Precis of OG Told Me by Pendarvis Harshaw

and I semi-whispered: How do I get a car like this? Without hesitation , he replied: “Anyone can have a car like this, man. That’s easy, you feel me? But thinking like me…having a train of thought like mines…that’s hard…’yum sayin’…but I’ll tell you this, lil bruh:
If you can learn in one day what takes most men a week, you’ll see that age doesn’t mean a thing, you feel me? Focus on the big dreams, and don’t trip off of small things…”
“I feel you, ‘yum sayin’…I know what you mean,” I told him.
I mean…I didn’t really know what he meant.

I read this book on African-American teenage male experience in Oakland in the 2000s because it was in my living room. It also features a photo of our corner liquor store on the back cover!

Pendarvis Harshaw is basically interested in wisdom shared between men. Wisdom about how to live in difficult conditions. How should you respond to getting mugged? How can you look fly despite being broke? He describes his own project well:

Since America was created, the Black man and his family have been systematically separated. Through slavery, through incarceration and through drug addiction. In spite of this, there is a strong culture of passing on knowledge from older to younger Black men. It’s a culture that defies the laws of physics, not allowing chains, prison walls, or substance abuse to keep us from learning from those who came before us. I took it upon myself to document this culture.

Image from the OG Told Me project online.

He recounts vignettes from East Oakland which, at some point, feature a pearl of wisdom from an older man. These older men are generically OGs (meaning either original gangstas or older guys). And while Harshaw almost never wanted to hear them, and often barely understood them when they spoke, he still makes a special effort to present their comments with enough context to make them insightful.

How do you get a car like that? By learning faster than other people?

When Pendarvis and his homies get robbed, the OGs tell them to calm down and understand. When he meets his father in prison across the country, his old man tells him that prison only exists in the mind. When he stumbles through a fight at the corner store outside school, a security guard tells him that life outside the playground is just like life on the playground. When he finally sells the last of his crack rocks to someone’s junky boyfriend, the older man explains that we’re all junkies, just cut from different cloth.

I don’t think these pearls are really of wisdom. Contrary to his claim that the words of OGs matter, it seems clear to me that he heard very little from older men, understood less, and what advice he did get from them was mediocre or poor. On the other hand, Harshaw makes a good point that black men have been separated from their children quite a bit in America, and some of the kids are hungry for OG wisdom.

Except, as a kid, Pendarvis definitely did not want to listen to most of these men, especially when they were authority figures. His stories make it clear that he made very little effort to hear from them. Rather, he and his friends were almost entirely peer oriented, and made their most enduring relationships with other men their age. I wonder if this male intimacy primes him to value and respect what OG told me so much more than, say, what his sister did or someone else’s grandmother might. (Women are fleeting and usually unnamed in this book.)

As a sample of a sociological reality, though, this book is quite fine. The vocabulary, patterns of drug use, and geography here make excellent reading. When the bars and clubs shut in downtown Oakland, the party rolls back to East Oakland, and this is high time for sideshows. Cough syrup came in at the same time as pills of all kinds, which included ecstasy: in the 2000s. Bruh, cuz, blood, and homie are all common terms of endearment, during this time period, but not man, aki, brother, or dude. Medical marijuana was considered to be better quality than what anyone was slinging on the street. Part of the obsession with cars comes from spending so much time near them on streets, often hanging out outdoors, at bus stops, youth centers, or front yards. Cheap liquor store snacks let kids feel like they have lots of things in part because no one knows enouogh to judge the quality of these snacks as food. (The idea that cheese puffs come from somewhere or that cheap sunflower seeds might somehow be worse quality remains alien to the characters of his stories.) Chasing girls was the predominant form of sexual and romantic expression (rather than dating) and a reason to get quick money to get female attention.

An interesting little book from a young author with much more to learn, discover, and share.


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