Editor’s Note: This essay is the first in a series by Ionatana Iese, a writer and teacher from the Central District who also works in the security department at Uncle Ike’s. The Culturally Appropriate series considers issues of race and social justice through the lens of Iese’s lived experience. It’s heavy.
“Tasi loto” (Loto Tasi: One heart/love) – Uncle Siosi
The Central District (CD), the heart of Seattle, Washington’s black community. I love my neighborhood, which has had a monumental impact on my life over the years. The 1960s’ sense of community and revolutionary spirit was so ingrained in the fabric of day-to-day routine that its essence lingered well into the 1990’s. This spirit fragmented, however, as a result of discriminatory government policies designed to have black neighborhoods stricken with poverty and addiction. But the spirit is much more resilient than the flesh, and out of darkness has always come the light.
The Central District became the beacon of a flourishing black community in the Pacific Northwest. It thrived with its own bank, businesses, and an incredible music scene which cultivated such genius’s as Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix. In hindsight I would describe the Central District as the “Harlem” of Seattle. My family and I moved to the CD in the Summer of 1990 and I can say without a doubt that the seeds of decolonization were planted, watered, and nurtured by the people of this historic neighborhood. At the time that this story took place, my family and I had been living in the CD for three summers. In previous summers, my standard dress code was shorts, sandals, and an i’a lavalava (a traditional Samoan fabric used to wrap around the waist extending to the knee). It’s safe to say that the jokes about my i’a (skirt, towels, etc…) were abundant. Though after a couple of physical confrontations and sharpening both my wit and emotional armor by becoming better versed in ranking or “playing the dozens,” the second summer wasn’t so bad at all. And by 1993 people in my neighborhood had become acclimated to seeing me walking around the C.D. in my i’a lavalava.
Summertime was also the easiest season to hide how impoverished my family actually was. My dress code wasn’t just cultural pride, it was also economically efficient. I needed only to keep a variety of shirts, the i’a and sandals were always readily available (at least somebody’s i’a and sandals). It might sound like a sob story, but until you’ve been dumpster diving with all your siblings as a family activity, I doubt you could relate to the level of poverty we were experiencing throughout my childhood. I began to feel that if I was one less mouth to feed, maybe that would help my family out.
Regardless, in 8th grade, I began to want things that were not necessary for my survival in the world. I began to fall victim to the “Capitalism/Consumerism Rules Everything Around Me” (CREAM) way of thinking and thus became more involved in the street life. I felt the need not only to become independent, but to upgrade my wardrobe to actual brand names. I remember saying before that summer started, “I can’t go into 9th grade rocking pro wings!”
“Poverty is the partner to both crime & revolution.” – Aristotle
In March/April 1993, I had gotten into a fight with a kid from a different neighborhood for tagging up our block. Not only had he been tagging, he’d bombed the whole wall of Sam’s Quickie Mini Mart. Upon noticing me he began to sprint down the block, but I caught up with him. As we fought three cars pulled up alongside of us, stopped in the middle of traffic. But only one car mattered, the root beer brown 1984 Fleetwood Royal Brougham that belonged to the big homie, who we’ll call KD. I began picking my opponent apart and with each punch landing, I can hear ruckus from the cars. Then a familiar voice—it was KD yelling out “That’s my lil n*%%@, The Swollen Samoan, I bet money he wins!” After the fight, KD gave me some cash and a cookie (a quarter ounce of already cooked-up crack), telling me, “Look here’s $100 cash and some dope, you can do whatever you want with it: smoke it, inhale it, or sell it. But if you sell it and come back, we can make this money.” Over the next three months, KD would school me in his methodology and his processes in the game. With the additional revenue stream, I assumed I was self-sufficient, finally being able to purchase those all-too-important name brand clothing articles. Or so I thought.
It’s June of the same year now, and I’m posted on the corner of 19th Ave. and East Yesler Way with the guy who I thought at the time was my friend and comrade in arms, but who would later end up playing “Donnie Brasco.” On this day, one of the runners (local drug addicts who act as concierges connecting dealers and addicts) approached us and asked me if I wanted a $40 sale, to which I happily replied, “Hell yeah!” With Donnie close in tow, the runner ushers me to the sale who is waiting behind Sam’s Quickie Mini Mart.
Upon arriving to meet the sale, I notice right away that the cluck (addict) was Polynesian. And not just Polynesian, but Samoan! I stood frozen in shock, speechless, and oddly ashamed for both of us. For myself to be out here slinging crack and him, a victim of addiction. He was rambling, trying to convince me he wasn’t a cop. I remember hand gestures and his lips moving, but his words seemed to sound as if I was under water. I had never known of a Samoan crackhead/addict before. The concept had been so far removed from my mind that I may have been naive enough at the time to actually think they didn’t exist. As if the illness of addiction was a genetically predetermined disease, affecting only a few races.
He was rugged looking, maybe in his mid to late-thirties, with a goatee beard and long silver and black hair pulled back into a bushy ponytail. Though alcohol taking its toll had aged him more than a few years, he still had that regal Samoan pride etched into the hardness of his face. He had just gotten off from work and still had his construction gear with him, along with a 40oz bottle of malt liquor. This was not shocking to me, as alcoholism is the vice I was most familiar with seeing amongst my family and people. He was so concerned with getting high, he had yet to notice that I was Samoan.
My hair had been braided back in cornrows, and I was wearing a white tee, creased Levis 501’s, and the classic black and white Reeboks. I thought for a moment that his addiction had kept him from noticing that I was also Samoan. Maybe my assimilation, with the new clothes and my speech inflected with the latest hippest slang, would fool him. But upon his closer examination of me, he began to squint at me as if I were standing at a far distance away, his voice suddenly became clear and robust, and he uttered what I had hoped he wouldn’t.
Him: Sole, o oe Samoa
(Are you Samoan?)
Me: I, o a’u o le tama Samoa
(Yes, I am Samoan)
Him: Oi sole, uso, fa’amolemole lava, ou te fia fa’atau ai se ma’a
(Ey bro! Please bro, I’m just trying buy some dope)
Me: Sole leai, pei o oe o se leoleo
(Nah bro, you’re the police)
Him: Sole, e lē’o a’u o se leoleo uso. Sole va’ai fa’alelei mai ia te a’u. Va’ai
(Hey I’m not the police bro, look at me, Look!)
He then grabbed the 40 bottle, and guzzled it. Of course, I knew he wasn’t the police, and our conversation went more in-depth than the opening lines above. It was filled with the customary, ”What’s your mom’s name? What’s your dad’s name? What’s your dad’s village? What’s your mom’s village? I think we might be related!” questions and statements that are commonplace among Samoans upon first meeting one another.
His name was Siosi, and he looked like all my uncles, all at once. I couldn’t bring myself to serve him. I just could not do it. In my soul, in my heart, it felt wrong.
All the “Don’t be out here selling poison to your own people” conversations with the countless program directors, teen advocates, and community elders who worked and volunteered at Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Theater, Rotary Boys & Girls Club, Yesler Community Center, The Late Night Program, Garfield Community Center, Central Area Youth Association, and others came back to me. The small talk I had with these beautiful people actually had significant impact. On my mind and on the minds and souls of the youth in my time, in my community. These “not for profit” warriors, who never get paid what they’re worth, spoke so powerful in my mind it overwhelmed the allure of money.
I passed on the sale to Donnie, who took it without hesitation. I don’t judge him, as each man has his own demons and burdens to deal with. In parting our ways, Siosi thanked me (I did not feel worthy of praise) and left with a phrase I had never heard before: “Tasi loto.”
“This world done changed so much since I’ve been conscience” – Erykah Badu
Later that night, after reflecting on what just occurred, I ended up selling the remainder of my goods to Donnie for “double up”—half of what they were worth. The shame of even being involved with the facilitation of the sale was enough to make my mind up about not selling dope. I recall feeling strongly the sheer hypocrisy of thinking it was “just business” in order to justify selling crack to black folks. Even though I knew that some of these addicts were actual family members of close friends, but when a Samoan man I had no connection with came around looking for the same poison, I suddenly found my morality.
I sat with those thoughts, thinking about a dear and close friend of mine who would always be fighting the other neighborhood D-boys (dope boys) because they would sell goods to his mother knowing who she was. His resolve was that it would be best if his mother bought the dope from him instead of the others fellas on the block. But again, that’s another story for another day.