Cleveland, Ohio November 2018
“Mr. Michael, could I ask you a question?”
His voice was still a child’s, but his tone had that grit, the kind that comes from experience. Daniel did not talk like someone with only sixteen years under his belt. But one thing I knew for sure: not everyone’s year on this Earth is created equal.
“Sure thing, my man,” I said. “Shoot.”
“Okay,” he said, leaning forward to be heard above the noise of the table. “Are you happy?”
My face likely betrayed me. Daniel was rangy and loose in the way of confident teenagers. And with one simple question, he had pulled my skin right off.
“Sorry, what?” I asked, tilting my ear forward. I’d heard him just fine, but I was thrown off. The smile across my face was for defense, honed over many years of self-protection. But Daniel saw right through it. Maybe that’s why he asked the question in the first place.
“Are you, like, happy?” he asked again, a little more hesitant, more like a teenager. Maybe he sensed my nervousness.
Daniel and I had known each other for only a few hours, but I was already struck by how this kid talked. When I met him, through members of the ACLU of Ohio, one of the first things he said was, “Yeah, I’ve been working to turn my life around.” Turn my life around? What kid talks like that? What does it say about America that the life of a sixteen-year-old boy was already so far in the wrong direction that he needed to turn it around?
Daniel was from a rough part of Cleveland, a city that often had one of the highest murder rates in the country. “Too much death,” he had said earlier, “a lot of friends dying. Or in jail.” He lived one block over from the projects, and that closeness wasn’t just about geography. He was teetering on the edge between two worlds, and turning his life around meant facing threats on both sides.
One threat were the gangs, and the violence that grew out of them. “Sometimes people in the streets are bullied and they need protection,” he told me. “They’re sick of being the one who’s the victim, getting guns pulled on them, and they turn into the person that starts doing stuff like that.”
“Yeah, I get it,” I said. I remembered gangs forming in the Brooklyn projects of my youth. It felt like overnight it went from a rivalry between buildings and courts—kid stuff—into violent gangs. Some of them came together because they wanted to and some because they felt they needed to. From what I could see, not much had changed, except each generation is starting a little earlier than the last.
“There’s people younger than me that carry guns now, it’s crazy,” he said. “Fourteen-year-olds walking around with guns you’d see on an officer. And they’re not little guns; they really got stuff.” Daniel told me a story about how one night he was walking to his friend’s building and looked down to see a bright-green beam, like from the sights of an automatic weapon, on his chest. Instantly, he froze. The beam lingered. He didn’t know whether to turn around and run or what. Paralyzed, he just stood there. And then, the beam disappeared. When his heart stopped rumbling, he took off running down the street. It’s moments like these—a fear that most can’t imagine, a stress that doesn’t just pass—that makes some people’s years weigh heavier than others.
The other threat came from those who should be protecting him. Cleveland was actually the birthplace of stop and frisk, an excuse to harass Black and Brown citizens on their way to work or school. Daniel told me about times he was held up at the mass-transit station for no reason, handcuffed to a bench for suspicion of carrying drugs while all he had was a backpack of schoolbooks. Calm and polite to the officers, Daniel had had enough of these police encounters to know they were looking for a reason to escalate. Most Black men know this from experience—cops doing things just because they can, because it sends a message about power and belonging. It’s a trap, because if you react, you just feed into it. So the best move is to be quiet, to take it, though every fiber in your being wants to explode. “I think it’s all like a setup, man,” Daniel said. “It’s designed for you to fail out here, for real.” He’s not wrong.
He told me another story that just tore at my insides. When Daniel was thirteen, he and his friends went out to a nice neighborhood to trick or treat on Halloween. “Out of the ghetto and to the suburbs, where all the mansions at,” he said. “Once you go under the bridge, the whole scenery changes.” But a group of Black boys on the clean white sidewalks, knocking on the doors of clean white houses, made some people nervous. And people pay good money to live in places where they don’t ever have to feel nervous. So neighbors called the cops—who actually showed up. “The cops told us we couldn’t be there,” Daniel said. “That we were in the wrong neighborhood.”
I thought about that phrase—“wrong neighborhood”—and how it got twisted inside out. “Wrong” is what most people would call Daniel’s neighborhood, as in we got caught after hours in the wrong neighborhood. But here, it meant the opposite—the kind of beautiful place that kept Daniel and his friends out. It was the wrong neighborhood for their skin color. When the cops rounded up Daniel and his friends, they didn’t bring them into the precinct. They couldn’t: there was no charge. So they just dropped the kids off back in the hood. Where they belonged. Over time, Black boys get the message. Every Black man was once a Black boy who got that same message.
Daniel was carrying two traumas: the loss of his mother when he was very young and the murder of his best friend in eighth grade. Eighth grade. Think about meaningful or memorable things that happened to you around that age, how you carry them with you, how they shaped who you are. Most people can’t fathom what that kind of trauma does to a young mind. He’s lost more friends to gun violence since then, and a childhood like that grows heavy, like a weight chained to his foot. You don’t just run free with something like that attached to you.
So there was this rawness about him, this tenderness, like his heart was on the outside of his body. His question to me wasn’t a challenge; he just wanted to know. What does happy look like? I’m gonna ask this guy. He seems to be doing okay. Maybe he knows.
Considering what I knew about this kid, his question had gravity. Answering it felt like a responsibility, maybe bigger than I could handle. I was ill equipped, especially at that moment, teetering on the edge myself that day. But I’ll get to that later.
We were at dinner with about twenty people, sitting at a long L-shaped set of tables at a restaurant in the Shaker Square neighborhood of Cleveland. Daniel was the only kid there, invited along by the ACLU of Ohio, where he was completing a mentorship. At the table were members of the organization, along with members of the Innocence Project and social justice advocates from both Cleveland and New York, including NYC Together’s Dana Rachlin, and my nephew Dominic.
It had been a heavy day, so by dinner that night, I had let my guard down and switched into off mode. But I was sitting across from someone who didn’t have that luxury. When the dinner was over and we said our goodbyes, I could leave. But Daniel had to go home. So when he asked me if I was happy, I wanted to give him a real answer. Other people at the table must have sensed the energy shift because they stopped talking and looked over at us.
Now, I like to think I’m an open book. I actually pride myself on it. Friends know they can tell me anything, acquaintances tend to confide in me, full-on strangers walk up to me on the street and just start talking like we go way back. But maybe my openness was a front, a screen to make sure nobody ever got too close to the white meat. Daniel went right for it.
Happy? Was I happy? This kid didn’t have questions about Hollywood or Tupac or The Wire. I knew how to answer those. That’s just part of the job. But this? I was flying blind.
“Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said, stalling for time. Searching my brain, the voice of Reverend Ronald B. Christian popped into my head. Rev. Ron—the man who had saved my life. “You know,” I said, “my friend once explained that the word ‘happy’ is derived from the word ‘happenstance.’ Which means things that are given to you. So when you seek happiness, its source is outside of you.”
Daniel’s eyes were locked on mine—not just waiting to talk, but actually interested in the answer. Young people are open in a way that adults never are. Show me a struggling man and I’ll show you a boy never given a chance to change.
“But joy, he said, comes from a different source,” I continued. “When you have joy, there’s peace of mind. So you’re content with yourself. And I always took that as my goal.”
I thought Daniel might laugh at me or call BS. But instead he nodded, the words landing. “I get you, sure. I get it,” he said, leaning back. “Yeah, content. I like that.”
Copyright © 2022 by Michael K. Williams. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.