One Black Life That Mattered

Two of my best friends growing up in Richmond were the Stanley brothers, Sertha and Ray. Sertha was about a year older than me (the same age as my late older brother Mark) and Ray was my age. For most of my childhood, Ray and I were inseparable.

On the other side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks from my neighborhood, there used to be a Montgomery Wards store in the middle of a vast parking lot, and on summer afternoons the Stanley brothers and I would cross the tracks to go to Wards and play “Game Show” in the furniture section.

Ray and I would say, in unison, “Tell them what they’ve won, Sertha!” and then Sertha would launch into an uncanny and hilarious imitation of a game show announcer detailing the fabulous prizes won by a contestant: “You’ve won this BEAUTIFUL MATCHED LIVING ROOM SET! (Ray and I would “ooh” and “ahh” as the audience) Made of quality imitation walnut and the finest Naugahyde, you’ll be entertaining guests for hours in sleek style!” Sertha would continue in that vein until Ray and I were hysterical and gasping for breath, or until a Wards salesman threw us out of the store.

Ray was always a sucker for a dare and to being called “chicken.” A decent fraction of the physical scars he and I carry on our bodies are a result of things I talked him into, often when I was a passenger on the back of the bike he was being talked into destroying in some hare-brained scheme involving our joint rediscovery of the tragic supremacy of the laws of physics, motivated by those previously-mentioned dares from Yours Truly. He was occasionally forbidden to play with me, and looking back I can’t really say I blame his mother for that.

Of the two brothers, Sertha was the more sensible, and thus was immune to dares and provocation, and would do his best to steer Ray clear of the worst of my impulsiveness. Ray idolized his older brother, somewhat as I looked up to my older brother Mark.

In a post a couple years ago, I remembered a day soon after my family moved from Richmond to Benicia (a small town about 30 miles north of Richmond) when I was finishing up 8th grade. I remembered running through the fields north of my parents’ house…

…with my face turned up to the sun, my arms out like wings, deep into the fields, and at some point I found myself alone, surrounded by thick brush, my only companions the sounds of insects and birds, and I was covered in the pungent licorice scent that came from a trail of broken anise weed. I stopped, felt an odd weight in my chest and sat down. The world seemed to lose color, and I put my hand to my face — and suddenly I was weeping in great, gusting sobs.

I wept with grateful relief at having survived Richmond — and more than that, at having found myself in a place where I didn’t have to survey the street at every moment to see who might be out, whether they were armed, and what their intentions might be. In my new town, I could just walk out the door and explore its alleys and neighborhoods in complete safety.

I wept with pent-up sorrow, the lid suddenly off a grief I had dared not fully express, or even allow myself to feel, in a place where it might be taken as weakness and thus make me a target.

I wept, too, with sadness for the dear friends I’d left behind.

Sertha was one of the “dear friends I’d left behind” that I missed the most. He was one of the most precious rocks in the storm of my childhood neighborhood.

Some years later, I learned that, like far too many beautiful young black men, Sertha went down in a hail of bullets, on 29th Street in central Richmond, four days after Christmas in 1996. I last saw Ray back in 2012, and almost 20 years after Sertha’s death, Ray still couldn’t talk about it. He missed his older brother terribly, as I miss mine (Mark died on September 11th, 2008).

Richmond was a place I often found terrifying. I witnessed things there that I would rather forget – like a man pulling a revolver and threatening another man in a park Ray and I were walking in one day, or the boy in sixth grade who seemed to have been born without a conscience, a kid who tormented and beat his classmates for his own amusement. I spent a significant amount of energy in Richmond trying not to be a murder victim.

But while there are many experiences from Richmond I do not much enjoy remembering, there is one memory of a boy I knew that shines like a brilliant star in a night sky.  I would give anything to spend just one more day with my dear friend Sertha Stanley. He was a good kid and a faithful companion. Dammit, Sertha, come back.

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