Let me introduce myself. I have several names:
The name on my birth certificate is Damian Kareem Abdul Jabbar Cunningham Herndon. But by the time I started grade school, my mother had shortened it to Darnel Vincent Herndon Jr. (after my father).
My nickname as a young teen in the streets was Bart because people said I resembled the cartoon character from The Simpsons. I was a skinny kid with a slight overbite and a high-top/fade haircut.
But today, I prefer to be known as Askia A. Afrika-Ber. I took Askia from the illustrious West African Songhai Emperor Muhammad Toure. (The Songhai Empire was a state that dominated the western Sahel/Sudan in the 15th and 16th centuries. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history.) Toure took the title of Askia, which means “General.” (The brother was a leader and teacher of men. In the streets, my homies expected me to organize our moves, knowing I’d always bring them back alive and unharmed. Now, I am now trying to use those same skills and energy for righteous purposes.)
The surname Afrika is a nod to John Africa, founder of MOVE. (For the unfamiliar: MOVE is a Black organization whose members believe that “everything alive moves. If it didn’t, it would be stagnant.” When members greet each other, they say, “on the MOVE.”)
“If you got crime in this system, then it is because you have a system that is teaching crime. If you are teaching crime, then you should not be the one locking people up (when you are as criminal as the person you are locking up).” John Africa
I am not a monster. I am also not the fabled Black menace.
I was born in the District of Columbia on a Friday night, April 11, 1975 — the first man-child of Cieta and Sonny Boy. It was the closing year of the Vietnam War, which was America’s longest war at that time. The country had been integrated for 10 years by the time I was born, although you couldn’t tell that from the makeup of my elementary school or the demographics of my neighborhood. I attended Ann Beers Elementary, which sits on Alabama Avenue SE, directly around the corner from the house of former Mayor Marion Barry Jr. (aka Mayor for Life).
I lived in an apartment with my parents on Fort Davis Street, an affluent, middle-class, African American, residential neighborhood where my maternal grandparents maintained a well-kept, single-family home. My mother’s parents had 14 children and a relatively close-knit, working-class family.
My father was raised by a single mother with the assistance of her sister. He didn’t have any siblings. In his youth, he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to federal prison. That experience and his heroin addiction prevented him from maintaining lawful employment. My mother decided it would be in our best interest to move out of D.C. to Prince Georges County, Maryland. I think she believed that by putting distance between him and his old stomping grounds, he’d be able to kick his drug habit, reset his priorities and focus on his family. But…a chemical-physical addiction isn’t something an individual can just step away from, at least that easily. My father had serious mental-health challenges that were untreated for many years.
By 1987, my parents had separated. I couldn’t articulate the emotional hurt, disappointment, and confusion I felt when my parents gave up on each other, breaking up our little tribe. In my eyes, instead of throwing in the towel, they should have regrouped, sought refuge and put our heads together to find our collective footing. (I want to note, though, that despite their break-up, my parents worked hard to make sure I sustained healthy relations with my father’s side of the family.)
“To be alienated is to hate what one has been led to perceive as one’s real self, to perceive it as an enemy, to actively seek to obliterate it.” — Amos Wilson, Black-on-Black Violence
In 1988, I had begun to get into the drug game. Simply put, I yearned for money. For as long as I can remember, I felt the urge to hustle/generate capital. In elementary school, I stole Garbage Pail Kids collector cards and sold them to my classmates. My first choice wasn’t to sell dope to make money, though. I actually tried to get a legit job, but I was constantly told I was underage or simply denied. So, I started selling small quantities of crack cocaine out of a small arcade/corner store next to Johnny Boy’s Carry Out on Southern Avenue.
Introduction to ‘the system’
In 1990, I had my first encounter with the juvenile criminal-legal system. I was convicted of robbery and sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time, dependent on my conduct while in custody. Initially, I was housed in a facility called Boys Village in Shelton, MD. The staff assigned kids to a housing unit depending on their age, size, mental health, crime and propensity for violence. I was assigned to Unit 8 for smaller youth — a cottage-style prison. There were about 20 single cells, but due to overcrowding, each housed two kids. There was a a ping-pong table, a pool table, a small classroom, an arts-and-craft room, a single TV and a caged-in basketball court outside.
In the morning, two staff members patrolled the unit, getting the youths who had court dates ready for their appearances and feeding, showering and escorting the rest to and from rec or education. Not a single day went by without at least two or three violent altercations between the residents. There’s no way to estimate how many brawls and acts of sexual violence were perpetrated behind locked cell doors. We fought over everything from food trays, who got to sleep on the single bunk in the cells, our place in line for the ping-pong or pool table, or control of the TV. Strong-arm robberies were committed for name-brand sneakers.
Most staff members were elderly men or young women who were not the kind of people who would step between two young men throwing punches at each other. Usually, they’d let us fight until one prisoner was no longer able to defend himself. Often, fights were long over before staff members intervened, especially if one youth had armed himself with a weapon (pool ball, pool stick, broom, plastic chair, etc.) or if two or three youths decided to jump on another.
I established myself as a fighter in this abnormal, soul-crushing environment. I discovered a few things about myself: I learned the art of suppressing and masking my fear. And I learned I wasn’t easily intimidated, wouldn’t allow myself to be anyone’s flunky. This environment taught me to become highly capable and comfortable with acts of violence if I felt threatened or If I wanted to make a statement. Some staff members outright told us, “We ain’t doing nothing but getting you ‘lil niggas ready for the penitentiary.”
During my stay in Boys Village, I cultivated a strong alliance with a crew of intelligent, fearless and fiercely loyal guys from the Kentland section of Landover, MD. I tapped into this network as I traveled deeper into the juvenile legal system and back out into society.
While in the cafeteria one day, I argued with a fellow prisoner. As I advanced toward him, a female staff member tried to physically subdue me and, in the heat of the moment, I shoved her away. I instantly regretted it, since putting my hands on a woman is the ultimate sin in my mother’s home. But it was too late. Several male staff members knocked me to the ground and dragged me to a padded isolation cell, where I stayed for 72 hours. (That was my first time in a sensory-deprivation cell, but it sure wouldn’t be my last.) I was then transferred to Unit 6, where larger, more aggressive youths were housed. I was determined to hold my own; by then, I had learned to actually enjoy a challenging fist fight.
My mother was a constant visitor, bringing fruit baskets, sodas and sneakers from my collection at home. Thoughtful and clever, she brought me Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I was vaguely familiar with brother Malcolm’s story. My mother’s older brother, my Uncle Tony, acted like he was the leader of the D.C. chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. He was fond of wearing black berets on his curly hair, just like Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seals. He even had a large oil painting of Malcolm X hanging in his basement. If you didn’t know Malcolm’s full Arabic name (El Hajj Malik Shabazz) when he asked you, he’d make you do push-ups or stand in the corner like you were a race traitor or Uncle Tom. I intensely read Malcolm’s autobiography all the way up to his incarceration and visit with his sibling, who informed him on the Nation of Islam theology, including the belief that white people are “blue-eyed devils.” It was at that point that I closed the book and tossed it under my bed. Out in the streets of D.C. and P.G. county, I had done business with white men and women; I knew many of them to be decent people. I have loved two women, one of them white. I have a child with a white woman. I don’t buy into such race-defined divisions.
Self-alienation is the product of fear, anxiety, insecurity, anger, hostility and ignorance. These are the feelings, emotions and states of consciousness that result from being terrified of one’s real self and of certain aspects of reality: circumstances brought on by frightening forces and people over which you don’t have control. — Amos Wilson, Black-on-Black Violence
After about three months, I was transferred to Charles H. Hickey School for Boys and Girls in Baltimore. Since I wasn’t classified as an escape risk, I was housed in Unit 11 on the “open side,” part of the complex that wasn’t sealed with barbed-wire fencing.
There weren’t any programs available to us youth prisoners; there was no vocational training so we could learn a marketable skill. There was only regular school (pathetic in its quality of instruction), church on Sundays (I went for the free donuts) and a lame, 20- to 30-minute group session where we were supposed to discuss our personal challenges. There was no library, no anger-management classes or any mental-health or self-help programs. We were simply warehoused and left to our own delinquent devices. Utter, fucking mayhem ensued. There were constant riots between the youth prisoners from D.C. vs. those from Baltimore City. Milk crates flew at our heads, athletic trophies were used as weapons, etc.
During my stay at this “school,” I was involved in two riots and over 20 mano-a-mano, bare-knuckled brawls. That prevented me from being eligible for weekend visits home. All we did while I was warehoused there was plan, plot and strategize how to commit more lucrative crimes once we were released.
I was sent home to my mother after 10 months of learning absolutely nothing that could possibly improve the quality of my life and community. I returned to society a more hardened wanna-be outlaw than I was before I entered.
For the rest of Askia’s story, visit his profile on More Than Our Crimes.