Strangers in Paradise: Of Homeboys, Homelands, and the Island
September 1, 1987
I guess it made odd sense that my talk with Hank didn’t occur while we walked about the side streets of Freeport (where I live), or Roosevelt (where he lives), or Hempstead (a focal point for both of our towns), reminiscing about our lives in these places. It occurred inside of his brother Keith’s (a/k/a Wizard K-Jee) new Datsun 200ZX, on the Southern State Parkway jetting east, going to register for the New Music Seminar. K-Jee had been driving for the last several hours, as both had just gotten back from the Annual Greek Picnic in Phila, and K’s usually Newport-kicked voice was hoarser than a dog. “I was screamin’,” he admitted. “Screamin’ and getting my dick sucked.” “Man,” Hank added, “I feel like I’ve been living in this car.” While few Manhattan Islanders use cars to get around, life on the L.I. would be close to Twilight Zonian without them. To this day, Long Island keeps its beachfront mystique mostly intact, and the myths of its car culture are numerous. So it seemed strangely correct that denizens of the land away-from-it-all would set up discussion about the away-from-it-all while going away from away-from-it-all back to it-all. Ya dig?
Of Hank Shocklee: He’s a bespectacled brother of intense intensity in his late twenties, long of limb and levity, and like the album he coproduced for Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, given to subtle wordplay and noisy pontification. I can remember infinite twenty-to-three-in-the-morning mornings where, along with Chuck D, Mr. Bill, K-Jee, and M.C. Flavor-Flave, he would elaborate on minute points of hip-hop music theory, such as the emotional resonance of bass-line tonalities, or how to tell which bonus beat records the other hip-hop record producers were using. Then, with an easy fade, he’d delve into an “I Looked Inside Your Mother’s Pussy and Saw …” snapping contest with Flavor; two grown men reveling in the formal elegance of Black swing-&-slide-side culture. Then, as they continued the discourse, we would leave their rented studio in Hempstead and go to the 7-Eleven in Uniondale, where Hank would bait “Jim,” the East Indian storekeeper, on the prices of his goods, Flavor would continue to be loud, Bill would move silently through the aisles and get exactly what he wanted, and Chuck would slowly and deliberately unroll one dirty, rolled-up, ain’t-never-seen-the-inside-of-a-Gucci-wallet dollar bill, take out some change, and buy a macaroni-in-a-can-something-or-other and call it dinner. Those were indeed the best of times.
A recent reviewer of P.E.’s album said that the crew “speaks for an embattled black underclass.” This assessment is white liberal myth-math. The fact is that Hank Shocklee, the members of Public Enemy, and I are all products of Long Island’s Black middle class, the brothers and sisters of the two boojie mannequins gracing the cover of the August Ebony, the beneficiaries of super-oxygenated leisure time. When I first told my friend that the Voice wanted a look at L.I. life through his eyes, he said, “Great! I’ll take ’em to Wyandanch!”, a middle-class, predominantly Black town in Suffolk County. Then, dropping into a gun-in-your-face crouch, he mouthed, “We’re the ones that escaped from New York!” His jab was aimed at one, the failure of white Long Island to make any social or emotional space for the Black side of the family and two, the resulting resonance of the gangster-ethic fantasy, as it creeps into Black suburban life. The so-called gangster response in Black L.I. life is partly an updated version of what whities used to call cowboys-and-Indians, dis fulfillment, a stylee balance of the need to dominate and the need to pay back. As I told a friend, every one of those hundreds of bullets that killed hundreds of Detroit youths was meant for a white person. As with most middle-class life, there is a dichotomy present here that escapes liberal platitudes, rhetoric, or Voice section concepts.
Speeding (67 m.p.h.) down the Grand Central: “You don’t even really understand living in Long Island until you grow up. Living in Long Island is like …” Hank searched for a word.
“Paradise,” said K-Jee, his rubbed-raw vocal timbre giving an appropriately dreamy quality to his utterance.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s like a fantasy. You’re talking about moving from Harlem into a place where you have your own house that you can own. That’s like, a monumental achievement for a people, especially back in the ’60s. If you moved to Queens, you were considered middle-class. If you moved to Long Island, they’re thinking that, well, you must be rich. That’s why I had to go back to saying that you don’t really understand Long Island until you grow up, because you’ll find out that you’re not rich, you’re not middle-class, you’re working-class.”
Along with the reality of new, unfound wealth comes the knowledge that L.I.’s integrationist scheme is also carefully packaged. “You’ll find out later on that there were traps, or … I shouldn’t say ‘traps’ … there were things written or set up for you to move into certain areas of Long Island. They’ll set up low-income housing just so Black people can live in a cluster. And if they can get them in a cluster, and subsidize their living expenses, they can keep them together, in a controlled environment. Black homelands. That goes on all over Long Island. Massapequa Park, for example, is a square mile, and it’s actually just a housing complex. But it’s called Massapequa Park because it’s low-income; low-income is a nice way of saying that they’re all Blacks. Garden City Park, same thing. These things are subsidized by the rich white communites.
“The integration results in, ‘Yes, Black people can spend their money at the same stores that the white people spend their money at. Black people can have a home just like their white counterparts, and feel like they’ve made advancement.’ But the underlying factor is that the whites are just creating ghettoes all over again. They actually want to keep things separate, or there wouldn’t be a Massapequa Park. There wouldn’t be a Roosevelt, which is a mile long. Which can easily be called Freeport, or Uniondale, or Baldwin. It’s not, because the whites wouldn’t go for that. ‘Um, that’s too close. That means you can attend our schools. That means you can now walk in my town, and I cannot harass you, because you live in the same township.’ If I say, ‘Harold you live in Roosevelt,’ and Roosevelt is on one side of the street, and I see you walking in Baldwin, which is on the other side of the street, I can now harass you. ‘What are you doing in Baldwin, when most of your people live in Roosevelt?‘ It’s just another way of segregating. But then again, they’re not going to do it overtly, like they did in the South. They’re not gonna say, ‘Well, yes, Black people can only be such-and-such,’ because Black people will revolt against that.”
Other Blacks who’ve settled in Long Island — after our more incendiary brothers and sisters made their points in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem — might agree. Mrs. Mildred Clayton is a native of Hawkinsville, Georgia, who moved to the Village of Westbury in 1969. As interpreter for the African-American Museum in Hempstead, she’s a person professionally concerned with Black life on Long Island, especially in terms of the sometimes-strange pieces that make up the puzzle called its history. Like how Freeport got its name (it was a duty free p.o.e. for slaves and other cargo; same thing in Texas, Maine, and the Bahamas), or what percentage of New York’s supposedly-slave-free population were slaves on 18th-century Long Island (15 per cent, higher than the average for any Southern state during the pre-Revolutionary period).
Like the rest of the Black population in Westbury, Mrs. Clayton lives in a neighborhood called New Cassel. “But,” speaking of her neighbors, “they always say, ‘Westbury,’ she says, adding a laugh. “Since the ‘white flight,’ if you will, you have a lot of African-Americans living in the village part of Westbury. So the remaining whites sort of migrated to Old Westbury. I think there may be three African-Americans living in Old Westbury. Like you say, Massapequa, Massapequa Park; you have Garden City, and you have Garden City Park. And I do know that the majority of the African-American population in that town lives in Garden City Park.”
In the morass of racism and living, though, the really unbelievable often pops up, and shows the demarcation between Black and wack to be more than metaphorical. In April, as part of a series on Long Beach’s increasing gentrification, Newsday ran an article titled, “Putting Blacks Behind ‘The Wall’.” It told of North Park, the oldest Black neighborhood in Rick Rubin’s hometown, and through text, diagram, and photographs, gave the old news: how Blacks had been isolated from the rest of Long Beach by zoning policies, traffic guidelines, and a wall. The wall is the back of the block-long Long Beach Plaza Shopping Center, and it effectively divides Long Beach into two towns: one Black, one the other thing. On the white hand side: the shopping center, new storefronts, new residential development. On the Black side: old frame houses. Blacks do not even have direct access to the shopping center from their side. Instead of window displays or store entrances, they see locked metal doors, a wide alley, and garbage bins. And a very white, two-story high, concrete wall.
“Racism had or has nothing to do with it,” said City Manager Edwin Eaton of the gentrification. “It’s very funny, people tend to forget that when they lived in those rundown buildings it was because the city did not go after them.” Gee, Ed, thanks for letting them stay until you saw a way to make more money out of the space they took up. The problem that he and a lot of white folk have has to do with their second-hand definitions of racism. Racism is not an attitude; racism is not a belief. Racism is numbers. Racism is a result. Racism is what happens. For example, whether or not Mr. Eaton planned to move the sambos and reach out so the gentry could inherit the beach is irrelevant. What has actually happened? The result is racist. Or, digressing only slightly, guys, whether or not Ward ‘n Koch planned for the N.Y.C. Schutzstaffel to kill 250-plus Blacks and Latinos without convicting the cops for murder is not important. Stephen Sullivan gets a good night’s sleep every night; Eleanor Bumpurs just sleeps.
Ironically enough for me, though, the same issue of Newsday reported that a federal jury had found Garden City police not guilty of following a racially discriminatory policy in its handling of Blacks, despite the under-oath testimony of Lieutenant Charles Ryan that possession of Black skin would be reason enough to question a person in the area under “certain circumstances.”
Circumstances like walking. Mrs. Clayton told me about what happened to her brothers. Think First Blood: “I have a brother who, in 1977 or ’78, was just walking through the town of Garden City. I guess it was after 11 o’clock — and he just had to go through there, walking to wherever it was he was going. He said a police car came up to him, and they asked him why he was walking through there, and he told them where he was going. So they escorted him out. They gave him a free ride to the edge of Garden City. They gave him a lift. That was the first time. I have another brother who lives in Ohio and, in 1979 or ’80, he came to visit my sister and me. He was coming through Garden City at about two or three in the morning, and they detained him overnight. I had to go pick him up the next morning. They just let him go. No charge, nothing — just that he could go. They didn’t give any explanation as to why they had detained him or what. It did happen.”
Bizarre as these particular examples of civic courtesy may be, they aren’t new, and if you’re Black, you don’t escape it. Money, it has been said, cannot buy one love, and sometimes the trappings of upward mobility lend themselves to particularly sour situation comedies. Bury The Cosby Show. Dr. Jesse Pone Jr., David Dinkins’s former college classmate, has lived on Long Island since 1955, and is presently one of those three African-Americans living in Old Westbury. “I think we may be up to eight now,” he says. Like his neighbors, but unlike Hank, Mrs. Clayton, or me, he’s part of Long Island’s upper class, albeit the Black one composed of small groupings of determined professionals and the like. Dr. Pone has a big, big house with a swimming pool, with a tennis court, with one of those lawns you break out a John Deere for. He’s got a really long driveway, and owns or has owned a Lincoln, Cadillac, and a Rolls-Royce. He has also been stopped in all of them by police. Once, in his spanking-new Caddy, he found himself at a Carvel, surrounded by three members of the Oceanside Five-O and their wheels. Another time, while driving the Lincoln in what was then his home town of Westbury, he was asked to pull over and produce his license-and-registration. He did, but not before noticing one of the cops had his hand on a gun in an open holster.
“As far as Garden City is concerned, that’s an area that you just don’t travel through,” says Pone. “You avoid. You circumvent, which is a statement of fact. I will go down Franklin Avenue; I will go down Seventh Avenue; I will go down Cathedral Avenue. But in terms of those other streets and stuff, fine! I go through those streets on business days. Otherwise, you will end up getting pulled over, and you don’t know what the disposition of the person’s going to end up being. I think that one of the things that happened to me — and it may sound funny — was that even though this guy had me in discomfiture, he was not the ass that so many of the police officers are.”
Which is debatable, because what happened was this: About four or five years ago in Old Westbury, the good doctor got out of his ’69 Firebird and heard this sound: “STOP WHERE YOU ARE! PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF THE CAR! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” He started to look around, then heard this sound: “DON’T TURN AROUND! PUT YOU HANDS OF TOP OF THE CAR!” He did, while turning to see from where this voice was coming. What he saw was a police car with Nassau County insignia, a policeman standing in a no-miss crouch, and the working end of a .38.
“WHO ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” he repeated.
The doctor replied as calmly as was possible under the circumstances: “I pay the mortgage here.”
No joke. They were 150 feet into his driveway.
“Well, show me some identification.”
“Then,” said the doctor, “I did the Richard Pryor thing: ‘I Don’t Have It In My Pocket. It’s In The Glove Compartment Of My Car. Will You Kindly Take A Look To Make Sure That You Don’t See Anything That You Can Mistake As Being A Shining Object, Or As Me Reaching For Something.’ We went through that dance.”
Eventually, the question was popped: “Why did you stop me?”
“Well, I saw you coming through Westbury and you were taking some shortcuts driving all through the neighborhood and things there and I didn’t know what you were in the process of doing or where you were going and you just looked suspicious and I just followed the car and when you pulled in here I had to know what you were doing here. We’re having so much trouble in the neighborhod, and I just couldn’t identify you as coming into this particular situation here. [Of course, Pone did not recall hearing of any disturbances, and at the time, he had been living at that address for about a decade.] Anyway, probably, this won’t happen again.” And he left.
“I came on in the house and I said, ‘Well, fine, at least maybe he was protecting my property in term’s of who’s suspicious and stuff by coming around here,’ and I thought I was fairly cool, until I woke up about three o’clock in the morning in a cold sweat.”
“When they ask me why did I move to Old Westbury,” Pone adds, “I say, ‘Because I couldn’t afford Muttontown or Upper Brookville.’ O.K.? Now, if I’d had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn’t have bought this house. But I’d have bought one of those up the way there.
“I want to make one thing clear: that even though I had that unfortunate incident, and that there have been others, by and large, the overwhelming amount of my experience has been positive. If a person can afford not to live in traditionally Black areas, there is no reason why they should not purchase a home and live wherever they choose to. Anybody that’s able to move and to buy are entitled to anything that they wish, and they should do it, ’cause they need to show them that we will. We need to do that.
“Roosevelt is one square mile, but it has two of the nicest parks in Long Island, Roosevelt and Centennial Park,” Hank said to me on the phone. “Why?” It’s a few days after our first conversation, on one of those Freeport nights that I’ve learned to love — slightly misty, cool, dark, a wind blowing up from the ocean. “I mean, have you ever been to parks in Nassau County? Roosevelt has the nicest parks in Nassau County. Very beautiful! Spacious! Lots of basketball courts!” An edge crept into his voice. “What are they trying to say? You go into East Meadow, you’ll find Eisenhower Park. You go into Levittown, you won’t even find a park. You’ll find a lot of schools, though. You go into Huntington, you’ll find a lot of schools. What are they saying? Are they saying they want our education to be in the parks? That they want us to play ball? That they want to keep us pacified, happy? It goes back to the white ‘Knee-grow’ joke — If you wanna stop five Black guys from raping a white girl, throw ’em a basketball.”
Hank’s leaving for California the next day. Up to that point, we’d been talking about P.E. and the refraction of suburban angst, WLIR’s chicken white-man musical parochialism, and Metro 700 (its unofficial farm club, and just as stink). Mostly, though, we’re going over the time about three years ago that the posse (he, Bill, Chuck, I) and others were standing outside of White Castle’s in West Hempstead, and a cop from nearby Warden City came by and asked for some I.D.
“Why did that cop come over to us that night?” I ask him.
“I don’t know. We were too close to West Hempstead.”
“At White Castle’s? There are always a lot of Black people there.”
“Yeah, but we were outside for a while, it was a lot of us together, and anytime there’s a lot of Black people together at one o’clock in the morning, they wanna find out why.”
“Black people not going anywhere, but just standing?”
“Right. White people can do it all day long, and a cop’ll ride by and say, ‘How ya doin’,’ and ‘Everything’s O.K.,’ and ‘Everything’s cool,’ but when Black people get together, they must be trying to incite a riot. Cops are community servants in white communities, and in Black communities they’re like deterrents. Crowd control.”
“How did that make you feel that night, when that occurred?”
“I felt … I dunno … I felt … I felt like they wanted me to feel. Like tearin’ up shit. So they can have a reason to say, ‘See. Can’t let ’em get together.’ ” Again, Hank’s voice became just a touch more agitated. “I was very pissed off. ‘Cause, here we are, everybody’s college-educated, and they’re treatin’ us like we had records. Like we bad a history of starting trouble. And like I said, these people are probably not ‘racist,’ but in order for us to prove that we’re not the stereotype that they think we are, we gotta prove to them five times that we’re not. When we deal with a white person, we gotta deal with the fact that we gotta prove something to them. We always gotta show them that we are not what they think we are.”
“There are some Black people who’d say, ‘I’m not interested in proving anything to a white person.’ Are you comfortable ‘proving,’ or what’s your attitude in general?”
“Well, my attitude is, I play them how they play themselves in a particular situation. I don’t deal with white people on a whole; I deal with a situation. I know that the stereotype is always there. I’m not here to prove them wrong or anything. I’m just there for them to respect me and what I do. I don’t want them to like me, or anything. I just want them to respect me.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 19, 2020