Getting beyond the confines of ‘four square blocks’

| September 24, 2013
Diego Morales

Diego Morales

Leaving behind the ‘ghetto’ of the mind

Editor’s note: Musician, poet, activist—prophet. Diego Morales always has been a bold voice in dissecting society and displaying a too often overlooked perspective on truth. Earlier this summer, Morales was one of a very select group of speakers to address the TEDx Macatawa conference—an “independently organized TED event.” The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference advises TEDx gatherings but those events are self-organized. TED events present some of the worlds cutting edge thinkers and ideas. Brother Morales’ TEDx talk is presented below. It has been slightly edited for print style considerations.

By Diego Morales
Special to Frost Illustrated

Four square blocks—what does that represent? Think for a moment, envision whatever comes to mind when you hear four square blocks.

4 square blocks

And the tick and the tock of a clock 

Whose hands I was racing

Signified the undefined gravity

Of an escapeless situation

While my mind set itself to pacing…

My four square blocks may not resemble your four square blocks, but as we venture on, you will come to see that the boundaries of four square blocks, although geographically real, exist purely in our minds.

I’m going to share a story—my story about the four square blocks I faced every day while I dreamed beyond those four square blocks, the reasons why I dreamed and the cause of those dreams. I want you to understand that what we’re going on is a journey, an experiment wrapped in the realism of daily life within limitations.Chicago Photo by Martin Gonzalez

Chicago is a city that is famous for many things: Sports teams, famous for its icons, famous for its pizza and hot dog. Famous for its skyline, politicians and its criminals. These last two can be identified by the discerning observer.

In 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

“I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago… I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.” 

In 1914 [Carl] Sandberg wrote:

“Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders…

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I

have seen your painted women under the gas lamps

luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it

is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to

kill again….”

Chicago is also famous, or perhaps infamous, for being known as Gang City. Home to over 100,000 gang members, it’s a fact that far transcends the shopping, shows and miles of scenery that so many are probably familiar with.

That’s 100,000 compared to the 15,000 or so members of the Chicago Police Department (approximately 13,000 of which are actual cops).

Like most big cities, it is divided up by neighborhoods. A neighborhood can provide a lot of things.

For most of us who were born and raised into the impoverished neighborhoods (ghettos, to those who are unaware) the neighborhood provided EVERYTHING! It was four square blocks of mom and pop grocery stores, churches, schools, bars and liquor stores. All of the necessary ingredients that provide one other thing: complacency.

In the understanding of what daily life entails one becomes accustomed to routine. You begin to adopt the mantra: “It’s not a lot in life, but it’s MY lot in life.” Somewhat resembling reservations, people are forced to live in ghettos/ impoverished urban areas. Not forced in the traditional sense, but rather programmed to adopt the mindset that allows them to not look beyond the four square blocks of their neighborhood. How can this be? In this day and age? Where information is readily available, how can this be?

If you take a look around any ghetto in this country, you will find the things I mentioned before: grocery stores, liquor stores, bars and churches and schools. Walk to any grocery store in the ghetto and the first thing you see in big bold letters is: “Beer, Wine, Liquor…Food Stamps Accepted!” followed by the words “groceries,” etc. What message does that send? Convenience stores in affluent areas do not have that kind of signage out front—even though they may carry the same products. This is a prime example of programming.

I was subjected to this programming like many of my peers. It wasn’t that I didn’t have good parents. My parents worked… their idea of parenting is NOT my idea of parenting today, but they weren’t hip to what was “going down in the ’hood.” They thought that working hard and providing and encouraging education was enough—I was someone who was cared for and neglected all at once.

However, it was through their habits at home that I would stumble upon the rabbit hole.

There was always music playing in my home, various styles in both English and Spanish. There was also access to TV—whenever I wanted it. As I said, cared for AND neglected. Some of my first mentors were Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno on a show called The Electric Company. They were entertaining and they made a terrific fuss about reading.

The ’70s were a magical time. It was colorful without the blinding gaudiness that came along in the ’80s It was truly a great decade for television, especially in the arena of re-runs.

Heroes were everywhere. Japan was the land of giant spacemen and monsters. The Banana Splits made music fun.

I found out these little English guys called Beatles on one of my favorite cartoon shows were really The Beatles. That was the beginning of the end for me.

This wasn’t like Elvis, or Dean Martin, or Tony Orlando or Tom Jones, or Sinatra or ANYONE. The strangeness of the music invited me to really listen—something that a few years later, I would do so again intently with my discovery of The Doors…

Because I was an avid watcher of television as a youth, I had a fondness for characters and their traits. When Fonzie got his library card, it solidified that learning to read needed to be high on my list of things to do. So, I did it. When I was about eight-years-old I stayed up late one night to watch a movie that would change my life forever—“Three Days of The Condor.” In the film, Robert Redford’s character is this amazing guy because he reads! No super powers, no gadgets or training or fancy weapons. As Cliff Robertson’s character is asked how Condor is able to do what he does, Robertson replies: “He reads, he reads everything…” That to me was a game changer—possessing knowledge meant possessing power.

There was another kind of power I was being subjected to as well—the power of the gun. July 4, 1976 was the day I witnessed a murder approximately 20 yards from my doorstep; an image I’ve carried with me since.

When I wasn’t watching TV, I would play outside. Like most kids, I’d talk with people in my neighborhood. The people in my neighborhood had a certain look—there was a lot of ethnic pride and strength in solidarity. Coming off a social revolution and the scars of Vietnam, there was an air of “brother let me help you up.” They wore colorful attire with intricate emblems (gang sweaters). There was a sense of neighborhood pride attached to the lifestyle. These were the people in my neighborhood, MY people.

And so, I think we all reach a point where we wonder who we are, what makes us who we are…

Simply put, we become what we’re exposed to. There’s always that element that doesn’t stick, for example, the child who grows up in a household of smokers yet doesn’t smoke and can’t stand to be around it. But for the most part, if you grow up with smokers, you tend to smoke—same thing with drinkers.

I grew up like a sponge, absorbing everything I could. I went through eight years of Catholic school where I sat in one classroom for every subject with the same group of kids and the same teacher, student population of about 200, only to end up at a high school with a student body of about 3,500, one square block in size, three floors of mayhem, eight different major gangs.

Now it wasn’t just the neighborhood for the hours that I might spend outside—it was now another 7.5 hours a day, every day. Because I loved to be outside, I made connections with neighborhood kids who didn’t go to grade school with me, but ended up in high school with me.

Like tribes, the gangs stuck together—EVERYWHERE. It didn’t take more than two weeks before rival gang members saw me talking to a gang of guys I knew from the neighborhood and immediately labeled me a member of the gang.

BOOM! Now I’m in it, now I can’t make a case for myself, because no one is going to listen and the guys that I would be denying a connection to are the ONLY ones who are going to step up to help me in a situation because they’re the only guys I know.

I was now in some kind of hell! I got into several fights, witnessed beat downs that I wouldn’t consider handing out to my worst enemies, was shot at, jumped, went joyriding in vehicles that were acquired by less than legal means. Smoked a lot of grass. A LOT of grass! Made some very close friends and pissed a lot of people off. (Your reputation is measured not by how many friends you have but rather how many enemies.)

Schoolwork took a back burner to worrying about being stabbed in the neck.

No one cared. I had a teacher address the class once and say: “I really don’t care whether you all learn anything or not, I get paid just the same.” Another looked me in the eye and said: “You’re just a nigger with straight hair.” After leaving the jungles of Chicago and moving to a small town to finish school I had a teacher tell me: “I don’t know why you bother to come to school, you’re only going to end up dead or in jail anyway.” This was in a town where there is a church on every corner.

The only classes I cared about were English and History. Why? Knowledge was power—I never forgot that.

All the traits I picked up from the characters I had spent hours watching were still within me, at times battling against the traits I had adopted in order to survive. Again a form of programming, but in this case it was THIS programming that helped balance things for me. I was still convinced I wasn’t going to reach 18. If by chance I did, I knew it would all be over by 21.

Because I had all these influences, because of the music and the literature, the pop culture and even the criminal element I was exposed to, I was able to realize there was more to life than the bullshit of these four square blocks.

The above portion appeared in the Sept. 25 print edition. Click the “2” below to read the rest of the article.

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Category: National, Opinion

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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