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The history of these streets is my history for my story begins here. My mother was born on Friday June 13th 1969, the night of a full moon. My grandparents were both civil rights activists who came north with the Movement when Dr. King called for men and women to join him in his fight for equality in housing. Grandpa was a freshly minted lawyer from DC and his newly wed wife, a school teacher from Selma, Alabama. They marched, they organized and they bought a house, 1469 S Serenity Avenue, in this New Jerusalem alongside many other idealists. The neighborhood soon thrived with black owned homes and businesses including the club at the corner, Mississippi Moon. It was a favorite watering hole for the activists, featuring leading Blues and Jazz performers. It is rumored that MLK himself may have listened to Muddy Waters there. Unlike many other establishments, it survived the riots after the murder of Dr. King but barely. The neighborhood fractured after the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, seemingly surviving but with its pulse irregular, its soul scorched and weakened, much like the partially burnt buildings that bore testament to its anguish. My grandparents never considered moving away, to leave was to hand victory to the murderers of MLK and RFK.
My mother was born one month and one week before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cavorted on the moon. The images of grown white men in oversize white suits floating across the lunar surface like dandelion puffs whilst ordinary folks struggled to rebuild did nothing to ease the pain in the neighborhood. Their wry resentment was expressed in the phrases “they can put a man on the moon but they can’t …”, and in music. The slow burn of resentment yielded to the raging flames of anger, and in anger they waited for the revolution that would not be televised. The revolution was not televised. The revolution was not televised because it did not happen. Instead our young were sent to be devoured in the napalm fueled fires of Vietnam.
They named her Amina Alcyone, after the Hausa warrior queen and the Greek goddess of Tranquility, for they envisioned for her the life of peace and tranquility that they were waging war to secure. Some said her names were pretentious but this was a time children were named for the aspirations they would carry like freshly thrown clay vessels into the kiln that is life. My grandparents were unrelenting marshals in the rebuilding effort and spared no time for distractions including raising my mother. Alcy, as she was called by everyone else, was raised by the neighborhood and in the early days this was a good thing. The neighborhood included the baker's shop over on East 14th Street, Sherita's soul food kitchen two blocks south on Serenity, the drugstore Meekhams adjacent to Christ the Avenger Church of the Purifying Conflagration which was opposite the square from Mississippi Moon. She walked to elementary school at our Lady of Serenity Chapel Parish school four blocks north, just past the train station on 10th Street.
Vietnam took our young men and those it did not send back in body bags it sent back as shells with battered bodies and tortured souls. They brought back their nightmares and the drugs to silence the demons that haunted them. Young men who should have learned how to build bridges and heal bodies had been trained to blow up villages and to maim people. They came back and were unleashed on our neighborhoods. Alcy came of age in the 80s as did the scourge of crack cocaine in the community. I believe they call it crack because it cracks everything it touches and in the summer of 1985 it touched Alcyone. My grandparents fought to keep drugs out of the neighborhood but could not keep them out of their daughter.
One of the few pictures I have of my mother is her High School freshman class photo. She is looking into the camera, bright eyed and full of promise, with lips that parted away from beautifully set teeth, her jaw thrust forward in a defiant pose I recognize as Grandma's. She seems to be saying to the world "bring it on!”. Ah, if only. She was captain of the debate team in her sophomore year, taking advance placement classes for college, destined for all the greatness her talent promised and her names demanded. Then she met D'Angelo. D'Angelo, or Smoke as he was known on the street, was everything Grandpa fought against. He started out selling weed in school, graduated to dope and dropped out just in time to claim the corners for the new drug-lords and the poison they sold. I do not know what the attraction was, if Grandma knew, she never said. Alcy was Smoke's girl until she got pregnant, a fact she hid from everyone until her belly's protrusion could no longer be disguised under sweaters and oversize coats.
On Friday June 13, 1986, her 17th birthday, she confronted him, begging him to come talk to her parents. He beat her until her waters broke and she lay on the street bleeding from her mouth and vagina. The force of her contractions tore her uterus expelling me onto the street. I was born on the corner of 14th and Serenity while she lay there hemorrhaging to death. My mother, Alcyone died on Friday June 13, 1986, killed by my father as he attempted to kill me. He would disappear from the neighborhood never to be seen again.
Tranquility died on Serenity Avenue and my grandparents were never the same again. Grandpa continued to practice law and to represent minorities and union workers in disputes across the state but he no longer had his heart in it. Grandma loved me with an all embracing love that squeezed out the world outside and almost let nothing including air in. Their friends and family urged them to return south but again they refused for they could not bear to leave behind their memories of Amina Alcyone. They hardly ever spoke to me about my mother but when they did a cloud would loom overhead resulting in precipitation from grandma's eyes. I had grown used to her eyes lighting up when I did something special. She would start to say how my mother used to …, and her voice would trail off, memories of my mother dissolving like clouds of dust into the boundless desert.
I grew up in this neighborhood but I never felt part of it. I viewed it from my cocoon much like a fish in a bowl sees the distorted images of the world behind the glass, content to live its confined life blissfully unaware of the lights and shades outside. Even as I grew older it never was for me the place my grandparents recalled. Mississippi Moon had closed down only to reopen years later as Castignalio’s. The Rialto Theatre where legends like Redd Foxx once performed was now a crack-house. The banks were gone, replaced by a currency exchange. The barber shop, the bakery, the hardware store all gone, the store fronts boarded up. What we had in their place were the liquor store and opposite it the fried catfish and chicken hut, for what was better to gulp down your Daniels than a good helping of grease, gristle and bone. And on every corner were the hustlers and hoppers, who like termites gnawed away at the very foundations of the community blind to their own self destruction.
I went away to college, to Grandpa’s alma mater, Georgetown and I still remember the look on his face the day they dropped me off. On his face were etched hope, loss, joy, and pain as his eyes brimmed with unshed tears. That would be the last time I would see him alive for he died that Fall, from a stroke. He was buried next to Alcyone an empty plot to his left. Grandma was alone in a house that was now full of ghosts, shattered dreams lurking in every corner whilst laughter had long departed. I decided to quit and return home but she would have none of it and insisted I remained at Georgetown. She decided to become a foster parent caring for children who were the detritus of the carnage crack and heroine, like Scylla and Charybdis, had wrought on the community. She did this through my first three years of college until she gave up because of her failing health. She still found the strength to visit me and cheered louder than any parent when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma.
We planned to go traveling together. She wanted to take me to Selma, to see where it had all begun for her, so I could understand the journey that was not only hers but mine as well. The morning we were supposed to meet up she did not call as she always did. I phoned her only friend in the neighborhood, another hold-out from the Movement but she had no news. I called Father Michael who hurried to the house and later confirmed my worst fears with a call as I waited to board a plane at Reagan National.
There is a hole inside me, bigger than that being filled with the clod and sod and my beloved Grandma as she is interred alongside her husband and her daughter, all that is good of me lying in those holes. I have returned to Serenity Avenue to bury my past, I wish I could so easily bury my sorrow.
I am 22 today and alone. I stand on the corner of 14th and Serenity where my story began and I wonder, now what?