Poverty, PTSD & Paranoia: Surviving in Harlem

Excerpt of my poem, "at first glance/bullets brown".


i thought blood was

human nature’s water.

as if it’s iron taste

signified a bond of steel

with one’s internal world

that No object could destroy

that’s why His stillness terrorized me the most

that’s why I cried, ‘cause

now he got lead poisoning

up in his fluid,

leaking up the pavement.

-Mamadou Yattassaye


As youth, we tried to peep and live between the margins. That’s how we learned to survive. That’s what the OGs taught us. There were regulations coexisting in poverty. We stapled frowns and grimaces across our faces. We concealed our successes under our façades. We averted our gaze to only the concrete. We had to.


At all times.


These rules were simply the Harlem quota. Follow them and you might sneak past the 18-year-old age limit. Disregard them and find yourself plastered on R.I.P. T-shirt merchandise along the boulevard. What else could we do? We were just paranoid youth.


At least I was.


My parents projected that paranoia onto me as well. Immigrants from Mali, they were fully immersed with Harlem’s scene of drugs, gang paraphernalia, obnoxious violence before seeding my two sisters and I on Earth. It’s not that my parents desired to be here; they left Mali on the stems of a gilded American dream. They came here, hit with the blindside of poverty. The prospect of death crept through every crack and corner, forcing them to adapt. So, they had to learn the rules, too. They had to merge within the neighborhood. They had to find love in invisibility.

I had a routine growing up. Wake up. Hold my baby sister’s hand down the block until we reached school. Wait for my sister outside school around 3:30. Leave school at 5 if I had basketball practice. Call my mom with my Samsung flip phone. Get a chopped cheese from the deli. Run home before 6. Repeat.


I remember feeling all the time like, ‘Damn, mama is always on my ass.’” The procedure, it was systemic.


But, it kept me alive.


When I think about it now, I feel my peers and I shared (and continue to share) PTSD. Young kids couldn’t distinguish between fireworks and gunshots in the Harlem summer, making pops and booms feel synonymous. When the sight of darkness and police sirens surround every corner, our guard stayed up past the morning. We couldn’t trust anyone. We resorted to routines to stay stable, to stay sane.


Growing up here for the majority of my life was taxing on my soul, among all the other youth. It made me feel like I want to run away. Take the one-way lane with my family and run away from it all. From the memories of lost friends and mentors, from the trauma, from the prolonging agony. Escape and never look back.


But, recently I realized something. Without change, the cycle of paranoia will always be embedded in the Harlem soil. I can’t imagine the next generation of youth experiencing the same. But, then I ask, how can I change the cycle, to eliminate the ills of Harlem forever?


I know I want to. I got to try.


At least.