Walter Dean Myers, A 'Bad Boy' Makes Good
Walter Dean Myers, A 'Bad Boy' Makes Good
In this two-part series, we look at two writers — Richard Wright and Walter Dean Myers — who explored what it feels like to be African-American in the United States.
Author Walter Dean Myers meets some of his young fans in a classroom at a juvenile detention center in the South Bronx. Though the audience members walk in wearing prison jumpsuits and sit slumped in their chairs, don't be fooled by the attitude: These kids have read some of Myers' dozens of books and are here because they want to meet the author.
Myers' books tell stories that many in the audience are all too familiar with — stories about being insecure for lack of a dad, being scared to walk in your neighborhood, being viewed as a criminal monster.
Growing up, Myers lived with his adopted family in Harlem, not far from this Bronx detention center. He was tall, with a speech impediment that elicited teasing. He got into his share of fights and run-ins with the law. But he was also bookish, and he knew he wanted to be a writer.
The only problem was that all the authors Myers read in school were white and British. Then one day in the 1950s, he met Langston Hughes in Harlem.
"He didn't look to me like a writer because he wasn't white," remembers Myers, now 70 years old.
Myers also discovered Richard Wright, whose memoir, Black Boy, told of a troubled childhood in Natchez, Miss. It's a powerful book that details racism, extreme poverty and brutal violence. Some African-Americans struggled with it:
"James Baldwin and Wright had this clash," Myers says, adding that Baldwin said "that when he read Black Boy he was both pleased with it, because it mirrored some of the things that happened to him, and he was upset with it, because he felt that Wright had glamorized in a negative way some of his earlier upbringing."
Baldwin's charge that Wright had glamorized the negative aspects of his story stayed with Myers. When he wrote his own memoir, Bad Boy, Myers says he wanted to show "a duality of characters more clearly than Wright had."
One aspect of his life that Myers omitted from his memoir was his mother's alcoholism. He says that if he were to write Bad Boy again, he would write more about what he calls "the burden I carried with me every single day."
"The first time I dropped out of school, the counselors asked me what was wrong. ... I wasn't going to tell some teacher that my mom is an alcoholic — I wasn't going to do that," says Myers.
Myers understands that there must be a lot weighing on the minds of the kids at that Bronx detention facility. He shows them old photographs depicting various aspects of African-American life, which he uses to help flesh out the characters in his books. Myers started gathering photos while doing a writing workshop in Jersey City. Today, Myers has over 10,000 of them.
"The kids were writing such negative stuff about themselves that I began to collect photographs to show how beautiful they actually were," he says. "I used the photographs in a number of different books."
During his talk the at the detention center, the kids who slouched in the chairs when he first started speaking lean in to listen. One girl tells Myers that she regrets not being as "book smart" as she wants to be.
"One of the things you can do is start writing," he tells her. "What you're saying — other young people want to hear [it]. If you're interested, I am."
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"Yo, Drew, here's the story!" Jocelyn called me from the living room.
She and Mom were already sitting on the couch across from the television. Pops came out of the bathroom in his undershirt and started to say something, but Mom held her hand up.
"Wait a minute, honey," she said. "They're talking about that stick up on 126th Street."
Pop looked at me. There was a commercial on the television.
"It's coming up next," Jocelyn said.
A moment later a woman's face filled the screen.
What's happening with the youth of America? Well, if you're talking about the young people in our inner cities, the picture is far from pretty. Today, two high school boys were involved in a vicious robbery and shoot-out in New York's Harlem community.
The image on the screen switched to a picture of the police stretching yellow tape across the sidewalk in front of a discount store.
At one thirty this afternoon, two boys, boys who should have been in school, attempted to stick up this store on 126th Street and Lenox Avenue. As they made their way from the store and down the busy street they encountered an off-duty policeman, who immediately sensed what was going on. The two youths shot at the policeman, who returned fire. The result: a badly frightened and wounded clerk in the store, a sixteen-year-old in police custody, and a seventeen-year-old fatally wounded.
The country's educational mantra these days is "No Child Left Behind."
Tragically, this is yet another example of the growing number of children left behind on the cold streets of New York.
In Lebanon, negotiators have reached a tentative agreement . . .
Jocelyn switched channels.
"They didn't even give their names," Mom said.
"That's because they weren't eighteen yet," Pop said. "You can read about it in the papers tomorrow."
"It just tears me up to see young people wasting their lives like that," Mom said. "Every time you pick up the newspaper, every time you switch on the television, it's more of our young men either killed or going to jail. Lord have mercy! There just doesn't seem to be an end to it. Now there's a young man with all his life in front of him, and I know his parents wanted the best for him. Laying out on the sidewalk. It just . . . oh, Lord have mercy!"
Mama's voice was cracking, and I wondered why Jocelyn even had the story on. She knew how it upset Mom. She had always worried about me and Jocelyn, but then when my man Ruffy's brother was arrested right after Christmas, she got really messed around.
"I still think you children should finish school down south." Mom was on her feet. She had the towel in her hand she had been using to dry the dishes. "It's just safer down there."
Pops started in about how it wasn't any safer in Savannah, which is where my grandmother lived, than it was in Harlem. I went back to my room, and Jocelyn followed me in and plunked herself down on the end of my bed.
"Why don't you go to your own room, girl?"
"Why don't you let me borrow your cell until I get mine fixed?"
"Drew, you ain't got nobody to call. Let me use your phone."
"Those guys must have been on crack or something," I said. "Pulling a stick up in the middle of the day."
"So when do you pull your stickups?"
"Jocelyn, shut up and get off my bed."
"How long you think Mom is going to be upset?" she asked, not budging from the bed.
I took my sneakers off and threw them near her. "Yo, even when Mom's not acting worried, she's upset," I said. "I only got the rest of the year to go at Baldwin. You're the one she's going to send down south."
"I was thinking that maybe I should just go to Hollywood and start my career," Jocelyn said.
"I thought you were going to go to Harvard first."
"I could commute back and forth."
"And you could get off my bed so I can get some rest."
Jocelyn got up, picked up one of my sneakers, sniffed it, and then staggered out of the room.
The only time our neighborhood made the news was when something bad went down, and the talk in school was about the shooting and who knew the guy who had been killed. It was a hot subject in the morning but had cooled down by lunch time. A helicopter had gone down in Afghanistan and that made the front page of the newspaper. The main inside story was about some girl singer getting a divorce and accusing her husband of fooling around with her sister. That was good, because I knew Mom would be looking for news about the shooting. Everything that went down wrong in the neighborhood upset her. I could dig where she was coming from. There had been a time, a few years ago, when the shootings and all the drug stuff were just background noise. You heard about it happening, but unless some kid my age or Jocelyn's age was hit by a stray bullet, it didn't seem that real. But when I reached fifteen, it was boys my age being shot. Mom was always warning me to be careful and stay away from gangs. That's what she understood most — the gangs.
She knew I wasn't about gangs. I was about ball. Ball made me different than guys who ended up on the sidewalk framed by some yellow tape.
"Basketball is wonderful, Son," Mom would say. "And I'm sure glad you're playing sports instead of running the streets."
She would let it go at that, but I knew she had listened to people talking about how hard it was to make it in basketball. I knew that, too. But I also knew that even if I didn't make it all the way, I could cop some college behind my game. Everybody in the city who played any real ball knew my game was strong. James Baldwin Academy had almost made it to the regional finals in my junior year, and now, as a senior, I knew we had a good chance to make it. Last year I led the team in scoring, assists, and defense. The word was that there were a lot of scouts checking me out at the end of last year, and I knew they would be back this year. They always came after Christmas, when the deal got serious. There would be some guy recording your shoe size and how strong your wrists were and smiling when they asked you if you did any weed. They were smiling, but I knew what I had going on. All the real players told me to pick up my action during February, because that's when the scouts were sending in their reports. The thing was to make it to the tournaments in March, when the college coaches would be making their final reports.
My high school basketball career had been dope, but I knew I needed a strong finish, too. I remembered seeing documentaries on a couple of players headed for the big-time schools. Division I all the way. If I could deal big-time and get picked up by a smoking college program, I thought I could make it to the NBA. It was a dream, but it was a dream I could back up. Lots of dudes talked the talk and a few could even walk the walk, but I knew I was solid because I had big-money skills and my head was into the game. All I needed to do was to live up to my ability.
But every time something hard went down in the hood — some young brother got wasted, some kid got killed in a drive-by, or someone we knew got arrested — Mom got upset. I could dig it. She was about family all the way. When Tony got a fall, it shook Mom.
"Drew ain't Tony," Pops said. "He got more to him. Ain't you, Drew?"
"Yeah, Mom," I said. "I thought you knew that."
She smiled and patted me on the hand.
Tony is the brother of my best friend. If I needed a reminder, it was Tony. Everybody had thought he was all-world on the court, too. I knew in my heart that I was more than Tony. Maybe not on the court, but in real life. I had seen Tony hanging out on the corner and messing with the crack hos. It worried me some, because I wasn't digging anybody in the hood getting into a telephone booth and turning into Superman. But I believed in myself. When I looked around, I didn't see too many brothers believing in themselves. They were steady rapping sunshine, but you could see the weakness in their eyes when they had to stop rapping and walk away. It was like when you were on the court with a dude, and he was blowing smoke but backing off when the deal went down. I was fronting strong, but I knew that ball wasn't a done deal.
Ruffy Williams was Tony's younger brother. He was my main man and the team's center. He was usually happy, but when I met him in the hallway outside the media center, he looked pissed.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I bought an MP3 player from Ernie, and he told me he had downloaded over two hundred songs." Ruffy was six three, two inches shorter than me, but built like a tank. "So I hook up, and the only thing he's got downloaded is classical music."
Ernie Alvarez was a guard. He was usually cool but a little quirky. His father ran a television repair shop, and he was always getting used tape recorders and stuff that didn't work quite right. But he sold the stuff cheap, so it was okay.
"So we got practice today, right?"
"How about we take some time out right after practice and kill Ernie?" I asked. "No big deal. We got other guys who can play guard."
"Hey, I heard we got two new players on the team," Ruffy said.
"Who told you that?"
"Needham. You know those two white guys we saw in the gym last week?"
I had seen the two guys around the school for a couple of weeks. One was small, maybe five ten, and played like he thought his game was hot. The other guy was big, my height, but broad. He played some ball during Phys. Ed. but I hadn't paid him a lot of attention. I did notice he had a slight accent.
I hate it when it's really cold outside and the windows are closed and it's stuffy in the school. Time dragged all day. I slid through the morning and made it into my afternoon English class with the clock pushing towards two. I was getting sleepy when Miss Tomita asked me to stand up and discuss the play I had been assigned to read. She didn't expect me to have my stuff together, so I sat at my desk looking all stupid while she got her steam up, and then I stood and started running it down.
"Okay, so Othello's a play about this brother who was a general but was married to a white chick," I said. "The brother was uptight and worried that the chick was stepping out on him, and this guy he trusted, Iago, started whispering in his ear about what was going on behind his back. I think Iago didn't like black people."
"Mr. Lawson, Shakespeare described Othello as a Moor, but there's no reason to believe that his actual skin color was black. That probably would not have been acceptable in Elizabethan England." Miss Tomita was small, but when she was mad, she could make herself look bigger.
"The guy's picture on the cover showed he was a black man," I said.
"That is what the publisher assumed," Miss Tomita said. "We happen to be studying the author, not the publisher."
There were some kids goofing up as if I had done something really stupid instead of just making a simple mistake. I sat down and looked at the book jacket again. I wondered why, if everybody else thought Othello was black, I wasn't allowed to think the same thing. I let it slide because you can't win with a teacher.
Everybody knew that Miss Tomita was the hardest teacher in the school. She was Japanese American and taught English and acted as if she loved every book that was ever written. As far as I was concerned, she had to be reading in her sleep to know as many books as she knew. I wanted to get my grades together and English was my shakiest subject.