Growing Up — An Interview with Donovan L
Editor’s Note: Donovan and I have known each other for nearly two years, first meeting shortly after I moved into the North Side of Wilmington, Delaware. Our shared community — the small city he grew up in and the neighborhood I was new to — had recently seen an escalation in violent crime. This interview came after a series of conversations on violence in our neighborhoods.
Donovan, we’ve talked a bit about what’s it’s been like growing up or living in Wilmington. For me it’s been quite an experience, very different from the neighborhood that I grew up in which was a quiet dead end street. My mom was too scared to let me even ride my bike out too far from the street corner. I guess everybody’s got a different memory of a different neighborhood that they’ve grown up in; what do you remember most fondly, or what do you have the best memories of in your childhood growing up?
Stuff with family, holidays, celebrations… a lot of eating. Yeah, typical child stuff for the most part.
What were the houses like? Were they row houses or independent homes?
Row houses, connected together. Brick wall, project houses.
What does that mean, “project housing”?
People in houses relatively connected, brick houses… where everyone knows to be “projects”, “the hood”. Probably about a good ten homes put together.
Were a lot of kids the same age as you growing up there?
Yeah, everyone was around the same age or close to it. We were all… in the same environment, all starting out the same thing, all innocent kids. A little of mischief here and there, but for the most part, you know, just kids.
Do you keep in touch with them now?
I see a lot of people in passing, here and there. I’m just more amazed that people got out and they’re actually doing stuff with their lives and not being victims of all that we came from. My cousin and best friend still lives over there and just to see him… (and not saying he would have got caught up in that stuff anyways), he’s working two jobs, he’s been to college… didn’t graduate but he’s been to college and he still lives there and he’s not doing something normal, he’s doing something different, not being a product of his environment in a bad way, but in a good way. Just… there’s a lot of people who’ve moved away for whatever reason or other, and seeing that they’re not bound by what was going on there or what we see growing up… they’ve done great things with their lives.
You mention being a product of the environment growing up. One thing I’ve noticed after moving in is that I really like the sense of people knowing each other. Where I grew up, we didn’t know each other’s business; everyone just kept to themselves out in the suburbs… it’s really isolating. I grew up as a kid not really having neighborhood friends, not playing with other kids out on the block. So I find myself wishing I grew up around other kids my age and just being able to play. What were the things you felt were negative, since most of what you told me sounded pretty positive?
Pretty much the same as every other bad neighborhood. People selling drugs, some prostitution, violence, fighting here and there. I don’t think the fighting bothered me very much (compared to today anyway), cause the fighting and shooting and killing, it just prepared us in a way for the world. For me, I think the whole fighting aspect prepared me as a man because you’re never really going to just go out and fight somebody, but you never know. As a man, being trusted with a wife… if someone disrespects, your instincts kick in and it doesn’t have to be you know you’re fighting, but it puts a fire under you to be protective. So I’m very appreciative of where I came from.
I think a lot of stuff that we did, we found a way to turn it into something positive. When we play sports, we would down each other: “You can’t make this shot, you can’t do this, you can’t beat me.” As you get older you realize these people were preparing you for life. They’re telling you that you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and you know it’s not a real harm in it saying that you actually can’t do it, but it’s more a push: “I want to see you do it. I don’t think you can do it, so show me that you can do it.” By the time we get older and we’re getting to the real world and hear, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that,” you see that we’ve already been prepared for this, we know that we can persevere through it. I think it resonates with the Bible too, like people telling you that you can’t do stuff, but God’s already put it in you to, he’s already won the victory for you, so you’ve already overcome.
You said earlier that you grew up like every other kid like a lot of other ways… nobody wants to think of their neighborhood as being “bad” or “different” or anything like that. When I first moved into the North Side, on the first day a kid who must have been like ten, twelve years old was like, “Oh did you move in here, what are you doing?” and I was like, “I live here now,” and he was like, “Nobody wants to live on North side,” like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And to me it was shocking to think that even a kid feels that way about his own neighborhood when most kids don’t know anything different from where they are. But he understood that other people didn’t want to live where he was at. Did you have that kind of sense, or did people tell you things like that? When did you first start to get an inkling that your neighborhood was different, if you felt that it was different?
I think that the first day that I moved in, I got the sense of where I was at. I got into a fight.
How old were you?
Six or seven. I was just outside playing and minding my own business and a kid comes up and he has one of those yellow old plastic bats and he just hits me. I’m like, “What did you hit me for? I don’t get it,” and he just runs back down the street and does his own thing. I don’t get it and I run in the house and I’m like, “Mom, Mom this kid hit me,” and my mother wasn’t “Oh baby come here,” she was “Oh okay” and she takes me downstairs and gets this little wooden Blue Rocks [baseball] bat and is like, “Alright, you can’t get back in the house until you beat him up.” I’m like “What?” and she pushes me outside and shuts the door and locks the door and goes back upstairs. She’s in the window saying, “Well, you’re not getting in the house until you beat him up.”
So I go down the street and was being sarcastic, “Yeah, so my mom says I can’t get back inside the house until I beat you up, so um, I guess I’m going to have to beat you up.” And so I beat him up, and then after that his older cousin comes out of the house and is like, “Nah, you’re not going to beat my cousin up,” and this guy wore glasses so in my mind I’m thinking, “Alright, so I guess I’m not going to go home and up the street cause you’re going to be right behind me so I might as well fight you,” and I just decided to knock his glasses off cause I’m thinking, “If he’s wearing bifocals that thick, he’s not going to be able to see anything,” so I knocked those off and beat him up, and from that point on, me and that guy with the bifocals, we actually became really good friends. Even to this day when I see him we’re pretty cool.
My mom could have been like, “Oh that’s alright,” but that would have prepared me in the future to run away from problems and not really confront them face to face, head-on you know. Today it would have been, “He went and got a gun and shot me, and so I got my gun and shot him back.” But no; we fought, it was what it was, we make sure respect was built, and had a friendship from there and that’s just how life back then was.
What do you think your mom was thinking? Do you think she meant to teach you a lesson that way?
Yeah. Because my father wasn’t around, she was like, “You’re a boy, you’re going to have to learn how to be tough and stand your ground and confront stuff head on,” so I think that was definitely in her mind and in her head. Raising a boy, you don’t want him to grow up and be a punk and run away from everything. So I definitely think that was the goal she had in mind when she did that.
You are quite the strapping, athletic young man; did the nature of fights change as you got older?
I’ve actually fought a lot less as I’ve gotten older. I’ve learned how to use my words more and just kinda figured out a way to use my words and if it got to that point it got to that point, but for the most part, I learned at an early age to talk and peer mediation and stuff like that, so now it’s rare that things escalate to that level. Yeah, and not too many people want to fight a big guy.
I got into schoolyard fights too, I had people beat up on me, I never beat up on anybody because I was the kid who got pounded on, but once a gun or once a weapon enters the picture, it feels different, and I definitely got that sense when I first moved in because that’s what everybody talks about, “Oh, you’ll get shot,” that’s what everybody sort of thinks about violence in general. And it sounds like just having or knowing that there’s someone with a gun or the possibility of a gun changes things because it gets more real and a lot closer to death. When or what were your experiences with that sense growing up as a kid? When did you first start realizing that guns were different?
Growing up in that neighborhood you hear gunshots all the time, but wouldn’t necessarily see the results all the time, but I think when you start seeing people that you know… the guy who taught me how to read, he was shot and killed in his car and I think that’s the earliest remembrance of someone getting shot, and then a friend of mine who lived behind me, his brother was shot and killed in front of him. Maybe a few years or so after that guy that me and my cousin used to hang out with, he was shot and killed. Just recently, one of my old students, he was shot and killed. it’s just like… it’s kinda like a piece of you is missing, even if you didn’t hang with this person every day, you don’t consider him a close friend, it’s still somebody you’re used to seeing as part of your neighborhood. They’re no longer there anymore so it takes away whatever blessing God had that person being in that neighborhood, and it… it takes away a piece of someone else, cause that was someone’s child, someone’s family member, brother. It’s just somebody gone from your neighborhood.
There’s two things. One is the general… atmosphere that guns introduced into the picture, and the other is that missing nature of the people that were shot or killed. In terms of the fear, how did that affect your childhood, or how did that affect you growing up? Did you used to run around scared, did you think about it all the time, did you just kind of ignore it until you heard shots, and when that happened, what was going through your mind as a kid?
I don’t think I was really scared of it. I know a lot of people who, when they hear gunshots, they turn off all the lights. I remember doing that all the time. And I really don’t know what that would do, how that would get people to not shoot anymore, haha. I don’t know, I’ve lived here for a very long time and so I think that when you live around stuff like that for so long, you become… you become kinda immune to it. You become desensitized to it and it’s like it’s something normal. Outside people are like, “Hey did you hear that gunshot or did you see this?” And it’s like, “Oh yeah, I saw it, happens all the time, not anything new that I’m surprised by,” and I think that there’s something wrong with that where it happens so often, it occurs all the time.
Did you ever have nightmares about it, trouble sleeping?
No… even though bad stuff was happening, at the same time I felt safe there for some reason. Even in the midst of all that was happening, I knew everybody and everybody knew who I was, knew who my mother was, and there is some respect for that and respect for kids in general. Kids weren’t getting shot then; that would be more so adults, and what they were doing wasn’t involving the kids, so I wasn’t feeling any type of fear. I mean, stray stuff could happen, you never know, somebody could be shooting and you could be hit by a stray, but I never really felt scared about that.
Were you ever afraid that your mother would get hit?
No, my mom at most would be out, would walk to the store, she would hang out on the front porch, talk with the neighbors, hang out with them; either that or she was in the car and she was going to a different destination, so she wasn’t really out and about too much.
What about the people who were killed? How did you feel when that happened?
When I was younger… you understand that that person is dead, you understand you won’t see that person no more, but I don’t think you really understand the effects of it until you get older. I think that as I’ve gotten older and revisit stuff like that… you really begin to see how it can affect your neighborhood, and how it changes things for a lot of people’s lives. Now when it happens, it’s people that you know, it connects with you right away because… in some cases you may know these people’s friends, these people’s families and it changes dynamics of people’s lives because these are people that people love. Some people it can change them for the better and make them move away from whatever that person was doing, to really try harder to do whatever is positive, but some people it can make them change for the worse, down for a negative twist. So it’s just… when stuff like that happens, there’s a change that’s gonna come, it’s going to be a good one or it’s going to be a bad one. That’s what I usually think about.
One thing I’ve noticed in my neighborhood is that people move all the time; it’s hard to keep track of people and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the only people that are left are those that are stuck and can’t get out, and I don’t know everyone’s reasons for moving, but I wonder if it is because it’s safety or because they’ve found a better opportunity somewhere else. Do you feel that that drives certain people in or out of the community, that violence or that fear of violence?
I definitely think it drives people out. People in these neighborhoods… it’s not necessarily that they mind living in “the hood” or whatever, but when you have a bunch of violence or stuff going on, it creates a bunch of problems for families: kids can’t play outside because “this could happen or that could happen,” you’ve got these people around who are bad influences for them and they’re outside all the time, so kids can’t go outside. It makes it worse for these people because it makes it impossible to grow up in a sense or to be an average kid now with all the violence going on. These people don’t want to live in a neighborhood like that. Some of them are stuck; for some of them, it’s what they’re able to do in life as far as where they are able to live. But people don’t want to live in a neighborhood like that. A lot of people, the “higher ups” or whatever think, “Oh yeah these people can live here and they’ll be fine, they’ll be ok,” but no one wants to live in a neighborhood like that. If you find someone who does, they’re probably the people who are contributing to the problem.
You’re an attractive young man, perhaps thinking of getting married some day and settling down with kids… would you move back into Riverside?
No. For one, they’re slowly trying to tear it down and rebuild it, so for me once it’s torn down and rebuilt it really has no value to me anymore. I know that it wasn’t that great of an upbringing for me in a sense, but I don’t think I would necessarily want my kids to grow up there. I think that’s just for any parent, they don’t want their kids to be exposed to a lot of the stuff that they were exposed to, cause a lot of it isn’t positive and people adapt to things differently. I mean I adapted to it in a positive way, but if my kids lived there they may adapt to it in a negative way. They may, instead of going away from selling drugs, they may go towards selling drugs. When you bring kids around environments like that, you increase the risk of something happening in a negative way. A lot of kids, they don’t take the way out. They are in this place where we see drug dealing happening all the time: every day we wake up we see it, we go home we see it, we go to the store we see it, we go play basketball we see it. When you’re around it all the time, at some point either some of them are going to shy away from it or some are, “I can’t beat them so I might as well join them.” I wouldn’t want to bring around my kids to even make it something possible for them to see and buy for whatever reason and do it.
We’ve talked about this a number of times, but you yourself were held up at gunpoint. Can you describe what happened and what you were feeling when it happened?
I was amazed cause it happened on my side of town, so at first I thought it was a joke, like someone I know and would say, “Oh man you’re crazy, stop playing with me.” But as I’m trying to look at the person a little bit, trying to figure out if it was someone I know… then, “I don’t think I know this person,” so it was kinda like amazement, “Yo, this is really happening,” like an out of body experience, like this is really happening. So I was more surprised than scared cause it was like, “This is really happening, I don’t believe this is really happening.” And it was one of the nicest robberies in the world, it wasn’t hostile or like, (angrily) “Gimme your stuff!” It was kinda nice.
How did he do it? He just…
He was like, “Yo man, gimme stuff,” and I’m like, “What?!” and he’s like, “Gimme your stuff,” and I’m like, “Aw man that’s just crazy, are you serious?” So I gave him my stuff and he was like, “Alright, turn around and walk that way,” so I’m like, “Alright he’s going to shoot me in my back, I’m pretty much dead right now,” and five, six steps later I turn around and they were walking the other way (it was him and another guy), and I walked the other way, and that was the end of it. I was just grateful that I still have my life.
Again we’ve talked about this before, but how easy is it to obtain guns in the neighborhood?
Honestly, it’s pretty easy. Because there’s a lot of shooting going on, they’re obviously very easy to get a hold of. I mean, these aren’t Walmart guns, apparently there’s a lot more firepower behind them so yeah, it’s not hard at all. I mean I wouldn’t know exactly, “Oh yeah, there’s my go-to gun person,” but it’s not hard to get them I’m sure.
When you were talking about getting into those fights with the whiffleball bats as a kid, do you feel like that something like that plays itself out with guns? That it’s somebody messing with you, and then you try to get back at them, and this sort of back and forth?
Yeah, retaliation. And I felt this more so, especially on the Northside where it’s a pride issue, you know what I mean? When we were young and we fight, whoever wins: cool you win. You can fight again, but it is what it is, and you fight a bunch of times until you get tired of fighting each other, you know? You either somehow become friends or you push away from each other, but nobody from when I was young I’m still mad at today or if I see him I’m not cordial. I thank God it was just the good old days: you fight, you fight, at some point you get tired and say, “Yo, I don’t want to be around you no more,” or “Hey, what kind of video games you got?” and clicks somehow or in some way.
Nowadays, it’s not like that, a real fight. “Oh this person beat me up, so I’m gonna get my gun and shoot him.” It’s just like, that’s real easy. Back then if you said that, it’s like, “Man, you ain’t got no gun, you ain’t shootin nobody,” but nowadays you never know. Somebody may really have a gun and really might shoot the person that they fought. Today people don’t think about that. We’re so desensitized to the fact of using guns, that this isn’t a video game, this isn’t a movie, these people aren’t acting. You shoot somebody and they’re really dead, they’re not going to respawn and go to a different point of the city and then relive life again; no they’re dead, they’re gone, and I feel like they miss that as entertainment. They bring that into their real lives and there are consequences from that. I think that for a lot of people, they are just desensitized to gun violence: I’m going to pull a trigger and shoot this person and that person dead… you have to be completely different mindset to be able to kill someone. It’s just crazy to think about it, no one in their right mind can just kill somebody, it makes no sense, there’s no possible way they’re in their right mind can do that.
Is there’ anything else that you wanted to add about growing up in Riverside or the city of Wilmington as it is right now?
It’s definitely… evolved. Some may say for the better, some may say for the worse. There’s definitely a lot of positive things for children, I think there’s a lot that needs to be more positive for teenagers because they’re the ones who are in this point where they’re doing a lot of the shooting and killing. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be brought to the city, constructive stuff for them to do, better get them away from the violence and other things that are negative in the city.
There’s a lot of positive platforms there for the younger kids, and I think that’s a good thing; we get those kids now who are young and teach them the proper thing that they need to learn so that when they get to the age that these teenagers now are… Hopefully there’s a lot less violence and a lot less of negative things going on in the city and a lot more positive things. You see it now; a lot of people are, “Oh I want to move away, I want to do this or I want to do that.” If everyone is moving away, then who is going to stay to help cure the problems that we have now, you know?