Updated: October 29, 2012 6:28AM
It was a letter from a young brother. A reminder of my life on the other side of the tracks. Of those left behind, of the need still for hope there and of the possibilities that can loom on the other side of midnight, if you never give up.
“HELLO MR. FOUNTAIN!!!” began the email a few years ago.
“I’m sorry, I’m just so-o-o excited to have tracked you down! I was in the library last week when I stumbled across your book: “True Vine,”’ the young man wrote, referring to my memoir.
“As a fellow West-Sider, I am really loving this book. . . . Even though I am 29, I am surprised at the number of similarities that you can share with someone who came from the same environment, despite age differences.
“I just wanted to thank you for writing this book for all of us Chicago West-Siders who feel stuck and trapped,” the note ended. “It is encouraging me page by page!!!!”
As a writer, I receive lots of letters.
Inasmuch as I would like to respond to them all, I cannot.
I do, however, reply to many, especially to those in whose words I sense the need for encouragement, for a lifeline. I recognize that familiar gasping for breath.
I also remember well the pain of invisibility, of dwelling within the walls of Ralph Ellison’s world — as a shadow of a man.
Remember feeling like a man-child in a so-called Promised Land here in Bigger Thomas’ town, where fatalism and pathology leave far too many native sons — and daughters — suffocating, disconnected from the mainstream.
And so we die — too many of us — by gunshot, or by the silent death of dreams too long deferred. This is perhaps a more insidious and agonizing demise of which I have borne witness.
After all these years, I remember.
I remember the feeling as a young man of trying to pull myself up with no bootstraps. The sense of futility in trying to escape Ghetto Island. I remember feeling the forces of darkness all around me: poverty, drugs, gangs, violence and brutality, murder, dysfunction. I remember the temptation to simply give up there.
So many days and nights I cried there. Sometimes found myself frozen by fear there.
I vowed that if I did ever find my way, I would never forget. Never grow weary or ashamed of sharing my up-from-poverty testimony, believing that my triumph and hope might also be someone else’s — believing that we are our brother’s keeper. And knowing that a little help, even an encouraging word, can go a long way.
I wrote the young man back, thanking him.
“On a note of encouragement, please know that we are never ‘stuck and trapped,’ even if we do feel that way. I am glad you have found some encouragement in the pages of True Vine, and I wish you peace & blessings.”
A few years later, the young man, a self-admitted “former weed-head,” wrote me once again.
He thanked me for writing back to him years earlier. He said that my book had inspired him to earn his GED, to graduate from a two-year college. And he said he was now enrolled at a university — living, achieving, dreaming.
“Your voice is important to us, because nobody seems to be talking to us [condemning us, yes — encouraging us, no],” he wrote of my work as a writer. “I just wanted to thank you for raising your voice for us, and to let you know it’s not all in vain!”
It’s the least I can do.
Stay the course, my brother. And keep the faith.