This blog is a counterstory within a counterstory within a counterstory. Boom!
To refresh your memory, a counterstory is a method of telling the stories of marginalized folx whose experiences are not often told as well as a tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories of racial privilege (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002, p. 32).
The first counterstory is written by Jermaine Cole. He also goes by J.Cole. I am not sure what he prefers, but I’ll let you know after seeing him in Phoenix on July 6. (I may or may not have an extra ticket, FYI). This type of song does not get radio time, so I am forced to intentionally play it, which usually results in exhaustion from the many feelings evoked by his track. Clearly, I must be a masochist.
On his track “4 Your Eyez Only,” J. Cole tells a story from the perspective of his deceased friend James McMillan Jr, who was murdered at the age of 22. In the first half of the track, the perspective is biographical in nature and told from the perspective of James Mcmillan Jr. to his newborn daughter…
“That’s why I write this sonnet
If the pressure get too much for me to take and I break
Play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it”
However by the 4th verse, the story switches to the perspective of J.Cole reminiscing about a conversation he had with James before his untimely death, which would make this track a composite counterstory that is based on Cole’s personal experience and discussions with his friend James (Espino, 2012; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002).
“One day your daddy called me, told me he had a funny feeling
What he’d been dealing with lately, he wasn’t telling
I tried to pick his brains, still he wasn’t revealing
But I could feel the sense of panic in his voice
And it was chilling…”
While J.Cole didn’t personally make this track for me. He might as well have since he does
“dedicate these words to you and all the other children
Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation
That sent your pops to prison when he needed education”
And cue my counterstory. Quite an easy one to tell. Well, it depends what version I tell. Version 1 is “an unauthentic, get to the point, but leave out details because the white folx in front of you are feeling hella uncomfortable or they want to sexualize your story and make you the poster child for brown girls who have accomplished so much in life despite their daddy issues.” For awhile it was my only version, but then something started to happen with this version. I started to lose control and power of my own story. As a result, I started to receive messages about my story along the lines of:
“Are you sure you want people to read that about you?”
“Are you sure you want to keep that in your online bio? A lot of people will see it.”
These messages released waves of internalized shame that made me question my own lived experience. Should I say this in public? Will people think differently of me? Less of me? Will I be targeted? Ultimately, version 1 was an ethical dilemma that Espino (2012) describes as the ways in which we can reproduce the master narrative within Communities of Color. The master narrative is defined as dominant ideologies (Espino, 2012).
Thus, Version 2 of my story emerged out of necessity and survival in academia because my lived experience was not just for awards and accolades. My lived experience was not a hat I could just take off at night. I was and I am my lived experience. In good times and bad, I have to live with my story. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about what it means to have a father in prison. And from these messages, I started to think about the implications of my story. Surely, my story had to have some source of power in it, if the so-called “people” reading it might feel some type of way about me. Moving forward in my doctoral education, I have become intentional about the purpose of my story. My identity as a child with a father in prison would forever be intersected my identity as a scholar in academia, so in the words of Ijeoma Umebinyuo,
“If we do not document our stories,
If we do not own our narratives, we
Give others the power to describe
And label us anyway they desire.”
But not so fast…
While not my story to tell, my father and I have intertwined counterstories in a way that makes untangling them almost impossible. For the remainder of my blog, I’ll use J. Cole’s counterstory to speak for my father. J.Cole continues to help me accept my father’s counterstory after years of accepting the master narrative that the reason Brown men wind up in prison is “because of the choices they made.”
But the question remains, did they ever have choices to begin with? J.Cole attempts to answer this question by rapping,
“At a glance, I’m a failure
Addicted to pushing paraphernalia
But Daddy had dreams once, my eyes had a gleam once
Innocence disappeared by the age of eight years”
Yes, true at a glance my father’s story is similar to many boys of color growing up in Los Angeles, California during the 80’s. Oldest of 4, parents working all the time only to barely get by, moved to a new city, met the “wrong crowd”, ran with the wrong gang, 16 and committed a crime, grandma couldn’t afford a lawyer so boom, charged as an adult and sentenced 15 to life. But ended up getting 21 years. Cool, end of story right?
No, but this was the story presented to me and the only one I had ever known. Countering this dominant narrative, I understand that Daddy had dreams once, his eyes had a gleam once but Innocence disappeared by the age of eight years. J.Cole seeks to humanize the lived experience of his friend James McMillan Jr., much like what I attempt to do when acknowledging that my father experienced severe trauma around the same age as James and that we as a family, community and society fail to humanize his experience. And while I understand the larger societal mentality that trauma does not justify crimes (taken from the perspective of someone who has also lost loved ones due to gang violence), there does seem to be a certain colorblindness when we talk about trauma in Brown boys (That’s another blog post in and of itself).
What I appreciate in 4 Your Eyez Only is that racial realism is front and center as James McMillan Jr. recognizes that the criminal (in)justice system is not set up to help families affected by mass incarceration.
The rap continues to highlight James’ perspective to say,
“I try to find employment even if it’s wiping toilets
But these felonies be making life the hardest
Resisting the temptation to run up and swipe a wallet
Or run up on your yard, snatch your daughter bike and pawn it”
“Took me two felonies to see the trap
This crooked-ass system set for me”
As a refresher, racial realism argues for the permanence of racism and that racism is real (Bell, 1992). There is also alignment between racial realism and critical consciousness in that both concepts require folx with subordinate status to recognize that the system is set up against us. The racial struggle is real. But after one comes to this conclusion, racial realism can allow us to reconstruct the world and resist against racist structures in a way that bring about “fulfillment and even triumph” (Bell, 1992, p. 373-374). But getting to this place is easier said than done. I speculate that for my own father prison was never a place where his awakening could be facilitated or fostered. Same goes for me, the master narrative is hard to shake off when it severely influences how you interpret the world around you and as James McMillan Jr. argues, it would not be a surprise to him if this master narrative influenced how his daughter felt about him.
“So I know how part of you feels
Maybe you hate me, maybe you miss me, maybe you spite me”
Who is this counterstory for?
One thing I want to highlight revolves around the function of counterstories. Repeatedly, James McMillan Jr. tells his friend J.Cole that this message is for his daughter only.
“That’s why I write this sonnet
If the pressure get too much for me to take and I break
Play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it
(For your eyes) Let her know my life is on it
(For your eyes) For your eyes only”
J.Cole takes these instructions seriously and tells James daughter…
I’m leaving you this record, for your eyes only
Don’t you ever scratch or disrespect it
This perspective is a real one, another lost ‘Ville son
It is a constant struggle when I wake up in the morning: dismiss my father as simply another failure who chose that street life or resist the socially constructed version of his life and instead humanize his lived experiences in a way that allows me to acknowledge there is so much more to this story? From my perspective, the counterstory can heal and liberate and then go on to promote group solidarity (Delgado, 1989). But to get to that place is one that I am still working on and in the words of Mr. Cole not all stories serve to be consume by the public and in fact we are allowed to keep counterstories
“For your eyes, for your eyes only
For your eyes, for your eyes only
For your eyes, do you understand?
For your eyes only”
A recent interview with NY times, Jermaine Cole reveals that this track was made as a way to show
“The people that I know that live that life and come from that life, or even used to live that life, there’s so much more than that.” “They have multiple sides, and the side that is the strongest is love” — of mothers, of friends, of girlfriends, of children. 4 Your Eyez Only is a “nine-minute apologia written from the character to his daughter, offering explanations for his bad choices and asking for forgiveness.” The album’s goal, Mr. Cole said, was “to humanize the people that have been villainized in the media” (Cole, New York Times, 2017).
I think that is what gets me every time I listen to 4 Your Eyez Only. It’s about LOVE.
James McMillan was a real person. Jermaine Cole is a real person. For James to entrust Jermaine with his story takes a certain amount of love between one another. Two men at the margins of society used their counterstories to build community between each other (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). I want to be the J. Cole to my father who is the James McMillan to my J.Cole.
“Nah, your daddy was a real (one), not ’cause he was hard
Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars
Not because he screamed, “Fuck the law”
Although that was true
Your daddy was a real (one) cause he loved you
For your eyes only.”
Bell, D. (1991). Racial realism. Conn. L. Rev., 24, 363.
Caramanica, J. (2017). J. Cole, the Platinum Rap Dissident, Steps Back From the Spotlight. New York Times, 25. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/arts/music/j-cole-4-your-eyez-only-hbo-interview.html
Delgado, R. (1989). Storytelling for oppositionists and others: A plea for narrative. Michigan Law Review, 87(8), 2411-2441.
Espino, M. M. (2012). Seeking the” truth” in the stories we tell: The role of critical race epistemology in higher education research. The Review of Higher Education, 36(1), 31-67.
Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.