by Kenji Jasper
This writing begins 17 years ago in the half-bedroom in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn that I once called my office. A white cylindrical candle was lit. I spoke an incantation that shouted out God and Jesus, maternal and paternal ancestors, and the names of thinkers I admired who had passed on.
I asked for elevation. I asked for clarity. But what I got instead was Ego.
I had been writing as a pro for 15 years, never seeking anything other than the best work I could do at the time. In past incarnations I had only prayed for the opportunity, for the right to stand among colleagues and contemporaries as a scribe who knew what he was doing, and most of all, to be able to make the monthly rent.
“You have to ask for what you want,” a guru had said to me once.“You have to be specific.”
“I need this book to be a bestseller.”
I had done it with the first book, after all. And that had almost been made into a movie. So had the third one. Now I was working on number five.
I didn’t want to be one of those sad scribes who peaked in their 20s. I didn’t want to lose my access card to that executive parlor of PEN/FAULKNER galas and regular appearances on NPR. I wanted people to keep reading my blog. I wanted wanted the wheels of the mill to continue to churn nonstop until infinity.
All of this mattered more than the substance the story I wanted to tell, which I was relatively uncertain about. I had a flash of old Yoda scolding a young Luke Skywalker when he couldn’t lift his starship out of the swamp in The Empire Strikes Back.
The memoir I finished and published earned some praise, but my abracadabra effort didn’t even conjure a spark.
“And that is why you fail,” Yoda had told Luke.
But back in Brooklyn, 17 years ago, that prayer did bring about a swirling of spirit that turned that little office of mine electric. Words came out of the silence that followed my prayer, spoken in the froggiest of voices come from the inside of my ear.
It took that 17 years for the message to come in clear. I left New York. Then I left LA. Then leaves fell from my family trees like an endless autumn. I forgot about that froggy voice and that night in the distant past. Then it returned to to me in the early months of the pandemic, when I’d assembled a group of writers to meet on Zoom together, for us to all stay sane. Then it was time.
I astral traveled from the guest bedroom in my mother’s house to the asphalt on the playground at Anne Beers Elementary School in 1983. Lakeisha Jackson was five or six years old. Her face was a perfect oval with Bambi-like eyes and chestnut-colored skin. And I never remember her not smiling.
“Hey Kenji!” she would yell to get my attention, and then run off with her girls across the playground or down the hall in the opposite direction.
There was something about Lakeisha that stopped me in my tracks, something I was too young to know how to describe. She gave me a feeling sweeter than a bowl of Fruit Loops and Trix mixed together.
The last time I saw Lakeisha was above the asphalt of the school playground around September or October in the first grade. The playground at Anne Beers was broken up into three sectors. Furthest away was the grass-lined field, where the 3–6 graders played ball and hung out for all of recess. If anyone younger approached they were voted most likely to be shaken down for their lunch money or to get hit with whichever projectile was in closest reach.
On the other end of the playground, closest to the street exit, were elevated concrete bricks and a jungle gym designed like the Apollo space capsule. This area was sectioned off via a half chain-link fence for the kindergarten and preschoolers.
Between these two areas was the more expansive tarmac that featured a concrete play structure that resembled those plush carpeted towers that people used to buy for their pets. There were also two iron submarines with hatches at the top that one could climb in and out of. And there was a tall metal giraffe with rungs from torso to neck for us kids to climb.
Getting to the top of that giraffe meant that you knew what you were doing. I had never done it. I was scared of heights.
Like every other first grader, I had trouble with my shoelaces. My parents had bought me two pairs of shoes: one were Navy Blue Zips from Stride Riteand the other were brown leather Buster Browns with horseshoe-shaped stitching around the toe. The Buster Browns were a pain in the ass to run and play in because they would make my feet hurt if I moved too fast in them.
I happened to be wearing those ugly ass Buster Browns that day. I don’t remember actually playing with anyone, or talking to anyone that day. I can only remember the loops on my laces coming apart and getting into a knot that even a kid with super strength couldn’t undo without sitting down on the steps and taking some effort.
Mrs. Wilson, with her freshly-curled gray hair and blindingly red lipstick rang the brass hand bell that signified the end of lunch and a return to the confines of grade school education. I got my shoes tied. And I did a good job. And when I looked up, I could see Lakeisha a good 50 yards away from me on that giraffe.
I stood up and started walking towards the lines we formed before re-entering the school building. But when I looked down at my feet, both of my brown laces were slapping against the asphalt, again. So I had to stoop down and retie them a second time.
Lakeisha was still on the giraffe. As a matter of fact, she was hanging from it, using the hood of her coat and not her hands. I was impressed, at first. There were no children left on the playground. They were all lined up in an orderly manner, ready to return to class.
But I didn’t want to leave without Lakeisha. I ran over and called to her, but her eyes were closed, and the wind and gravity were causing her body to swing just so in the autumn breeze on that sunny day in October.
“Lakeisha!” I yelled. “Wake up!”
But she didn’t wake up. I was confused. How could she sleep like that? I tried again. No dice.
So I gave up, turned and walked away from her, making my way back in the building just before the Mrs. Wilson closed the school entrance door behind all of the living student body.
I didn’t say anything to anyone about what I’d seen. I didn’t tell a teacher. I didn’t ask my classmates. I already understood that there’s no coming back into a corpse once you leave this earth with your 21 grams.
Parents were called and informed of the incident. Racing to head back inside, Lakeisha had jumped off the giraffe and her hood had gotten caught on the rungs on the way down, which tore her coat and somehow broke her neck along the way.
It was the talk of school for a few days. The giraffe was uprooted and removed, leaving holes that remained in the asphalt for at least another decade.
That froggy voice saying Lakeisha’s name all those years ago had reopened a door that higher self had sealed. The curved rusty nails that had kept me from the memory pinged against the floor of my subconscious and I found myself standing back on that empty playground, watching the girl who had always smiled so brightly when she said my name, hanging in the breeze.
That was the end of innocence for me, at 5 or 6.
I spent a lot of my early life as a writer telling other people’s stories. To me, that was the way to make them immortal. I knew killers. I knew burglars. As the crack era was in full swing, it the was the neighborhood hustlers who were the stars of so many of my first short stories, as were hitmen and enforcers.
It was their luxury cars that the hottest girls climbed in and out. They were the characters that parked outside of the Marlow 6 movie theater posted up in Lamborghini, E-Class Benzes, and Beamers, not giving a fuck about what was playing on the screens inside. They were the heroes that keep the streets I walked on turning. I wrote about them with an intuitive understanding and pride.
When I asked my homeboys to read those stories about crime they went silent, engrossed in the words. They said that I had talent. My English teachers said that I had talent. My father read everything I wrote. This was my life’s blood.
I didn’t know how to write about myself, or the roads I had walked beyond college personal statements, a few articles and the occasional poem. I had never published words about kissing Cocoa in the parking lot outside of her building, and how I could taste the grape Bubble Yum on her tongue. I hadn’t captured running down that Norfolk back alleyway with the sex symbol from that rap group while some asshole fired shots at us for seemingly no reason.
I had neglected to document that run-in with then newly-appointed Supreme Court Clarence Thomas just after his confirmation hearing when I our exchange stitched up any doubts I had about Anita Hill’s testimony. There was the DC Selma premiere where I shoot hands with Ava Durvernay and the late Congressman John Lewis within the same five minutes.
I had lived a life. So why wasn’t I sharing it through my words? A lot of my reasoning had to do with what my family might have thought. Many of them were deeply religious and saw any story I told as being reflective of them. I also avoided creative nonfiction in hopes of stopping some potential lawsuit, or a lynch mob gathered because I’d soiled, sullied or dissed the wrong person.
I had told myself that because didn’t have a platinum album or a reality show career or hadn’t been caught on a sex tape with the right model actress or performer my opinion no longer mattered. I had told myself that there was nothing to set me apart from so many of the women and men who had already made the big time already writing about the life and times of the hip-hop generation.
I told myself that I didn’t matter, as it was the way so many had worked hard to make me feel as I matured through both institutions and social networks, because that alienation was the only way to protect themselves from their own insecurities. Attempts at sabotage both creative and political were meant to keep me from writing what mattered.
We don’t all get to live until old age. And it’s a terrible thing when a life transitions back into the void after only a handful of years. My man Marquis was barely 19 when he was gunned down on a college dance floor trying to break up a fight. Rapper XXXTentacion was 20. The Notorious B.I.G. died at 24, and Tupac Shakur at 25. Nipsey Hussle made it to 33, his “Jesus” year designated as his last.
But I’m not a rapper. I don’t live in the underworld. I pay my taxes.The choices I made in life blessed me with contract extensions while others were sent back to the dugout so that some other soul could get its next shot in a new body slick with afterbirth as it slid out of the chosen canal.
When I think of Lakeisha Jackson I think of a certain kind of purity, of the false assurance we have in youth that everything is always going to be alright. Plans are made for us, sometimes more than we might like, because we are expected to keep the wheels turning. That’s the only way that it all goes on.
Witnessing Lakeisha’s death did break something inside of me. An ominous misconception erupted from that chaos telling me that the women who claimed to love me were never going to stay. I walked through the world with my eyes wide open, my heart protected by a lock that was painfully easy to pick.
I could not see the women who might bring me happiness, because I made an unconscious assumption that they were too good to be true. I settled for having to slap and shake an alcoholic girlfriend in hopes of getting her into Atlantic Station after we’d already missed our stop. There was the tattoo artist who said she wanted to physically hurt me because we disagreed about the Doctor Who episode we’d just seen. Instead of exploring life with someone to actually build with, I had specialized in being an explosives technician brought into dating situations only to diffuse potential meltdowns that might ruin the chance for those women to truly shine.
I’d lived life too long as a number two player in my own career. Lakeisha helped me to see all that I was missing as a writer when I needed it most. I didn’t need a bestseller. I needed better people in my life. I needed fellow artists to share ideas with who were not afraid of their own success, or envious of mine.
I needed to plan better financially. Liquor, OG Kush, and trips on the fly were not the recipe for financial longevity. Instead of holding onto scenes from my own scripts about 48 hour trysts in hotel suites, I needed to know what it was like to have a home of my own. I needed to know what it was like to fall in love with the words all over again.
I am telling Lakeisha’s story to appease that froggy voice back in my old office. I am telling this story, as the first act in my career closes, just before the start of new pages filled with strategies young, fresh and new. I have years worth of drafts, lists and notes for the next episode. I hear quotations in the air as I move through the world both on foot and behind the wheel. I snatch descriptions out of the great wide open like a hawk zeroing in on its prey.
New life begins. The strangest fruit hanging from trees in our forests of dreams deferred tends to be the sweetest offering we overlook. We think we lose a step when we can’t write all night like we did when we were younger because our babies have to get to school, and our partners need love, and the comfort we find within creating can be matched by a day to day in a life less ordinary.
Your first crush doesn’t have to die for you to write the best story of your life. But mine did.
Kenji Jasper is the author of the novels Dark, Seeking Salamanca Mitchell and Nostrand Avenue. His work has appeared in Essence.com, Bad Yogi and on NPR.