Monday, January 2, 2012

H.N.I.C: Head N***a In Charge

Who is the HNIC? The acronym stands for "Head Nigga In Charge" and I must have heard it dozens of times a day from elementary school through junior high. On the school bus, in the parking lot, in the hallways. You had to prove you were THE Head Nigga in Charge. The contest was played among us Black exiles. We were the few, rare, M&Ms going to mostly non-Black schools in upper-class neighborhoods. I didn't find out what M&Ms meant until I became an adult, but apparently it stands for "mentoring minority' students. Far from being mentored, it felt like many of us were every day dropped off to fend for ourselves. Lacking any sort of social strata, we created our own with HNIC game.

I attended Highland Oaks Elementary and Junior High School. The elementary school was mostly Jewish, upper-middle class located in Aventura, Miami suburb located right on the county line. Going to school at Aventura afforded me the opportunity to receive honors-level education in a non-threatening environment. Since I was often the only Black person in the honors and advanced classes, most of my school friends were Jewish, Latino and a few wandering WASPs. I would arrive at school and partake on a weekly basis in two arts classes (painting and more creative construction), two music classes, advanced science, math, and even the physical education class had 'thinking' elements to it with learning new games and team structures. But all of my bus friends were Black.

Black parents chartered their own bus and paid the owner $20/week for each student. We had our own Jitney, or bootleg bus system. These buses were run by Black school administrators and teachers trying to make some extra money on the side. You get 20 students at $20 a week and you're talking about an extra $1,600 for a teacher struggling to get by on their salary or looking to purchase some Florida real estate to remodel and flip for a profit. There was a whole economic subculture to busing M&Ms that formed out of being the 'odd kids' out of place.

The bus ride to school would often take 1-2 hours, which meant I had to be up 2-3 hours before most kids to get ready and wait. The chartered van would pull up in the driveway and honk the horn. I would walk out and begin peeking into the window to search out the available seats. The drivers would pack us in so a modified van meant to hold 10 people, would often have 15 or 20+ students packed in tight. You were lucky if you got in early enough on the route because you could take a backseat. The seat farthest away from the driver afforded the most opportunities for card games, petty gambling, slap fights, and illicit show and tells. I remember one time a student on the bus brought a gun to junior high school. There was no malicious intent, but it was merely to prove how they were the HNIC. The news quickly spread when we arrived and by the afternoon the gun-possessing HNIC student was found by administrators. He was quickly expelled and never heard from again. It was, as Dave Chappelle would say, an example of what happens when 'keeping it real goes wrong.'

Most of the time the HNIC game never got to the level of guns or drugs. A student would declare "I'm the HNIC" and then have to back-up his statement with the action. Some times HNIC would involve telling the dirtiest joke or reciting the hottest rap lyric. HNIC would some times involve trying to shoplift from a convenience store the bus driver would stop at for a Big Gulp. This happened on two occasions by other students who were almost caught by the store clerk. The escape was seen as a victory for HNIC status. I never contributed to the HNIC game. I played the violin, attended honors classes, spoke in a non-regional racially neutral tone. There was no chance of me being the HNIC. No question, no debate, no possible challenge to the throne. I was an observer to the HNIC and would occasionally offer comedic parodies of my fellow busmates by pretending to shot someone, impregnate my cousin, and snort imaginary cocaine and then wipe my nose while deliriously screaming "I'm the HNIC!!!!' would laugh before quickly resuming their contest. I was comfortable with this and was afforded 'embedded observer' status. 

What scared me about HNIC was getting caught in the crossfire. I was an easy target for others looking to prove themselves HNIC-worthy and so I had to choose my defending moments carefully. I worried that the back of my head had a 'slap me' sign and I was careful not to turn my back on anyone. The best seats on the bus were those near a window or door. A student could coolly lean against the window without fear of a covert slap, punch or kick to their backside.

I kept a mental library of comeback, cutdowns, putdowns, insults to use like a sniper. If I was attacked by 2 or more students I would learn to laugh it off and then wait to get revenge on a one-on-one basis or just go after the weakest person. In one case when a few students decided to team up on me and insult my outfit, my glasses, my academic achievements, I found the weakest person in the group and immediately began insulting him, ignoring the other attackers. I continued attacking him until he was getting laughed at by his co-conspirators. On another morning a younger student tried to score points against me the moment I stepped into the van. I was too groggy to respond and he up'ped the ante by slapping the back of my head. I came back with a barrage of punches and verbal insults that left him in tears. Blubbering, he vowed to get his older brother to kick my ass. A very un-HNIC thing to say. He ended up regretting this as other students picked on him for crying and having to get his brother to pick his fight. This student left me alone for the rest of my time on the bus and was the very same student was expelled for bringing a gun.

We admired comedians, athletes, and rappers whose actions proved they were HNIC in their own life. When TLC's Lisa 'Left Eye" Lopez burned down the house of Andre Rison, her cheating NFL wide receiver boyfriend, that was a HNIC moment. Even though she said it was an accident, Left Eye got her a place in the HNIC Hall of Fame. Tupac Shakur got his place by getting shot in the lobby of a New York recording studio and surviving.

The HNIC game became this never-ending game of insults, fights, and swagger. As a result I grew farther apart from my bus mates as we entered our teenage years. I hated their ignorance, their need for recognition through violence, and their overall disdain for reading and education. I began leading a double life, one for my honors classmates and one for my bus mates.

In class I was known as student debater, violinist, and tennis player who played in weekend tournaments and even won a few. On the bus, I was the Oreo who wore glasses, read science fiction, and spent most of my time hanging around white kids. I would imagine our bus as the zoo-mobile: an ape show of stealing, cursing, and fighting on wheels. A traveling embarrassment of all the things my parents taught me to avoid at all cost and yet forced me to ride with every school day.

The contradictions confused and enraged me. I represented "Blacks" to most of my honors classmates. I served as the friendly ambassador explaining the mysteries of Kwanzaa or rap music. And yet I hated my daily interaction with Blackness via my ride to and from school. There was no one to confide in during these years. My parents worked late and were often running around helping the community through volunteering, church work, or helping out other kids. My sister was off leading her high school life. I was left to my own devices in figuring this out. I spent most of my non-school time alone. I was expected to complete my homework, warm-up dinner, set out my clothes, and prepare my lunch for the next day.

The HNIC game carried over into high school and adult life. I see it in hip hop culture, rivarlries, Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. When I find myself in the middle of an impromptu HNIC game I run as far away as possible. I have never been or desired HNIC status. Needless to say, I have kept in contact with none of my bus mates. The moment I got my driver's license and inherited my sister's rusty Mercury Cougar I never rode Jitney or any privatized bus again. Even when the car broke down, I would take the city bus and deal with the 2 hours and route transfers to get home.

I made a vow to get as far away from 'those people' and that game as possible the first chance I got. This turned into a deep-seated suspicion and wariness of any traditional Black organizations run by men. In my mind they were all playing some form of the HNIC game behind close doors.

Now I know that my fears were delusions of a scarred and scared nerdy Black kid. There are millions of other people who were minorities living as outsiders among their own culture. There's less of a need to HNIC my status when I find others who are like me regardless of race or class. I don't have to be in charge or anybody. Thankfully it's not my game to play.

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