I have known violence much of my life. As I have spent the past six to eight months writing and rewriting my 12th book, a memoir from my childhood to the present, it has painfully and uncomfortably reminded me how violence is so much a part of our lives, even when we do not realize it.
There was my childhood of ugly physical and verbal abuse that shattered my self-esteem and caused me to live a young life in constant fear, hopelessness and with a sharp sense of impending doom at every turn. There was the emotional violence of my father, who never married my mother, then abandoned my mother and disowned me for good when I was only eight years old. There was the violence of my immediate family, watching and absorbing in my bones and soul close relatives yell, threaten and curse each other out again and again, as if that manner of conversation was quite natural, and absolutely normal.
Growing up in an American ghetto environment as I did was the rough equivalent of scrapping and scraping for your life, each and every day. And ducking and dodging violence from every corner, every street lamp. I have been brutalized by the police, and I have been jumped and beaten by packs of revenge-thirsty males.
In my past lives, I have been suspended from schools and fired from work due to my anti-social behavior. Or simply shunned and isolated. There is never any good that comes from violence. Never.
There were my adolescent years participating, willingly, furiously, in the boys' rites-of-passage of brutal fights at lunchtime, after school, on the block, on buses. There were the years in college where I assaulted males and females as if no big deal, as the roots of my childhood rage had become an adult orgy of uncontrollable temper tantrums. There was that sad day over 20 years ago that I pushed a live-in girlfriend into a bathroom door, and I stood there, trembling and sweating as she ran barefoot from our apartment for help. There were the many nasty arguments and debates through my 20s and 30s, with coworkers, with friends, with complete strangers. Just because.
There were never any more physical incidents with women, but certainly a few final altercations with men well into my 30s.
But nothing of the sort has happened to me in the past decade. Somewhere in my life journey and the many years of prayers, meditations, therapy sessions, private meetings with men, with women, with both genders, it began to dawn on me that peace was a choice. A lifestyle choice. I began to study folks like Gandhi and Dr. King with a different set of ears and eyes. I paid much greater attention to the powerful words of women like Eve Ensler and bell hooks.
I duly noted that far too many folks I encountered in my work as a writer, a speaker and as an activist, no matter where I went in America or abroad, had often suffered from some form of violence in their lives as I had. The men who raised their hands without hesitation when I asked who had major anger and violence issues. The women who shared with me their survival of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence. The individuals I encountered who had been stabbed or shot. The people who casually screamed at and denigrated their children, their coworkers, or their intimate partners in broad daylight.
Or the quickness with which young Black and Latino males of my generation and the generation behind me have blown away each other's lives over the smallest of infractions. Likewise for the countless young White males who've summarily picked up a gun and massive amounts of ammunition to right a wrong, in their minds, at a school, at a job site, at a shopping area. Or the legions who have been attacked, assaulted, or killed because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.
Violence in America is as popular and ever-present as Apple, Nike, or Coca-Cola. And it has been that way for a very long time.
It is for that reason that somewhere in my walk I made a conscious decision to really think about this word peace, what it means, what it should mean, and how I could apply it to my life, and my life work.
It has meant really thinking about the kinds of words I use to describe myself, and my fellow human beings, and how I talk with and to others. And taking ownership and apologizing when possible if I stumble and offend or hurt someone with my words, which I have undoubtedly done. It has meant condemning violence in every way imaginable, be it locally on the blood-stained asphalt of America, or ceaseless wars and atrocious acts globally. It has meant adopting things like yoga, meditation, and daily exercise into my life, as a way to release any toxic or negative energy that might push peace out in favor of violence.
It has also meant challenging and questioning the nonstop images of violence we inhale and digest in music and music videos, on television and radio, in films, across the powerful spaces of the internet and social media. Likewise, it has meant difficult choices like refusing to participate in public conversations on big issues of our times that are essentially spectacles of vicious verbal fights, and nothing more. And it has meant a profound shame I felt when I engaged once in that type of spectacle with conservative commentator Ann Coulter, and cringed as people took to social media to take sides in that televised battle royal.
I do not want that behavior connected to me ever again, nor do I want to be a part of anything that is inhuman, that is absent of grace, class and dignity. I want a world where there is peace, nonviolence, and love. I want a world where we, in spite of any differences we may have, practice kindness towards each, celebrate what makes us unique, but we also claim, with mutual respect, those things that connect us.
To be peaceful is to be spiritual, is to be open to the limitless possibilities of the universe; is to be willing to engage life and your fellow human beings fearlessly, as a soulful embrace of your and their humanity. To be violent is to be mean, bitter, unforgiving, unapologetic, anti-life and anti-human; is to be a graceless dance with what some call the devil, or the spineless forces of evil.
When one has known violence as personally as I have, picking peace as a lifestyle is not that difficult a choice. I look around me and think of the fallen I have known, gone to senseless violence. I think of those still here whose lives are awash in physical, emotional, or verbal violence and abuse, or some combination of the three. It is truly a choice of picking life over death. Hatred and violence are best friends, linked by a basic desire to harm and destroy.
Never did I ever think I would be in closed-door sessions with local gang members discussing ways to quell violence and beef between rivals. Never did I ever think I would counsel men who had committed violent acts against women, or be a source of help and support for women who had suffered at the hands of gender violence. Never did I ever think I would spend a good chunk of my life dedicated to ending violence against women and girls. But if you come from it then you know it; and if you heal, grow, change, you actually will wind up dealing with the violence on the other side, with a very unique kind of perspective. Because you understand the causes and effects so well.
This is why I highly admire a woman named Erica Ford, whose organization Life Camp coined the phrase "Peace is a Lifestyle." Erica's entire being is about stopping the violence in our communities, to the point of her walking the streets of New York late at night when necessary to serve as a peacemaker during street arguments and fights.
This is why BK Nation, my new national organization, is partnering with many other groups this Saturday, June 28th, for the first annual "Peace is a Lifestyle" conference here in New York City. This is why I see the links between gun violence, hate crimes, bullying, and gender violence. We've got to be what we want to see on this earth, in these times, and we've got to come together to discuss practical solutions, action steps, and the bridging of various peace and anti-violence movements for the greater good of us all.
I do not purport to have the answers. But I do know what I have experienced in my own life led me to say at a certain point -- enough. There has got to be another way to live life, other than contributing to the destruction of life.
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