TONY COX, host:
It's time for StoryCorps Griot. It's a project that records the stories of black Americans across the country. Today we hear from Omar Leech. He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where he was a gang member. A couple of years ago, Leech moved to Atlanta to escape that lifestyle. Here he remembers his introduction to gang life.
OMAR LEECH (Former Gang Member): I remember watching MTV and seeing two black rappers for the first time. This is 1986, I'm nine years old. And at that time gangbanger was being born in my neighborhood. The guys used to wear some colors. They used to wear, you know, their red rags. And they paint their pinky nail on their left hand red. As a kid, I'm looking at these guys like these are the tough guys. And right with them was my idol, my older brother. In my mind, this is what I want to be.
Maybe a year or two later, me and my friends, you know, we would run around with the colors. Oh yeah, we're blood, we're blood. And some other guys from another turf didn't take that lightly, and they didn't care about us being little boys. And the whooping they put on us that night was so bad that we made it home, my brother's like, now you know what you got to do. You got to be a soldier. You was wounded in war. And at that point it was on. I was a gangbanger.
I looked to the street for a family. That's what these guys were. I come into prison at 18. I got gang tattoos on me so there's no denying that. These guys were ready to go at my neck, and I wasn't taught to retreat. This guy named Thomas came out of nowhere and was like - well, if y'all going to do it like that's (unintelligible) fighting 101. I didn't have a problem with that. Yeah, we're going to do that but I don't know this guy, what makes him want to help me? So we sat down and we talked. He got to telling me a little bit about him.
His father is like 43. And he said, you know, you got yourself in a whole heap of mess now, but it's not about what you're in, it's about what you do to get out of. So then he asked me one day, he said why do you still gangbang though? He said, you got, you know, any friends in it? I said, my best friend got killed. He said, what you learned from that? I was like, you know, stay out of the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. He said no, listen. If that guy is in that grave, and you don't learn nothing from it, he died in vain. And it didn't even set in right then.
I got out of prison and went back twice after that. By the time I was 25, I had three prison numbers. This third one, you know, that's what changed me. All this time I did in prison didn't a damn person from my gang ever write me one letter, send me one penny. And right then it just dawned on me. That's not family. Those aren't friends. And when I come home, what? They want me to hold the pistol. Or they want me to punch this guy for running his mouth. I'm a grown man. And me coming in Atlanta from Toledo is like running from my life. That's exactly what it was.
COX: That was Omar Leech, who passed away earlier this month in a car accident in Atlanta. He recorded this interview there just three weeks earlier.
You can visit StoryCorps Griot in Detroit. The next stop is Chicago. All Griot recordings are archived at the Library of Congress. A copy of each interview will also go to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. To find out how to record your interview, and to hear more from StoryCorps Griot, go to npr.org/newsandnotes.