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Traffic on the Schuykill Expressway (I-76) between Philadelphia and the northern and western suburbs
Traffic on the Schuykill Expressway (I-76) between Philadelphia and the northern and western suburbs, September 1973 (Collection of National Archives at College Park)

My Black history began in 1962, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a quaint place called Ardmore. Trees and hedgerows lined the front yards. Our home was a brick-faced three-story walk-up with an open porch. A walkway wrapped around the side of the house and led past Grandmom's garden to a great big yard.

The upper section of Ardmore, where we lived, was called the “Main Line,” and stretched along Lancaster Avenue. Storefronts, restaurants and boutiques lined the main thoroughfare and catered to the old money of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Nearby was a movie theater, a martial arts studio and an Army-Navy store.

In the suburbs, I was shielded from the hustle and bustle of the urban city, where my siblings were raised. My mother bore five children: four boys and a girl. I was the firstborn, but I grew up an only child, raised from age 3 by my maternal grandmother. My siblings lived in inner-city Philadelphia with mom and my baby brothers’ dad, Angel Sr. I didn’t know much of my dad’s involvement with my siblings, or what his life consisted of really at all. He only entered my life later on, and that did not end well. My life was comfortable growing up, while my brothers and sister were confronted with the kind of violence and hardships I’ve only learned about while serving a life sentence in prison for murder.

Coming to prison was a culture shock. I’d never been around so many Black people outside of a church setting, and the experience made me uncomfortable as I grappled with how I was supposed to be. Beyond my hometown, I was a Black man who “talked white.” And when I was on my own in certain places I had no business being, I was sometimes perceived to be a cop. “He's so mannerly,” Grandmom's friends and employers often said about me.

Being raised as an only child, I often felt alone. I yearned for attention. My friends had their siblings and cousins to lean on. I was in a strange kind of limbo, welcoming acceptance of any kind. But to be accepted by white people was also to feel like I stood out, like something was wrong with me. Today, at age 60, decades on from that bifurcated beginning, I feel as though I'm constantly looking in a cracked mirror. Confused with my own image, scorned by society because of my skin color and condemned to prison — “just like the rest of 'em,” as I once heard a guard say to me.

Disconnected from family

My upbringing was not beset by the struggles or adversities common to many Black people. But my actions throughout life could be called delinquent.

Once, I was caught stealing bicycle parts from a big-box toy store, Kiddie City. The police were called. They detained me, drove me to the police station for a long 5 minutes, then took me home. The policeman followed me into the empty house. I was a latchkey kid, so I called Grandmom at a house where she worked as a private duty nurse, cooking and cleaning for the family there. The policeman talked to her, then passed her to me. Her instructions were to not leave the house until she got home.

I wasn’t dragged to juvenile hall or a detention center like other Black kids who'd gotten into trouble with the police. I did, however, receive a spanking for my shoplifting — Grandmom had used a switch made of a branch from the hedges to beat me. But my punishment and interaction with the police was nothing compared to how other Black people I know were treated or punished. This distinction only added to my confusion about my Blackness and place in society. Why would I receive different treatment for doing something that landed other kids who looked like me in juvenile hall?

My siblings would occasionally come to Grandmom's house, usually when mom and stepdad had a violent physical fight after they'd both been drinking. It was always wonderful to see my brothers and sister, but they did not come frequently enough to build deeper bonds.

When they'd visit, I would introduce my siblings to my friends with pride. After they'd gone home to the city, my friends always asked why I didn't live with them. “We weren't raised together” was the best I could come up with.

The truth is I really didn't know. Being the oldest, my mom had once said, I could help take care of Grandmom as she got older. As a young kid, I accepted this, but it would become yet another source of confusion. Didn't we all have a duty as a family to be there and help take care of each other? What was wrong with me that I had to be separated? Sacrificed?

Those questions and my lack of answers ripped open a void in my core. My attempts to fill it, to try and compensate for this real or perceived cultural disconnection and familial separation, fueled my stealing.

Getting into trouble

As I got older, I remember sneaking into the coat room in the back of the elementary classroom to snatch hats, coats and lunches. The school was called St. Colman’s, a private Roman Catholic school, and I was one of three Black kids. Often, during lunchtime, a couple of my white friends and I would run to the local five-and-ten-cent store, Woolworth's, and I'd steal water pistols. It wasn't long before my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Breen, suspected I was up to no good. One day she called me to the front of the class and instructed me to empty my pockets. Busted. There was no formal suspension that I can recall, but I did not return to St. Colman's the following year.

I soon transferred to a public school a couple towns west of Ardmore, in Bryn Mawr, where I was placed in special education and rode a short bus to school. Around that time, I was also diagnosed with ADHD and later prescribed Ritalin. The drug calmed me, allowed me to focus and, for a little while, made me less impulsive. I stopped taking stuff that didn’t belong to me, but I grew violent. I remember throwing a pencil in a classmate’s eye. Another time, I bit my best friend on the leg because I wanted his seat on the bus.

Peter, a white kid I met after I transferred to Bryn Mawr Elementary, was also in special ed. He lived in Narberth, another little town on the fringe of Ardmore. We got along because he thought I was funny; I thought it was cool that he smoked.

At 12 or 13 years old, he and I spent a lot of time in his neighborhood, at his house and on weekends going to his father’s gas station. We walked along the railroad tracks behind the station, smoking and throwing rocks at the trees. His dad treated us to Jack in the Box for lunch. I felt like part of the family.

Pete and I used to drink together. We attended keg parties in the woods and smoked Parliament cigarettes. I was 15 when I had my first beer, a pony-sized Miller, ice-cold and frothy. When I drank, I burned with self-confidence and felt the euphoria of acceptance.

The life I experienced at Pete's house, and the one I experienced with my siblings, made me aware of the profound differences outside my own world.

Around Black folks, sometimes I didn't understand the things they went through — and that made me feel inadequate. To this day I question myself: Am I Black enough? I have always wanted to be accepted, to be liked for who I am, an individual with different life experiences who can possibly bridge gaps. It’s been difficult in a world that has such strong views on how you are supposed to act, who you are supposed to be friends with, both inside and outside of prison.

A life incarcerated

My first time incarcerated was around 1985 in the Burlington County Jail. I had racked up one too many motor vehicle violations. This came after being released from a short stint as a combat engineer in the Army after I was unable to adapt to military life. I drank a lot, and often.

The atmosphere in the Burlington County Jail was unfamiliar to me. Prisoners used a foreign vernacular I could not understand, and their mannerisms surprised me. People yelled all the time, interrupting conversations by walking up and engaging as if the other person and I weren't talking. “You be thinking you better than us” is something I’ve heard more than once during my time inside.

How I choose to live my life in prison isn't much different than my childhood. Around white people I'll act a certain way, show I'm not a stereotype. There are Black people who dislike me because of how I act. I'm not from the ’hood, don’t know “the struggle,” so I’m often chided for not being Black enough.

But my life is a muddle of Black history and American history — you can’t disentangle the two, nor can you disentangle the threads that have shaped me. My free choices landed me in prison, it’s true. And although my psyche has been inflicted with the pain of prejudice — from both white and Black people — I try every day to claim myself for who I am, a flawed and singular man.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jeffery Shockley is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.