fracture and compartmentalize identity, get you feeling like you’re different people. Maybe this irks me.
Thinking about the academic in the bloodshot tee, I’m reminded how little separates my flesh and spirit from Robbie or Latarian. Didn’t share these thoughts with the poet or speak on his clothing. Or ask if proceeds from the sale of the shirt might go to Latarian’s bail and legal fees.
Exchanging nods, acknowledging each other’s movement through a predominantly white space, I only wished for the poet what I’d want for myself.
Maybe dude wore the shirt because it’s funny in a way, a mad joke.
This essay is forthcoming from the collection To Those Bounded by Donald Quist, from Awst Press. Copyright 2018, Donald Quist.