A Prayer for Another World by Hari Ziyad

An excerpt from their memoir about being one of nineteen children, raised by a Hindu Hare Kṛṣṇa mother and Muslim father, growing up queer and Black in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cover of Black Boy Out Of Time by Hari Ziyad

Hari-Gaura,

I wonder why so often the mind tries to manifest what it cannot have. Right now, I’m stuck within the recollection of a birthday party held last year for the mother of one of my best friends, Ahmad. And all the old heads stand one right after another like a swelling current, but the wave stops at my shore.

It’s the kind of tide that makes onlookers sit straighter, on high alert—what happened? Then I hear, “You can’t seeeee it, it’s electric!” and I have to believe these lyrics. Nothing less than light­ning animates the elders’ bodies as they Electric Slide. Each of them is moving like that pain in her hip was just a bit of joy caught in the joint, a bit of joy that can be let out only when she sways in sync with everyone else. Every line dancer out­does the next—flipping a wig, kicking up a leg as they spin—and yet they are all in perfect harmony. Every person puts the next to shame, and yet no one is ashamed, because Blackness is a meritoc­racy that doesn’t require suppression.

The birthday party was in Newark, New Jersey, but for a brief moment I was home. For a brief moment, I was sharing this body with you again, and Auntie Grace was stepping away from the grill to join the dance floor her driveway had turned into.

Our cousin Eric was out of prison and dancing like he ain’t never been accused of killing nobody, because in this universe he hadn’t. Even Mata, who has long forsaken secular dance, gingerly boogie-woogie-woogied into the crowd, tepidly relearning the steps she looked embarrassed to have forgot­ten, but that brought her more joy than anything. For a brief moment. Then this world appeared before me again.

Eric has been in prison for as long as I can remember. Our cousin D has been locked up for a stretch, too, for allegedly stealing shit. He’s only twenty-three. I used to babysit for that kid, man. I used to wash his face when it was dirty, put his toys away after he fell asleep, back when he would stay with us for spells while his parents were going through some things. I remember thinking he should have had more of them, that he never had enough things to play with for a child.

D’s younger sister, Justus, says some boys in Lorain are looking for our cousin Ali. He’s in his early twenties now, too, and he’s still a smart-ass. When he was younger, he would stay laughing about things that I could never understand and rib me for not being able to grasp them. The boys told Justus that if they ever saw him on the street, they would kill him for some shady shit they say he did to them. I don’t know if Ali is scared or not, or if fear just doesn’t really matter to him, because he keeps doing the same shit anyway.

I’ve been reaching out to him more recently. Each time I don’t know if it will be the last that he responds, at least with his freedom. I miss him. Even talking to him more regularly doesn’t really fix that. I understand too much now, and there is too little of his laughter left for me.

Justus and D’s brother Tay, the middle child between them, has been in and out, too. He lost his baby while he was behind bars, and then some­one stole her ashes, which he’d kept in a locket. Justus told me that she thinks his baby was the only thing he was really still living for. Now he keeps getting into fights and being thrown into the hole only to be tortured with more loneliness. I never got a chance to meet his daughter.

Portrait of a young black man

Photo of Hari Ziyad by Brandon Nick.

I miss all our fucking family, and I don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to about it without elic­iting fake empathy or judgment, because peo­ple don’t understand how, as a group, we could be so affected by criminalization. So I don’t. Or I didn’t. I don’t think my therapist really gets it either, but he tells me that maybe you might. That you would know the indescribable hatred I have stewing because of how many people have been taken away from me, one after another. That I might share with you the rage I have on behalf of the many people I’ve loved whom I’ll never see again, and the many others I’ll never see the way we used to see each other, and together we can make space for each other to feel it.

I’m tired of looking at faces behind bars and in coffins. I feel like the next thing I lose will be the last thing I’m really living for, too, if I don’t figure out another way to live. That I’ll also be constantly tortured with loneliness, if in a different kind of way than Tay, if I don’t figure out how to hold on to the flashes of other possible universes that moments like dancing to the Electric Slide at a Black family party can create. Maybe that’s why my mind keeps bringing me back there now in this time when I feel so isolated.

I would have joined the elders on the dance floor, but my friend Sevonna had brought her three-month-old baby, Tiger, and he’s just the cut­est thing, soaking up all our attention. Our mutual friend Henry was playing peekaboo with him. When Henry’s face reappeared from behind his hands, Tiger brightened, lightning animating his body like it did the elders’.

“He doesn’t have object permanence yet,” Henry, a sage who rarely meets knowledge he is selfish enough to keep to himself, explained. “When I put my hands in front of my face, he thinks my face just disappears. He won’t learn that things continue to exist outside of his field of vision until he’s a little older.”

I’d heard of this concept before, almost always with a soot-thickened air of “awww, silly little babies” suffocating the discussion. But Tiger’s face looked to have caught all the joy spilling from the old folks’ hips, and it was not silly at all. His face looked like maybe he knew something Sevonna, Henry, Ahmad, and I didn’t, not the other way around. Like he understood that the things adults now believe are too established to disappear still can, and that those things can still make their way back even if we don’t yet understand how. Like he believed in other worlds we can escape to and return from and that nothing is limited to this car­ceral one. Like he still believed in a god who can save us from carceral dissonance, from losing our­selves and each other to this world’s systematic ways of breaking us and our families apart with its prisons. Like he still saw your reflection in my eyes.

Growing up with eighteen siblings, it must have been impossible for you not to feel invisible some­times. It was impossible not to “disappear,” your whereabouts or emotional states going unseen by a mother and father who had their hands full with their gods and their homeschooling and all the kids they’d built this life for. But you found a magic in this where I would later discover only bitterness, imagining yourself as one of the X-Men with invis­ibility as a superpower.

I don’t know where the heroism of stealthily making your way into spaces you would other­wise be forbidden from entering went—the feel­ing of accomplishment that came with sneaking a spoonful of strawberry jam from the refrigera­tor when you were supposed to be done with sweets for the day, with no one ever being any the wiser—I know only that it did go. I know only that I resented our parents for having so many children that I couldn’t soak up all their attention no matter how hard I tried to be just the cutest thing, and the magic of disappearing was lost with time. I embraced becoming an object that could be commodified by others, because I wanted to be permanent, too.

I almost forgot the names of your imaginary friends, but I still remember how they were there to keep you company during those moments of feeling invisible. I still remember how our older sister Ganga would ask you the same questions about them, and you always had the same answers because they truly weren’t made up. You told her how Kula really grew up, and real stories about her family. How Saia really did her hair, and what type of food she liked. How India really came to be named after a country, and what she felt about it.

“But you know they’re imaginary?” Ganga probed, just to confirm your level of awareness. You were four years old.

“Yes,” you replied. But that didn’t mean they weren’t real. You loved them, sight unseen.

We were all invisible together, so it wasn’t like I stopped seeing them and then that made me stop engaging with them as you had engaged with them. At some point, I was just too old for imagi­nary friends. I was just too old for “real” to mean that Kula and Saia and India were really there for us whenever we needed them, even though they were. I was too old for “real” to mean that imagin­ing them drying our tears when we cried was really a comfort. I was too old for “real” to mean that they really supported us through all our most dif­ficult decisions, and that they never made us feel ashamed for being wrong. So I told them good­bye. They respected my decision, like lovers are supposed to but hardly any have since, and I never saw them again. But, oh, how I miss them, too.

Hari-Gaura, writing to you has me drowning in nostalgia, rediscovering so many of the other things I’ve pined to reclaim since losing you. The other day I came across the earliest home video that you created and I still possess. It’s a recording of you dressed in faded denim overalls just before you turned five, head still full of hair. You stand in front of the camera for a few seconds before—poof—you are gone. There are countless clips of you disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, beaming a smile. One is modeled after a Toys “R” Us commercial, with you singing the jingle: “I don’t want to grow up, ’cause, baby, if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys “R” Us kid!”

It looks like the trick was the most fun you’d ever had.

By four years old, a child should have well-developed object permanence, but this video was evidence that finding joy in disappearing doesn’t have to end as soon as a person learns that things continue to exist outside of their vision. Daddy had recently bought a new camcorder that allowed you to splice video of yourself standing in front of a static background with an image of just the back­ground to create this trick.

I imagine Mata was frustrated with him for the purchase, thinking it just another gadget for his dusty collection of endless tools and books and electronics we couldn’t afford and didn’t use much. But you managed what I have too hard a time doing nowadays. You found something loving beneath the infuriating surface of our father’s hoarding hab­its: a search to fill a void he did not create but I think he feels responsible for. And sometimes, the love that is buried underneath behaviors informed by the trauma of being Black in this world can be recovered, when you haven’t given up hope in what you can’t see under the rubble.

I might never see many of the family members I love again in this world. The carceral state intention­ally draws a hard line between the world out here and the one inside its prisons, and that will never be acceptable. But there are things that can allow me to still have something to live for even while knowing this. There is something that can allow me to still find joy despite the likelihood of never see­ing so many of the people I love again, and that is understanding the possibility of other worlds where those inside prisons are free.

The love given to me by the people I have lost and am losing to carceral logics doesn’t have to stay gone just because they are, and I should never give up on it. I should never stop believing in the ability to see my family in other lights, knowing that we are worthy of care regardless of how deep into the hole of criminality we are forced. The state can never take something far enough away from me that it doesn’t matter anymore—that it cannot exist anymore. There are always other universes where reuniting is possible, if I fight for them.

And this fight feels like my mother must have felt at the family reunions I haven’t attended in too long, following the examples of you and Tiger and Black children everywhere to remaster the simple steps I am embarrassed to have forgotten.

Teach you, teach you, teach you, I’ll teach you the Electric Sliiiiide.

Excerpted from Black Boy Out of Time: A Memoir by Hari Ziyad. © 2021 Published by Little A, March 1, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Hari Ziyad is the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, and his work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project.

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