Good Kid, Mad City

img_8910The following are my thoughts on my cousin Calvin’s passing on February 18, 2017. I wrote this over a period of two weeks around the time of his death. My initial post entitled Cousin Calvin was written quickly and after reflecting more on my cousin’s life, I wrote  an in depth piece in hope that I would help myself and others understand his life. Here it is.

I began putting down my thoughts about my cousin Calvin’s passing a day ago. I wanted to do my cousin a service by writing something that would capture my thoughts as well as those of our family. During that process, I tried to come to grips with Calvin’s suicide by looking at his life from many angles. It is my belief that the socioeconomic factors that gripped Calvin’s life must also be examined to fully understand why he decided to end his life suddenly.

Popular culture dictates that Compton, California — Hub city — is home to the Crips and Bloods, Crack cocaine, and NWA. Though this may be partly true, focusing on those aspects of life in Compton limits one’s understanding of the city and ignores the lives of the people that those aspects affect. Recently, Compton celebrated the rise of burgeoning rap impresario, Kendrick Lamar, whose debut album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City masterfully shifts the focus away from those aspects of Compton life to reveal struggles that every Compton son faces – gangs, drugs, alcoholism, unemployment. If the gangs and drugs are the first things that come to mind when you think of Compton, however, you must look closer. For the majority who never visit Compton, gangs and drugs are all they have to go by. I am not like them, however, because I was privileged to access Compton through birthright. This privilege afforded me a firsthand experiences, and a close up look at the lives of Compton residents. My vantage point was from my aunt’s home on Pannes Avenue. That view of Compton life revealed unexpected virtues such as beauty, love and pride.  That blessed home was not ravaged by gangs, or drugs, even though parts of the city were. At my aunt’s house on Pannes you could find the one aspect of Black life that we far too often hear is missing – a father, my uncle, Mr. Roosevelt Johnson. The Johnson family home on Pannes played an integral part in many of our families gatherings. That blessed home was a beacon of light, faith, love, and caring that contradicted what we were being told about Compton on our TVs. In fact, my view of Compton from the Johnson families’ living room, kitchen, and backyard – points where we often congregated — was overwhelmingly cluttered with positive images of creative, artistic, culinary and mechanical genius. And that was all under just one roof.

Calvin Johnson was a good kid like those Kendrick Lamar describes in his music. Sadly, pain was all too real and toward the end far too constant in Calvin’s life. The first twinge of pain was felt not by Calvin, but his mother, my aunt, Vivian Johnson, as she pushed him into this world. What a joyous day that must have been for my aunt and uncle, Vivian and Roosevelt. Calvin made them parents thrice times over. For a decade shy of half a century Calvin brought light, joy, comedy, and understanding to his mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We all miss him dearly.

The second twinge of pain was felt in 1995 when Calvin’s older brother, my cousin, Curtiss Leigh Johnson, passed away. Curtiss showed tremendous promise. Until Curtiss’s passing, Calvin was overshadowed though. I know this feeling well as I for many years was known by schoolmates simply as my big sister’s little brother.  Only after Curtiss’s passing did we see Calvin, but by then it was too late for us to groom him and we could not expect him to fill Curtiss’s shoes. The cracked vessels that we, his family, are, accepted him and all his imperfections too. We loved him and wished him well though in this world even good kids like Calvin get raw deals. The evils which included gangs and drugs slowly surrounded the Pannes home. They were not welcomed guests there, however. A third evil, unemployment, which reared its ugly head into Calvin’s life did the most violence to his Black body. Living with one’s parents, not being gainfully employed and growing old is not what we, Americans, think of as success or independence. How foolish we are to think this in the face of a world wherein many societies do not chastise children for continuing to live at home. I saw this firsthand in South Korea where parents and their adult children lived under the same roof. They had curfews though.  Calvin’s circumstance was not bad if looked at through a different lens. But being American also means valuing independence. So while Calvin’s cousins and sister were moving out and in some cases up the social ladder, he remained stagnate. Although not physical pain, his ego must have been bruised.

Then there was the physical pain. Calvin suffered from a form of Cancer that forced him to remain at hospital far too often. When he initially went in some years ago for surgery on a growth on his neck, we were afraid we would lose him. Calvin endured that surgery and the physical pain and exhaustion that must have wreaked his body. Thereafter, there were more visits to the doctor and no end in sight for his physical malady. He would use cannabis to the chagrin of other family members, but at least this seemed to help him feel better.

Irrespective of the material world, it may have been a matter of the heart that led Calvin to end his life. Though he was unlike our idea of a successful man in our society, Calvin was indeed a success. He found ways to survive that shocked or impressed us. From building a car’s engine, to having a green thumb, Calvin’s genius though overlooked and dismissed even by those in our family is undeniable. Although I was unaware of his ability to cook, I recently learned that Calvin fashioned himself into somewhat of a chef. His creativity was boundless. His mind was free, but his body was trapped to suffer the slings of painful arrows targeted at him. No wonder he sought an escape. He will be dearly missed.

There are thousands of miles between my mom and I, however, we send each other cellphone messages regularly.  She knows I’m safe, doesn’t worry too much about me, and doesn’t feel the need to send long messages. A short statement “much love” or “Love ya”, which is her style, suffices. This arrangement suits me just fine. However, yesterday, when I received a forty second voice message from my mom I immediately thought it odd and fear washed over me briefly before I pressed play.  My mother sent that message from Los Angeles around 7:30 in the evening on Saturday, February 18th. At the same time, I was across the globe in Saudi Arabia preparing for class when I received her message — It was 6:30 on the morning of the 19th.

When I pressed play my mother’s voice came through clearly on the other end. She took her time to carefully relay her message.

In that moment, her words landed on my ears, but had not penetrated my heart. That would take some time. I could not give my full attention to her or respond much with class beginning soon. I sent her a short response to let her know I got the message. Then as class proceeded and as I began to get further into the lesson, the weight of this message began to bear down on me.

In that forty second message my mom told me that my cousin Calvin had taken his own life; that he had successfully released himself from this mortal coil.  I thought immediately about the idea that Calvin was a good kid in the mad city of Compton.

Calvin was the oldest male grandson in our family. He was two years older than me and I looked to him for understanding. And although life had us on very different paths there was still common ground between us. As a man, his honesty and perspective on matters of life and family was always welcomed by me even though they were often unpopular to members of our family. He said things I could not and did things I would not. Nevertheless, my cousin, Calvin, surprised and wowed me with his genius. I am grateful to my aunt and uncle, Vivian and Roosevelt Johnson, who brought Calvin into this world. I will dearly miss Calvin Johnson’s presence at our family gatherings. He may have left this world alone, but he also left us lonely without him.

On March 11, 2017, Calvin Leon Johnson was laid to rest.


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