Homey Don’t Play That!
1 “If You Ain’t Helping Your Brother, Then I’m Beating Your Ass”
It was five blocks from PS 11 to the Wayans family’s fifth-floor apartment in the Robert Fulton Houses in Chelsea, on the West Side of Manhattan, and Keenen had run the whole way home. He was a skinny, quiet kid, still pretty new to the neighborhood. He wasn’t looking for trouble. Nonetheless, trouble found him and had chased him home. A menacing elementary school classmate had insisted that he and Keenen would square off at 3:00 p.m. to settle their grievances—real or imagined—so Keenen hightailed it for the safety of home around half past two, his tormentor presumably in pursuit.
Now, safely barricaded in his family’s apartment, sweating from his dash home, he took to his afternoon ritual of parking himself in front of the television and watching cartoons. But he’d gotten home so quickly that he arrived before they started. Instead, he turned on the television to find something entirely unexpected: Richard Pryor on a daytime talk show.
This was the midsixties, when Pryor was still “Richie Pryor,” a gangly kid in a sharp suit, spouting funny, if not exactly weighty, Bill Cosby–isms. He hadn’t yet completed the existential transformation into the radical, truth-telling black man who would change comedy forever.
In a sense, that was all the better for Keenen, who looked at the television and saw a vision of himself staring back at him: a skinny black kid unloading tales of childhood poverty, an unusual family, and in fact, his own victimization at the hands of a school bully.
“I was laughing, so amazed that this guy could take this horrible moment and make it funny,” Keenen would say years later. “I was like, ‘Who is this man? I want to be like this man.’ ”
As humans, we have a way of imposing a narrative structure on our pasts that rarely exists in real life. What was the moment when your life changed? What set you down this road? When did you first stumble on this idea? Clean, easy-to-follow storylines with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends are appealing, but life doesn’t usually conform to our storytelling desires. Ideas don’t turn on like lightbulbs. Rather, they flare up like a fire on wet wood: lots of sparks, plenty of smoke, much frustration and failure before finally catching and holding—and even then, always in danger of being snuffed out by the whims of fate.
Keenen Ivory Wayans has told this tale about being chased home by a school bully and stumbling on Richard Pryor many times as a way of explaining his path into comedy. There’s no reason to doubt that the tale itself is true—though some details have likely been obscured by the intervening fifty years. As a great storyteller, and an unabashed lover of structure, Keenen himself is undoubtedly drawn to this anecdote as a premise, a sensible start to his own tale and to the story of the show he’d create, inspired by that same gangly comedian he saw on television after school that day. But reality, as it turns out, is rarely so sensible.
The Wayans family moved to the Fulton Houses in 1964. The housing project was brand new then. In fact, the 944-unit, 11-building complex that sprawls from 16th Street to 19th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues wouldn’t be totally complete until the following year. When the Wayanses moved in, monthly rents ranged from $46 for a small three-room
apartment in one of the complex’s three high-rise towers, to $94 for the largest seven-and-half-room units in one of the six-story low-rises.
Keenen’s family had one of the bigger units in a low-rise that opened onto 16th Street. It had four bedrooms, which was already a little tight: His parents shared one room; Keenen, his older brother, Dwayne, and his younger brother Damon split another room; his sisters Kim and Diedra shared another; and the baby at the time, Elvira (named after her mom), had a room to herself, though not for long. Younger sisters Nadia and Devonne entered the picture in 1965 and 1966, and younger brothers Shawn and Marlon further expanded the brood in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
The Chelsea that the Wayanses moved to in 1964 was not the Chelsea of high-end boutiques, world-renowned art galleries, multimillion-dollar apartments, and artisanal food emporiums it is today. It was a loud, busy, rough, working-class neighborhood. Much of the area around the Fulton Houses was still tenements. A freight train ran along Tenth Avenue, on the backside of the projects. Across 16th Street from the Wayans family’s dark brick apartment building was the Nabisco factory, where Oreos were made. Facing that, on the opposite side of Ninth Avenue, was a massive Art Deco building that housed the Port Authority headquarters. In 1966, another striking building, with small porthole windows and the general countenance of a large ship, was built across 16th Street as a union hall and dormitory for visiting seamen. Bodegas, pizzerias, record stores, Laundromats, and other small family-owned shops lined Ninth Avenue, including a barbershop owned by a resident of the Fulton Houses and an arcade, both of which were frequent gathering spots. A vaguely gothic-looking building on 20th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh, housed a drug rehab facility and was converted into the Bayview Correctional Facility, a women’s prison, in 1974.
The construction of the Fulton Houses and the neighboring Chelsea-Elliott Houses, roughly ten blocks farther north, brought a wave of new families, like the Wayanses, to the area. PS 11, already crowded, braced for a doubling of its enrollment. Many who moved into the Fulton Houses were Irish families, relocating from the collapsing tenements nearby, and Puerto Ricans, who’d begun emigrating to both Chelsea and the Lower East Side in the first part of the century. In addition, there were a smaller
number of African-Americans, including a young Gil Scott-Heron, who’d grow up to become a pioneering black poet, spoken-word performer, and one of hip-hop’s godfathers. Heron was a teenager in 1964, when he and his mother moved into an apartment on 17th Street, just a block from the Wayans family. Another proto-hip-hop influence, the fiery, militant civil rights activist then known as H. Rap Brown, who had been the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the minister of justice for the Black Panthers—he’s currently serving a life sentence for shooting an Atlanta police officer—lived on 18th Street for a stretch in the late sixties. Whoopi Goldberg, who was a few years older than Keenen, lived in the nearby Chelsea-Elliott Houses, as did Antonio Fargas, who’d star in a string of blaxploitation films in the seventies—including Foxy Brown and Across 110th Street—and as “Huggy Bear” on Starsky & Hutch, as well as in Keenen’s own 1988 blaxploitation spoof, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
The racial melting pot of the Fulton Houses was a change for Keenen and his family. The Wayanses had moved from Harlem, which, since the early part of the century, had been the spiritual center for black cultural life in America and home to a population that was, by the midsixties, more than 95 percent black.
Keenen spent the first six years of his life living in a tenement at the corner of 145th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, at the southwest corner of the historic neighborhood of Sugar Hill. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Sugar Hill had been an address of choice for wealthy, prominent African-Americans, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Willie Mays, Frankie Lymon, and W. C. Handy.
Keenen’s mom, born Elvira Green in 1938, had grown up in Harlem. Though she was born just after the Harlem Renaissance, its ideas—about the arts, literature, music, politics, and black identity—still coursed through the veins of the community. Known then as the “New Negro Movement,” Renaissance writers, poets, musicians, and political leaders embraced an assertive, progressive vision for African-American public life. The cultural mix in Harlem included writers such as Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, future congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., back-to-Africa crusader Marcus Garvey, comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and jazz greats Ellington, Calloway, and Count Basie.
Elvira grew up awash in the Renaissance’s legacy. The legendary
Apollo Theater opened on West 125th Street in 1934, joining an already robust theater scene that included the Lafayette—the first integrated theater in the city—and the Lincoln, on West 135th Street, next door to the offices of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The neighborhood remained a locus of the jazz world for decades. In fact, two months after Keenen was born, Esquire magazine managed to gather together fifty-seven of the world’s most prominent jazz musicians, including Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk, in front a brownstone on 126th Street for a famous photograph that became known as “A Great Day in Harlem.”
Following Garvey’s example, Harlem became a magnet for black nationalist and civil rights groups through the middle of the century. In 1954, Malcolm X began preaching out of a storefront mosque on 116th Street known as Temple Number 7. In the fall of 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. was signing books at a department store a little over a mile from the Wayans family’s apartment, when he was stabbed with a letter opener by a mentally ill black woman named Izola Curry. King’s life was saved by a team of surgeons at the same hospital where Keenen had been born a few months earlier.
Elvira was, in many ways, a product of the crosscurrents sweeping through Harlem. Speaking about her to an interviewer for the Archive of American Television in 2013, Keenen described her as “a radical.”
“She was all about civil rights and black power and black is beautiful,” he said. Once, when Keenen was in elementary school, he brought home an assignment to make a collage and his mother enthusiastically pitched in. She told him he needed a theme for his collage and she had an idea. In the family’s apartment was a framed picture of the children’s fable character Little Boy Blue. She took it out of the frame and laid it on the table. Then she and Keenen began cutting out photos from Ebony magazine and pasting them on the Little Boy Blue picture.
“We covered everything but his eye,” Keenen said. He took his collage into school and presented it to the class. His teacher was pleased. “Miss Jackson goes, ‘Oh, that’s really nice, Keenen.’ I said, ‘You know, it got a theme!’ And she said, ‘Well, what’s your theme? Tell the class.’ ” He held up the collage of black faces surrounding the large eye. “I said, ‘Look out, black world, because Whitey got his eye on you!’ ”
That was Elvira. She taught her children to challenge prevailing wisdom. “My mom would say, ‘Of the ghetto doesn’t mean you are ghetto.’ ” As Keenen told Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a 2015 interview, “That kind of stuff stays in your head and teaches you to think a certain way.”
As a child, Keenen went to see a performance featuring the famed conductor Leonard Bernstein. “I was a little boy,” he said. “My mother got tickets but couldn’t go because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. She gave me the tickets and said, ‘You may not understand this but Mama wants you to go.’ So she dressed me as best she could—I had on a plaid shirt and some corduroy pants and everybody else [had] on tuxedos—but she wanted me to have that experience.”
Life in Harlem for the young Wayans family was hardly idyllic. Keenen’s father, Howell, a diligent Jehovah’s Witness born and raised in New York, always had a job, often more than one, but the growing family struggled to make ends meet. Their apartment building was little more than a slum, infested with rats and junkies. A heroin addict that the Wayans kids nicknamed Sleepy used to hang out in front of the building. Keenen and his siblings occasionally enlisted Sleepy to help them cross the street, but Sleepy, true to his moniker, had a habit of nodding off halfway across Amsterdam Avenue. “My mother would look out the window, see us and yell, ‘I told you not to go across the street with him!’ ”
The family’s living conditions weren’t unique. A series of rent strikes in Harlem, beginning in November of 1963, brought attention to the problems—broken windows, crumbling ceilings, roaches, intermittent heat and water, and in the words of one tenant back then, “rats so big they can open up your refrigerator without you”—but didn’t necessarily alleviate them.
Poverty was endemic, unemployment was double that of the rest of the city, and the schools were awful. Around the time that Keenen and his older brother Dwayne were in elementary school, more than three-quarters of Harlem students tested below grade level in reading and math. In 1964, Harlem residents protested by staging two separate school boycotts in which more than 90 percent of students participated.
The racial undertones to Harlem’s problems were undeniable, and also a pretty accurate reflection of the state of affairs nationwide. The country often seemed as if it were being ripped apart along color lines. In June of
1963, hours after John F. Kennedy had proposed the Civil Rights Act on national television, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi, by a member of the White Citizens’ Council. Three months later—and just a couple of weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington—a Ku Klux Klan–planted bomb ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls. Nine weeks later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
In Harlem, the gravely substandard living conditions and the rising tide of radical politics created a potent brew. In the summer of 1964—two weeks after new president Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law—that brew boiled over, when a fifteen-year-old black teenager was shot and killed by a white NYPD officer in front of about a dozen witnesses. Six days of angry rioting consumed Harlem, with protestors looting stores and attacking police officers with bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails, and the cops responding first with batons, tear gas, and hoses, and then, later, with live ammunition. The chaos eventually spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and kicked off a summer of rage that ignited similar uprisings across the river in Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, and even farther afield in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Rochester. Race riots became an enduring feature of urban strife in the sixties, as violent demonstrations shook Watts, Cleveland, Omaha, Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore before the decade was out. When all was said and done in Harlem that summer of 1964, one protestor was dead, more than five hundred had been injured, nearly another five hundred had been arrested, and there was close to a million dollars in property damage.
Clearly, the Wayanses picked a good time to get the hell out.
The Fulton Houses were a step up for the Wayans family. In contrast to the popular image that the phrase “public housing projects” sometimes conjures, these particular projects were a relatively safe, family-oriented community. Most of the kids attended the same elementary school, PS 11, or junior high, IS 70, and after a few years, many of the families knew each other.
Although the Wayanses were a large family, in a community heavily populated with Irish, Puerto Rican, and African-American families, that didn’t necessarily distinguish them. The Fulton Houses were overflowing with children and had been built with them in mind. In the courtyard between the Wayans family’s building and the one next door there was a small playground with cement turtles and whales, where younger kids would chase each other, and older ones might play “spin the bottle.” In a covered area near the playground and the building’s front door was a spot for four square and hopscotch. A block north on 17th was Kelly Park, and a block past that, between 18th and 19th, a basketball court.
The Wayanses’ apartment was brand new, and although the four-bedroom unit was cramped for a family that would grow to twelve members by the early seventies, they learned how to use every inch of it. Rooms were crowded with beds—Shawn and Marlon slept head to toe in the same bed for nearly sixteen years—and the two bathrooms were hardly ever empty. Howell seemed to nearly always be occupying one of them; it was his personal refuge from the everyday insanity of the crowded apartment. If any of his children wanted to find a similar serenity, the best option was a closet.
“Each room had a closet,” Keenen recalled. “The closet was like our office. We could go there for privacy. At dinner, my mother would count us, and if one was missing she’d go into the closet and see who’d fallen asleep.”
Poverty was pretty much the norm throughout the Fulton Houses, but the Wayanses, according to Keenen, were “the poorest of the poor.” Breakfast was often puffed rice, bought in bulk. Lunch might be grilled cheese sandwiches with, as Shawn described it, “government cheese where the cheese don’t melt.” Dinner was, occasionally, nonexistent.
As Damon wrote in his book of comic essays, Bootleg, “My mother would look at us and say, ‘Look, babies, there ain’t no food in the house. We’re having sleep for dinner. Now brush your teeth and get ready for bed. Keenen, you make sure everyone gets a little extra toothpaste tonight.’ ”
There was a phone in the apartment, but it was often disconnected because the family couldn’t pay the bill, so anyone who wanted to make or receive a call would have to use the pay phone on the corner across the street. Despite the struggles, the family never went on welfare. Elvira was a proud, resourceful woman and wouldn’t think of it.
Their financial problems weren’t a result of laziness or apathy, just math. Keenen and his siblings worked from a young age—collecting bottles, shining shoes, delivering groceries—and their father always worked too. There were just too many kids and too little money. For a time, Howell worked as a supermarket manager, as a sales representative for Guinness/Harp, and for Drake’s Cakes, but eventually, he quit to go into business for himself.
“My dad wanted to be his own man and have his own business,” Keenen said.
What that meant in practice was he would go to the post office and buy whatever surplus items hadn’t been picked up—condoms, hair beads, sunglasses, costume jewelry, whatever—and sell them. On occasion, he’d enlist his children to hawk the items door to door. Neighbors referred to the family as the “Haneys,” after the junk merchants on the then popular television comedy Green Acres. It wasn’t exactly a gold mine. As Marlon put it, “My dad had a job at Drake’s Cakes and made good money. Then he decided he didn’t want to work for the Man. My mother was like, ‘You stupid asshole—work for the Man! He gives you benefits!’ ”
Elvira, who sometimes went by Vi, had been a singer in her youth—she and her sisters sang as “the Green Sisters,” and even performed at the Apollo once—and then became a social worker. As the family grew, raising the kids became a full-time job and then some. Many say she was the funniest one in the whole family—but only when she was angry. Nothing could make her angry as reliably as her husband.
Marlon recalled, “My dad would annoy the shit out of my mother and she’d curse him out. When my mom cursed my dad out, she was like Richard Pryor with titties. I thought his name was Motherfucker until I was nineteen.” They argued about money, about religion—he was a Jehovah’s Witness, she was not—about pretty much anything. She used to mock Howell’s inability to grow a mustache by calling him “Horse Lip.”
“We got to watch the best buddy comedy ever,” Marlon said. “Fuck Tom and Jerry. Fuck Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. We got to watch Elvira and Howell.”
Shawn and Marlon, in particular, delighted in riling their mother up. Keenen recalled a time when his youngest brothers found a bell
that sounded just like their telephone. The two hid under their mother’s bed, repeatedly ringing the bell. Their mother came running in from the kitchen to answer the phone, over and over, only to pick it up and hear a dial tone. Eventually, she was convinced it was a woman calling her husband and hanging up, which set off the expletive-laced verbal tirade they were hoping for all along. Getting mad and getting laughs were inextricably linked in the Wayans household.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Howell was a strict, hardworking man. According to Marlon, he started his day at three in the morning. “I used to watch my dad wake up, put his hand on his head, read his Bible for a little while, look up to the sky, take a deep breath, and go, ‘How the fuck am I going to feed these ten motherfuckers today?’ He’d somehow magically go out and bring dinner home.” Besides work, he also went door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness. “This is where he gets his work ethic,” Marlon said. “He got so many doors slammed in his face.”
He tried to impose the same discipline on his children. The kids were supposed to be up at five every morning and back in the apartment before the streetlights came on at night. “We had to be accounted for, and if we weren’t, we were going to answer to an ass-whipping,” said Marlon.
In fact, ass-whippings became occasions for public amusement in the household.
“If you were getting a whipping from my father, there would be five of us in the room laughing about how you were getting hit,” Damon said.
The siblings reacted in different ways to their father’s restrictive rules. Kim was a proverbial “good girl” who fell in line, worked hard, got good grades. Keenen didn’t rock the boat either.
“I never rebelled, I just developed a plan,” he said. “One of my favorite kid stories was ‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’ I really related to the tortoise. I never looked for immediate results. I always paced things.” So Keenen got jobs. Took on more responsibility. Made himself indispensable.
Dwayne and Damon revolted. Damon remembered a night when Dwayne decided that the nighttime curfew was bullshit. He was going out whether his father liked it or not. Howell guarded the door, armed with a belt, and challenged Dwayne, “You want to go outside, you gotta go through me.” The other siblings watched the confrontation with nervous, if somewhat gleeful, anticipation.
“My brother took my father, body-slammed him, and went outside,” Damon said. “We followed him.”
Being home by early evening introduced most of the Wayans siblings to their first comedy workshop: the dinner table. It was a raucous, ruthless, and unforgiving venue. “Anything that happened that day, that’s what the jokes were about,” said Keenen. “We’d start snappin’ on each other. Everybody had a twisted sense of humor. We cracked jokes about your most painful experiences.”
Damon remembered a game he and his siblings called, “Make Me Laugh or Die.” “Everybody would sit down and then one of us would have to get up and make everybody laugh,” he said. They’d do impressions, funny dances, sketches. “You couldn’t just make one laugh—you had to make everyone laugh at the same time, in unison. If you didn’t, we all thought about what your ‘die’ is. We’d pick something like ‘You’ve got to go drink Daddy’s last beer in front of him.’ ‘Go fart in Mama’s face.’ ”
The idea was to forestall laughing as long as possible, to not laugh so as to make your sibling have to endure the “Die” task. (Years later, Keenen’s stinginess with laughs became well known among In Living Color writers and cast members. Even when he liked something, he was far more apt to offer a straight-faced “That’s funny” than to actually break.)
Clowning around aside, the close quarters in the apartment created, at times, an almost uncomfortably intimate relationship between siblings. There were no private conversations. If you took too long in the bathroom, everyone knew about it. If someone had a date, everyone had an opinion. When Keenen lost his virginity, he did so with Shawn and Marlon watching.
“I was babysitting,” Keenen said. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect time. I’m gonna have my girl come over.’ ” But every time he’d look over his shoulder, he’d see his two brothers in the doorway of his room, quickly scampering down the hallway.
On the not infrequent occasions when friction between brothers boiled over into an actual fistfight, their mother insisted they make up with a kiss.
“My mother used to make us kiss on the mouth,” said Damon. This went on until the boys were well into their teenage years. “We left home because we didn’t want to kiss each other on the mouth,” he joked.
Growing up, Damon and Keenen were very close but very different from each other. Damon was born with a clubfoot—a birth defect where a foot is bent inward at an acute angle—and underwent several surgeries and wore corrective shoes as a child. As a result, his mother showered him with extra attention, which didn’t exactly endear him to Keenen and Dwayne.
“Dwayne hated me,” Damon said. “He used to beat me up. When my mother made him babysit, he’d hang me on the door hook. If I tried to get down, he’d hit me.”
The orthopedic shoes also meant that Damon walked with a severe limp—he later joked that his “crip walk” made people in the neighborhood think he was in a gang—and wasn’t allowed to play sports. In gym class, he sat on the side, lest his special shoes scuff up the gym floor. “That’s where the comedy started,” Damon told the St. Louis Dispatch in 1990, “from me heckling the kids that were playing.”
He also became a target for abuse. As a defense mechanism, he developed a sharp, unforgiving sense of humor. When kids would play “the dozens” on the playground, snapping each other with “Yo Mama” jokes and the like, nobody wanted to play with Damon, who channeled his insecurities into his verbal jousts. “They knew they couldn’t talk about my shoe. If they did, it’d turn ugly and the game was over.”
Damon got in lots of fights, even though he didn’t like and wasn’t particularly good at fighting. It didn’t help that he was a small kid well into his teens. While Keenen grew to over six feet tall by sixteen, Damon was under five feet past his fourteenth birthday.
“The doctors thought he was going to be a midget,” Keenen said. “He was literally my little brother. I looked after him and he looked up to me.”
Damon’s height and his physical disabilities seemed to create a certain neediness in him. “All I really wanted was to be accepted and not talked about,” he said. As he grew into a teenager, he hung around some
rough dudes, smoked a lot of weed, dabbled in petty crime, and eventually dropped out of school during tenth grade. “I never had any goals,” he said. “I just wanted to survive.”
For the Wayans kids, fistfights were a pretty regular feature of life in Chelsea. As Keenen pointed out, the Fulton Houses were “one of the first integrated projects in Manhattan, and the racial tension was unbelievable.” Unbelievable but not unusual. This was the late sixties and early seventies, when the nightly news was cataloguing landmarks and setbacks on the road to racial harmony on a near-daily basis: Congress passes the Voting Rights Act; the Supreme Court strikes down laws against miscegenation and welcomes its first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall; Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis; Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is murdered by law enforcement officers as he sleeps; and two New York City cops are gunned down on an East Village sidewalk by members of the Black Liberation Army. It was like Newton’s Third Law, with bullets: For every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction. Progress and regress. A vicious cycle.
The Fulton Houses were certainly subject to these larger forces. In his younger years, Keenen said, the epithet “nigger” was thrown pretty freely at him by white residents. “Every time I’d go outside someone would call me a nigger,” he said. On one occasion, after some older kids on the corner had shouted, “Get out of here, li’l nigger!” at him, he came home upset. His mother offered some peculiar advice for her young son.
“You go back out there and if they call you ‘nigger’ again, you tell them to call you ‘Mr. Nigger’!” she told him. Keenen returned to the corner emboldened with a sense of righteous purpose. When the same teenagers spotted him, one called out, “I thought I told you to get out of here, you little nigger!” Keenen puffed his chest out and followed his mom’s counsel. His tormentors went silent for a second then burst into laughs. Then came the rejiggered fusillade of racial slurs: “Mr. Nigger,” “Dr. Jungle Bunny,” “Professor Coon.” It was an early lesson in the absurdities of racism. “I’m just like, ‘I guess Mom’s thing didn’t work,’ ” he said, laughing about it, many years later.
More commonly, problems between Puerto Rican, Irish, and African-American kids in the Fulton Houses were settled with fists.
“You had three of the toughest groups who had never interrelated to
each other at all put into this eight-square-block housing development,” Keenen said. “Everybody came with their issues and baggage and resentments. It was hell. You walked out the door, you fought.”
As Damon recalled, their mother counseled that there was safety in numbers. “There’s no reason why we should lose a fight,” she told them. “There’s ten of you against one, and if you ain’t helping your brother, then I’m beating your ass.”
If one Wayans was in a fight, they were all there, even the girls. Keenen recalled a long-running feud with another family, the Andersons. “Damon got into a fight with the youngest. He went and got his brother. Soon, I was fighting with the middle kid. Then Dwayne was fighting with the older brother. It went on for four years after school.”
By the time Shawn and Marlon were growing up, a lot of the racial animosity in the projects had subsided, but Marlon, like Damon before him, had a mouth and an audacity that belied his slight frame.
“I would always find the biggest dude, then ‘pop,’ one punch and turn around and go ‘Shaaaaaawn!’ ” At which point, Shawn and other family members would join the fray. “My sister would kick him, my nephew would bite him,” Marlon recalled. “It was like fighting an octopus. Everybody would jump in.”
Which is not to say that they won every fight. In his book, Bootleg, Damon recalled watching Keenen getting beat up by a white kid as “the worst day of my life.” From a young age, Keenen had studied and practiced karate—or “the arts,” as he sometimes called it back then. He took it all very seriously, and for a spell had taken to wearing Chinese slippers. When Damon heard a white kid making fun of said slippers, he dutifully reported the transgression back to Keenen.
“I told Keenen that he had to defend his karate shoes. I figured it was a win-win situation and I’d enjoy seeing Keenen beat on the white boy.”
Neighborhood kids gathered around Keenen and his slipper-slandering aggressor for the showdown. Then Keenen started to take off his shirt—standard prefight procedure for black kids in the Fulton Projects at the time, according to Damon—“when this white boy just hauled off and started whuppin’ his ass,” Damon recalled. “It looked like one of those hockey fights. Keenen couldn’t even get one punch off ’cause his arms were stuck in his shirt. I wanted to help out, but I was in such shock
because it all happened so fast. Before I knew it, Keenen was lying on the ground in a bloody pulp with his shirt still pulled over his head, crying.”
But like soldiers who’d defended each other side by side on a battlefield, all the fighting, and just surviving, day to day, in the face of poverty, racism, kids making fun of your slippers, and a mom who insisted you kiss your brothers on the mouth had an impact. “It bonded us more than any typical family,” Keenen said.