by Oscar Baker III
Illustrations by Aziza Asat
What’s Written in Blood
ight sinks in deep. It’s August 2009; I’m 18 years old, six-foot-nothing, and brown: half-Black, half-Mi’kmaq. I’m eight beers deep, which is nothing for Kent County, New Brunswick, and I’m lost, stumbling through the dark trying to find myself. It’s party weekend on the res, and I’m heading to my cousin Colton’s place, a beat-up single-wide trailer, its front lawn strewn with empty beer bottles and boxes. The wooden steps are falling apart, and the front-door lock is broken, but you can just push the window up if you don’t have a key. Inside, the walls are littered with liquor-fueled punch holes. Where the sound system should be, there’s nothing, the stereo pawned for Colt 45s. The bathroom mirror is cracked and smeared with makeup.
I meet Colton and we hang out, drink a few beers, and get ready to head to a friend’s house for a party. We walk the half-lit res roads, telling war stories about fights and girls. When we get there, we make the rounds, and I feel like I’m telling the same story, answering the same questions, over and over again. Why am I back in Elsipogtog? Where have I been all these years? I tell them about Florida, about St. Augustine, and living there for eight years with my paternal grandparents. And I get the same reply, over and over: “Why the hell would you move back here?”
I shake hands with everyone in the room, and one guy holds my hand a little longer and tighter than everyone else. It seems strange, but I’m more interested in dancing, so I head downstairs. The basement is a bit musty with the faint smell of cigarettes, mold, and body odour hanging in the air, but I don’t care. On the dance floor, I bust a move, showing off what I learned in the South. Some people in the crowd cheer me on as I grab the basement’s metal supports, using them as stripper poles. Then I notice the guy with the strange handshake—“Weird Al”—is down here now, and he’s dancing with my friend’s mom.
I’m heading back upstairs to grab another beer, when I feel a sharp blow on the right side of my forehead, which causes me to lose my balance and start sliding down the wall. My head is swimming. When I realize I’ve been sucker-punched, anger takes over.
“Who the fuck hit me?” I manage to get out, just as I’m hit again under my left eye. I struggle to my feet. It’s Weird Al. I don’t know why he hit me yet (I’d find out later I’d been dancing with a girl he’d been dancing with earlier), but that doesn’t stop me from rushing him on Bambi legs. He grabs on to me, picks me up, and slams me down. My hands are loose and I start throwing short hooks, gaining the upper hand. Too angry to speak, I just grunt and quickly scan the crowd, then look down at Al as my hands—first the left, then the right, then left again—rock him to sleep. His head droops in my lap, and I raise it with my left hand, raining down rights again and again. I want to punish him. As the partygoers break up, I let Al go. I stomp upstairs, grab the beer bag, and bark at Colton. We have to leave, now.
Outside, the frosty air shocks me back to reality. The adrenaline fades, and my legs suddenly feel like lead. I can’t quite process what just happened, so I light a smoke and take a deep draw. We head to Colton’s mom’s house where my sister Kristina and our cousin Sunshine are singing karaoke. They ask us to join them, but I head to the bathroom instead. I’m still swaying, and staring at the man in the mirror. I don’t like what I see.
My shirt pocket is torn. There’s a lump under my eye, and my head is throbbing. I dig into the beer bag and crack open another one. I can’t deal with myself right now. Back in the living room, my sister asks me what happened. I tell her and then someone suggests I walk back home. Trekking back on those same dark streets the night had started on, I think about the South, and about my blood.
I used to think violence was part of my bloodline. Today I know that racism and poverty shape the way you think of yourself. And like the rest of my family, the trauma, which we sometimes placed on one other, was unrelenting, leaving no time to heal.
This Young Boy, a Stranger to My Eyes
hen I was a kid, I wanted to be Oscar Simon. I grew up Black on Elsipogtog First Nation, where everybody is a Francis, a Clair, a Sock, a Simon, or a few others. My darker skin was a marker for pain and bullying. My mother was a Simon, but my father was from elsewhere, a Baker.
Oscar Baker Jr. was born in 1957 in St. Augustine, Florida—the oldest European-established city in the United States, founded by Spanish colonists in 1565—where his ancestors and mine were enslaved first by the Spanish, then by Americans. In 1963, almost a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, St. Augustine’s schools were still segregated; that year, civil-rights activist Robert Hayling was beaten nearly to death by local Ku Klux Klan members for organizing against Florida’s Jim Crow segregation laws. The Klan was part of the town’s life: “I saw white people at night,” my father remembers, “get in their trucks and put they white masks on, and ride through the Black neighbourhoods and burn tires on Black people’s porches and shoot through their houses.”
When my father was 17, he went to jail for the first of six stints, mostly for possession of crack cocaine. He got out the last time when he was 45, one of almost 100,000 Floridians—more than half of them Black, in a state 17 percent Black—in state prisons. “I think they could put a fence around Florida and make it one big penal system,” he once told me.
My mother, Mary Pearlene Simon, was born in 1961, and raised with seven siblings in Elsipogtog. Her father was complicated—an alcoholic, band councillor, and trapper. They were poor but never lacked for food, though my mother recalls being refused service at stores off-reserve. All eight siblings played and roughhoused and fought like kids do.
My grandfather was always working, trapping or working jobs to feed the family, though he would have been happier living full-time canoeing, trapping, hunting. Instead, Canada wanted him and other Mi’kmaq to work in the wage economy, like white men. Much of his frustration and anger spilled out in the house.
My migitjo, Leona, was a sweet and caring woman—a homemaker, who cleaned, cooked, and wove sweet grass. She died in a horrific car accident when my mother was a young teenager, and after she died, my grandfather’s drinking got worse, and my mother and her younger siblings entered the foster system, where some of them were placed into Mi’kmaw homes, while others, including my mother, were dropped into a much different world, and struggled to hold on to their identities.
My mother gave birth to her first daughter at 14. By 17 she was out on her own, giving birth to another daughter just a year later. She was a hippie, always on the road, travelling from Elsipogtog to Maine, where many Mi’kmaq would go to pick blueberries or potatoes in the summer. She travelled on through to California, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, where she met my father met at a Labour Ready sometime in the mid-1980s. (She says it was Galveston; he says Houston.) My sister Kristina was born in 1989, and I followed in 1990. They lived here and there—in St. Augustine briefly, and once, even though his criminal record prohibited trips into Canada, my mother snuck him over the border in the trunk of her car to visit Elsipogtog, where his black skin was a novelty. “The kids wanted to touch me and feel my skin,” he once told me. “I guess they thought it would come off.”
My mother was the best parts of me. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known, she taught me to play chess, ride a bike, and to read. My sweetest memories as a child are of her. But she struggled with drinking and would speak joyfully about getting high. She was a lifelong diabetic, battling weight and mental illness, her diagnoses ever-changing. When I moved in with her in 2009, she first told me she had bipolar disorder, and then, in 2015, she said it was PTSD from her childhood—those childhood roughhousing sessions with siblings sometimes too rough, or something worse.
My mother was the best parts of me, but she wasn’t all of me. When I was five I was called the n-word on the bus to school. I told my mother I hated my skin colour, that I tried to clean it off. She was heartbroken and told me how handsome I was, but I couldn’t believe her.
In the United States, the fear of racial impurity is deep-rooted—the one-drop rule, at one point codified in many states into law, guaranteed that a person of any identifiable Black ancestry is irrevocably Black. For me, in Elsipogtog, it was the opposite: being half-Black, I was never, or at least never felt, Mi’kmaq enough. My aunt once told me “If you come from a Mi’kmaw womb, you are Mi’kmaq.” But I didn’t believe it.
My mother knew this, knew I needed to feel closer to my American family. And, I know too she wanted a break from single parenthood. In Mi’kmaw communities, grandparents play a large role in child rearing, but both her parents were gone. My uncle Hermanjij would bring game and fish. My sogi Gladys would provide toys, and her other sisters in town did what they could, but they were raising families of their own. It was lonely for my mom.
We kept in occasional touch with our kinfolk down south, and so one day when I was seven years old, she decided it was time to turn that connection into something more. It was down to the Irving, and the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” on the car stereo. In the backseat, the smell of pine air freshener and burnt cigarette filters. She made a collect call to St. Augustine, where my father had just been released from jail, again.
t. Augustine has the kind of heat that slaps you in the face. One step out the door and you’re exhausted. The first time we went, I thought we were headed to Disney World, but instead we were in the ’hood.
I don’t really remember meeting my dad, not well, just the shape of him and a disappointed feeling. In my dreams he was taller, stronger, and more caring. I did think he was cool, with his dapper walk, smooth talk, charming smile, and onyx skin. In the end, we spent more time with my grandparents, and watching American cartoons. My father was still struggling with his addiction to crack. As a child not understanding addiction, I’d cry thinking that he’d chosen it over me.
Nanny was pecan-coloured, her face burned from an accident with a kerosene furnace as a girl. She worked different jobs throughout her life to make ends meet, but spent most of it raising her six children. My papa was dark skinned and thin, but toned and handsome even in his 70s. One of his eyes was milk-coloured from a childhood injury. He took me out, just the two of us, and we ate boiled peanuts and talked. I never expected to love someone so quickly.
My mother had us convinced that my grandparents had money. They had a house, after all, two cars, and three acres of land, but only after years of living in survival mode, doing back-breaking work to pay the bills.
When we returned home after that trip, my mom started dating a man, a residential school survivor, from Red Bank (or Metepenagiag First Nation), an hour-and-a-half drive from Elsipogtog. I was around eight years old when we moved there, and the bullying started anew. I mostly stayed home, playing Gameboy, though I befriended one boy named Robbie. We told each other secrets—but some days he would just snap on me, for no reason I could understand. Our friendship ended one day when he threatened to stab me, and chased me right off the red-sand hills behind a convenience store.
As I slid into adolescence, I felt even more that I didn’t belong, so I stayed inside. Kristina was always out playing with the neighbourhood kids in Red Bank, but I preferred to lay on the couch and eat crackers and Cheez Whiz. My mom eventually hid my Gameboy batteries, to force me to talk to people, but I was thought they would only hurt me. Eventually, my mother and her boyfriend broke up, so we moved back to Elsipogtog. I was back in Rexton Elementary School for one day before they patched it up and it was back to Red Bank.
One day, I was cleaning the house with him before my mother returned home, when he patted me on the bum, playfully, innocently, while I was sweeping. “Don’t touch me!” I snapped. “You’re not my father.”
That summer, we took a second trip to Florida for what was supposed to be two weeks. Two weeks became the summer, and then the summer became eight years.
My Black Superman
ome in St. Augustine was an old stucco house on Hurst Street, close to Calvin Peete Park. A tangelo tree, an orange tree, and a Japanese plum tree grew in the yard, three lots wide, and the gate was lined with lizard-filled bushes. The kitchen window was held together with silver metallic tape, and the floorboards were covered with tile, which in places was the only thing separating the house from the ground. One wall in the cramped living room was completely crowded with family photos.
A few weeks after she’d dropped us off, we realized my mother had disappeared. She didn’t send a ticket for us to return when she was supposed to, and my grandparents assumed we’d been abandoned. When it was clear she wasn’t coming back after summer ended, we enrolled at RJ Murray Middle School, just up the street. I played Pop Warner football and started Grade 6, and Kristina started Grade 7.
In St. Augustine I was asked to be Black, to have pride in it. After being shamed for most of my life, Black was suddenly beautiful. I fell in love with the culture, the cookouts, the football, and the churches. Still, I didn’t love myself. At Murray Middle, kids called me a redbone. I didn’t speak the slang, I wore “high waters” (hand-me-down pants too short to cover my ankles), and I got in my first fight after some kid called me a girl. When I got home afterward, my grandfather sat me down.
“Did you win?” he asked.
“Good. Because if you lose, you getting two ass-whoopings that day,” he said. “One from them, and one from me.”
Many of my evenings were spent soaking up my Papa’s tales. He was a Korean war vet, born in 1929, and the son of a farmer. He wanted to prepare me to be a Black man in America. Once, he told me a Southern fable about crows cawing out that laziness will kill you. And he’d grin from ear to ear as he told me another story: when he was five or six, some older white kids tied his feet together and laid him down on the shore of a river to draw out the gators. They paid him afterward with cigarettes. He liked that story.
For most of Papa’s life, the Klu Klux Klan was entwined in the local police force. In the 1960s, county sheriff L.O Davis was known to be a good a friend of Holstead Manucy, a bootlegger and white supremacist whose quasi-Klan group, Manucy’s Raiders, was given carte blanche by the local police to patrol the city’s streets and beaches, harassing and beating black citizens. Papa told me if the cops stopped me, to shut up because they could kill my Black ass, and there wasn’t anything they could do if that happened. They’d grab a young brotha, take him out to the beach, and whoop him and leave him there. Later, I’d think about how similar it was to Canada’s “starlight tours,” in which as recently as the early 2000s, police would take Indigenous men kilometres from their communities, and force them to walk back. Occasionally they’d freeze to death.
In October, four months after she’d dropped us off, our mother finally showed after breaking up again with her boyfriend from Red Bank. But by then, Kristina and I had experienced something like stability, living under one roof, not being pulled back and forth between schools and families and communities. So we stood under the orange tree outside and told her we wanted to stay. She sat silent for a while. She didn’t cry, but I wanted to. I held back my tears, trying to be stern.
When I was in Grade 7, my grandparents mortgaged a new trailer. On moving day Papa stood watching, coughing, barely breathing and holding a white handkerchief in one hand. By fall of 2002, he couldn’t hide it anymore. My Black Superman had been diagnosed with cancer years earlier and had been fighting it alone at the VA hospital. But now, at 15 percent capacity, his lungs were gone, and his frame began to fade as we spent nights doing homework on the hospital floor. Eventually, he was able to come home, with regular check-ins from hospice workers. One morning in May, Nanny found him, her lover of 50 years, slipped away. She flung open the front door to holler for help, setting off the burglar alarm; the pitch of her wailing rose then to meet its cry.
anny was raised just outside of Tallahassee in a small farming community, where she attended school until she was forced to leave to help raise her younger brother and sister. She never learned how to read or write. She met my grandfather when she was 15. Nanny was the homemaker, and Papa did everything else. So after his death, Nanny was forced to become the breadwinner as well, while raising two grandchildren alone. The three of us lived on $800 a month, $550 of which went to the mortgage. Some nights all we had for supper was biscuits and syrup.
In Kristina’s senior year—my junior year—she came home from school without one of her rings. She’d lost it, but Nanny thought she’d given it to a boy, and as punishment she gave 17-year-old Kristina a spanking, whacking her far longer and harder than usual. When I heard a crash in my sister’s room, I ran in and shouted, “Nanny, that’s enough!” Instead of stopping, realizing what she was doing to Kristina, my grandmother came over, and shoved me out of the room, and then followed me as I walked backward away from her. That’s when Nanny bit me. I went numb. I don’t remember leaving the house, only the tears streaming down my face as I walked away, down Butler and over the railroad tracks, to my best friend Channing’s house. When I got there, all I did was cry.
In my last year of high school, Nanny went for knee surgery and spent the last half of the year rehabilitating in hospital. I hated myself for thinking it, but finally I had some freedom. I could act in my final play at high school, and attend practices, without arguing with her about whether I should be out working instead. I was able to go out to an after-prom party. I could sleep in.
When she did come back, she was still grieving, still shattered. One day in August 2008, I was watching Dwyane Wade play basketball in the Beijing Olympics, and from the other room, I heard Nanny shout, “Why the hell is the iron broken?” I shouted back at her, telling her it had broken a year ago, and I’d already bought a new one.
“You ain’t gonna talk to me like that in my house!” she shouted, storming in, grabbing her cane and swinging at my face. Then I could feel her nails digging into my neck. I pushed her off me and she crashed into the wall, busting a hole in the drywall. I stood there stunned and blinking. She was on the floor, and then she said that when she got up she was going to get her .38. That’s when I ran.
Nanny and I still disagree on the events of that day. But the t-shirt that she tacked up, covering the hole her body made in the drywall when I pushed her, stayed there for years.
“I Just Wanna Be Alive”
outh Nassau Street is three blocks from the projects. Its ditches are littered with palmetto bushes and garbage, and when the heat rises, the trash cooks. Channing lived there. He was my first and best friend in St. Augustine, and he was being raised by his grandparents too. His house is where I fled after fights with Nanny—after the biting, the cane, and the verbal assaults. And after she threatened me with her .38, it’s where I moved in.
Channing and I met on a middle-school church trip. We bonded over music, the rapper Young Jeezy, and our backgrounds. Like me, his parents weren’t locals—his mom was from New York, and his father was from Cuba. His dad was in and out of jail too, and addicted to crack.
After Channing, Brooklyn—so named for his hometown—was my second-closest friend in St. Augustine. Dark-skinned, slim, and older than us by five or six years, he had a joke for every situation, occasionally ended up in jail, and stayed with his mother when she wasn’t kicking him out. When his father was out of jail, Brooklyn would be hovering around Channing’s place, and the three of us would spend hours in my makeshift bedroom there, rapping and talking about football and hip-hop, playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the PlayStation 2, and debating if Young Jeezy or 50 Cent was the better rapper.
I loved when Channing would put on “Dreamin’” by Young Jeezy and Keyshia Cole. He’d cycle through a lot of music but I hoped he’d play that one song again and again. The music video opens with young kids in school. A teacher asks each student what they want to be when they grow up, and one kid, maybe a stand-in for Jeezy himself, replies that he just wants to be alive.
It’s hard now to remember how desperate I felt back then, but I honestly believed I wouldn’t make it past 25. I didn’t sell crack, and I didn’t commit any crimes, but almost every Black man I knew went to jail anyway. My father went. My uncles went. Even one of my aunts went. As I got older the violence of the city, the neighbourhood, was more and more part of my every day.
The first time I wished I had a gun was June 2009. Brooklyn and I went to a party at the National Guard Armory near downtown. I lost him in the crowd, trying to pick up some girls. I didn’t see what happened exactly, but I guess an older guy had been trying to pick a fight with some minor, a jitterbug, who was hanging around outside but was too young to be there. A crowd circled around, and Brooklyn took up the kid’s defence, fighting this other guy for him. The cops came, broke it up, and we were about to leave when the same guy and his brother came back, begging for a one-on-one with Brooklyn.
They scuffled for just a few moments when Brooklyn landed a left hook. The guy dropped, and that was it. It should have been over. But the fighter’s brother wanted more. “You got to get him!” he yelled, and they went at it again. Brooklyn dropped him a second time, and then the fighter’s brother jumped in, and then I did too. Something, a fist or a foot, hit me on the side of the head, and I went down and got stomped on. I told them I had enough, and they stopped. But then someone nailed me in my sternum, forcing all the air out of me. I got up, but was too tired to fight again.
As we left, I heard one of them say, “We’re putting a green light on y’all.” I told Channing what happened when I got home. He left with a baseball bat and I passed out. The pain from a fight never quite sinks in until the adrenaline wears off. When I woke up my ribs were killing me. I lit up a Black & Mild and tried to forget what happened.
I didn’t know what a green light was until later, when Brooklyn told me—it was street talk for bounty. I’d never liked fighting, but until then, I had never felt like everything was out of control. On the res, a fight would finish, and that’d be the end of it. Here, nothing was forgotten.
Afternoon of the Gun
bout three weeks after the fight, Kristina and I were heading to the Georgia Market to pick up some smokes. I’d been drinking, and my left wrist was bandaged up from falling on it after a pit bull had bit my foot a few weeks before. Kristina was talking to her boyfriend on the phone. His voice was angry, barking, demanding. I heard him say “bitch” on the other end of the line, and I just laid in, started screaming at him, telling him I wanted an apology, and I wanted it now.
Kristina said it wasn’t a big deal, but I was seething. I remember punching and kicking a tree. When her boyfriend finally pulled up in his white Impala, Kristina quickly jumped in, hoping to defuse the situation. I walked up to the car, leaned into the window, demanded contrition. Right around then, Channing and his girlfriend walked around the corner and he saw me, my head inside the car, asking over and over, “Can I get an apology?! Can I get an apology?! Can I get an apology?!”
Some guy in the passenger seat thought it was funny. “He’s just drunk,” he said to Kristina’s boyfriend. “He’s just runnin’ his mouth, leave ’im alone.”
That’s when Channing decided to get involved: “How can we solve this?” Channing asked. “You can get out the car and fight me, and that’ll make up for what’s between you two.”
I don’t know what led to what, but it was only a moment before Channing dashed off around the corner again, and when he came back after a minute, it was with his .38 special.
“Okay, what d’yall wanna do now?” he asked. Again, he walked straight over to the car, but this time he shoved the gun in the window. The passenger was still running his mouth: “He ain’t gonna do nothin’ with that.”
He wasn’t. The gun wasn’t loaded; it was just to put the fear in Kristina’s boyfriend, and it worked well enough. He drove off.
And then, for some reason, rage or pride maybe, Channing decided moved to load the gun. He raised it to load it, to shoot out the back window, when I saw what he was doing and I screamed, “No, no!” I knocked the bullets out of his hand and he turned and looked at me: “Why the fuck not?”
“Kristina’s in there.”
I was usually the calm one, the voice of reason, the one to settle tension, but that night I’d been the trigger, and I couldn’t shake the guilt or the fear of what would have happened if I hadn’t acted so quickly. Neither could Channing.
“Sometimes I think about where would I be, and where would you be right now, if I would have done that, that night,” he told me years later. “Sometimes I laugh—and sometimes not… You really can’t say, ‘I’m sorry I killed your son, or daughter, because they said something crazy to my sibling.’”
Here for a Moment
e drove in to Elsipogtog on August 3, 2009. It had been eight years since I’d left, but some things seemed frozen in time. The orange-and-white hockey arena still looked the same. And the water tower with Big Cove (the community’s former, colonial name) stamped across the top brought back memories of throwing rocks at it as a child.
As we pulled in to the unpaved driveway, I noticed anew how clean the air was, and the stray dogs wandering around. The rust-coloured oil tank sat next to our beige two-storey house. The sloping lot at the back of the house was filled with garbage and small bushes. My room was pretty bare: a mattress on the floor and a closet. Immediately, doubt set in about what I was getting myself into, coming back here. I turned to my sister and said to her, “We’re only here for a moment.”
That same day we partied until the sun came up.
Maybe a week later, two women squared off outside my friend Colton’s place. A crowd gathered. I was way too drunk to stand. One guy ran out of the house, fell off the stairs, and cut his head on a cement drain in the ditch. Two of his cousins—a girl and a guy—broke beer bottles and yelled out the n-word at me. As they approached I fondled a 12-inch inch blade I’d stashed in the front pocket of my hoodie. They never attacked, but it left me unsettled, thinking that for me at least, the circle was un-ending. An escape was impossible.
And for the next few years, it seemed that way. After a night of drinking in 2012, I was stumbling home, when a guy walking behind me started taunting me about how tough he was. He called me the n-word, and I was just drunk enough to turn around and take a swing. It was a short fight, but when it was over—both of us walking away still talking smack to each other—he suddenly dashed behind a house and then sprinted out at me with a two-by-four. I had a half-empty bottle of Southern Comfort ready to strike him. I was able to talk my way out of it, but laying down to sleep that night I knew I needed to make another change in my life, and that summer I made it a reality.
studied journalism, graduating in 2016. Just before graduation, I was still sleeping on my mother’s floor. Today, I just want to hug young Oscar, tell him he’s worth the best things in life.
Nanny and I have reconciled. She just celebrated her 82nd birthday. My father and I call each other; we’re still trying to foster a better relationship. My mother died in December 2017, and I miss her. I’ve always said to be Indigenous was to know pain, but to also be a woman was to know sorrow. At my mother’s wake my family spoke glowingly of her. My sogi Vina said that when mom was born she was supposed to be mentally disabled; instead my mother grew up to be the closest thing to a genius I’ve known. I have hopes the world will look more kindly on my family and people. Though we are powerful, our souls have been scarred by trauma.
I still dream sometimes about running naked through a Maine blueberry field, where my mother once worked in late summer. Pursuing me is a group of older boys, shouting, “Get the n***er!” In the dream, I’m barely more than a toddler, three or four. One of my butt cheeks still bears a scar from their knife.