Beneath My Surface
Michael K. Williams’ possible overdose death on September 6, 2021, has affected me deeply. I didn’t know the brutha. I never met him. But I LOVED-DE-DED me some him thanks to HBO. I understand those were fictional characters that he portrayed — embodied — but his death has still affected me.
Top: actor Michael K. Williams. Bottom left: activist T. Rodgers. Bottom right: author Sanyika Shakur
I didn’t know T. Rodgers, the anti-gang violence activist who passed on August 20, 2021, well. I knew him, knew of him, but we never worked together. I would see him around town and he would see me. We always spoke when we saw each other; even had a phone conversation once about working on his book but that never materialized. I appreciated and respected him for his journey from being a gang founder/leader to a peacemaker. He was consistent in his work to quell the violence on Los Angeles’ streets. And he remained consistent — without contradiction — about being a Blood to the end of his life (those are the folks who wear Red for you out-of-towners).
I was never a member of a gang, I never ran with folks who were in gangs, and the street I lived on was not “gang infested” but … in the nuanced and crazy world of Black L.A.gang life, if I had ever been pressed to identify what “set” I was from, it would have been Crip (those are the folks in Blue) because that’s what was most familiar and closest to me.
Williams’ death has brought up a lot of stuff for me. It hurt me that this gifted artist was in such pain; that he self-medicated and that his attempts at easing his pain may have led to his death. It hurts me that he is no longer here in the flesh; that we won’t get to be mesmerized by what new characters he could breathe life into. It hurts me that he was only 54 years old. There were so, so many more years we had left to be enthralled by him.
To my knowledge Rodgers’ death was not drug-related. He made it to the age of 64. One year shy of official “retirement” but longer than most gang members can ever imagine. Still, I’m saddened he is physically no longer here with us.
I don’t know anything about drug addiction. Never lived with it. Never been up close and personal with it. The majority of what I know about it comes via media and what people have told me. Thus, based on that, I believe there should be understanding and compassion for people who are addicted to drugs. But that’s what I say. I haven’t really internalized that. Because if I had really internalized that, I would have extended some grace to my brother Sanyika Shakur, fka as “Monster” Kody Scott, a notorious Eight-Tray Gangster Crip who became a talented writer.
I’m all broken up over Michael K. who I never met. And I’m saddened about T even though he was a Blood. It was in mourning these two brothers that made me realize I had not properly mourned Sanyika.
I hadn’t mourned San. I hadn’t grieved over San. I hadn’t cried about San. I hadn’t done any of those things because I was disgusted with San. I was mad at San. Disgusted. And mad.
Sanyika, who was 57, was found dead on June 7, 2021, in a homeless encampment in Oceanside, California, about an hour south of Los Angeles and 30 minutes north of San Diego. According to media accounts, his body was “badly decomposed.”
I “met” San via the Spear and Shield Collective (a New Afrikan political organization based in Chicago) not long after his book, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, had been published. We exchanged letters for years because he was locked up for years. He would eventually be released from prison and, inevitably, he would return. It became a cycle. Trying to catch up with him once he was out on the streets was like trying to herd a cat: not really gonna happen. Once he was back in prison, there would be no problem reaching him.
Left to right: Sanyika, Ramona Africa, me, and Sis. Mary, in April, 2004
I wasn’t clear on Sanyika’s drug addiction until years later, in the middle of the 2000’s. By this point, he was homeless and using computers at the library or non-profits to communicate. He would find housing with assistance from his parole officer, and he’d lose it and be homeless again. The cycle continued. My disgust and anger with Sanyika started long before June of 2021.
Who chooses to live in a homeless encampment, in a tent, smoking crack and meth? No one would choose to do that except an addict. I say I don’t know anything about drug addiction, but I know that an addict cannot help themselves. Yet I was still mad at him.
I was mad at him because, in my mind, he was an addict who didn’t have to be. He could’ve gotten help.
I say I don’t know anything about drug addiction, but I know that numerous folks who are addicted want to detox themselves and get clean but can’t because of a lack of resources. In my mind, San was in a better position than the average individual. A best-selling author who could pick up a phone and get a book contract? Who had directors come to him and ask permission to do the movie of his life? In my mind, money and connections put you in a better position than the average person. All that was needed was the ask. If San had just asked, help would have come running to him.
If he had simply asked for help.
I didn’t really understand that, for a person with an addiction, asking for help does not look like someone politely raising their hand and saying, “Excuse me, I have a problem, can you please help me?” It looks more like disappearing for days and weeks at a time. It looks more like erratic behavior. It looks more like losing housing and friends and family because you keep engaging in the same, self-destructive behavior over and over again, and again.
It looks like engaging in the same, self-destructive behavior over and over again, and again. I didn’t really understand that. But I was still mad at him.
That’s only part of the reason why I was mad. It’s not the whole reason. There are layers to this.
Another layer to this is that I might be just a wee of tad bit greedy. And selfish too.
Looking at Michael K. Williams’ body of work we could say, in the Yoruba/Ifa tradition, that his spirit came here to earth to do what it did. But I want more. I still want more from Michael K. Williams, but I accept that it’s not forthcoming.
We could also say that T. Rodgers’ spirit came here to do the work that it did, engaging young people, specifically young Black males, in an alternative way of thinking and moving in the world. But I want more. I still want more from T. Rodgers, but I will hope that those he touched will step up and carry his work forward.
The night Sanyika culminated from 54th Street Elementary School was when his formal education ended. A 7th grade dropout, he taught himself in the penal institutions of the Golden State, authored an autobiography, a novel, and a book of political essays. He inspired scores of young Black males (and a few not so young) to drop the anti-social and genocidal behaviors that benefit white supremacy; taught them that our condition as Black people within the U.S. was due to settler-colonialism, and that our freedom lay in smashing it to bits in order to be an independent and self-determining people.
Sanyika did a lot. But I want more. There needs to be more. And he should be here to do more. But he’s gone. And I do not want to accept that. And I am mad AF about that. I am mad AF that I must accept that.
I am also very, very saddened.
Sanyika should be here. I do not want to accept that maybe, just maybe, his spirit came here to earth to do what it did. That he completed his assignment. I don’t want to do that, to accept that.
That’s not what I want.
What I want is a Season 2 of Lovecraft Country somewhere … it ain’t got to be on HBO … with Montrose being the granddaddy to Tic and Leti’s son.
What I want is for T to get permanent funding so he can create more peacemakers out of “former” Bloods and Crips, the warriors we should be calling for our protection instead of the police.
And I want Sanyika to be writing. More books of essays and novels and films and inspiring and leading hard-headed young Black males in ways that no one else can.
That’s what I want.
But that’s not going to happen. I’m mad AF and sad AF about that.
Instead, what’s going to happen is I’m going to keep writing. And I’m going to work on extending grace and compassion to those closest to me before I extend it to those I don’t even know. And I’m going to forgive myself for being so angry and disgusted with San.
And I pray that he will forgive me also.
Nante Ye. Travel well, my brother.