University of Delaware Professor Yasser Payne’s Efforts to Decrease Wilmington’s Crime Rate
Growing up running the streets of Harlem, Payne’s seen more than his share of violence—and he believes he has a way to end it. Will it change a troubled Wilmington?
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The street, says Payne, means highs and lows. For part of his early life, “we had it all.” His parents had long before left dirt poor homes in rural Alabama and coastal North Carolina to, much later, become established merchants on 125th Street, the heart of black Harlem. They bought a nice house in suburban, racially mixed Englewood, N.J. They kept Payne and his older brother El Hajj dressed in the latest clothes. They threw big cookouts for the neighborhood and supplied turkeys and liquor to dozens of poor families at the holidays.
They also stayed involved in criminal enterprises like bookmaking and loan sharking. Payne frequently saw his father hurt other men for crossing him in some way, and though he never witnessed it, he was well aware of domestic violence. “Forget conflict resolution,” Payne says. “That was conflict resolution. That’s how I learned to deal with my problems.”
And the violence begat more violence. El Hajj almost shot Payne, accidentally, with their father’s gun. Their older brothers made them throw down with other boys in the pits where men bet on dogfights. “They would toughen you up,” Payne says.
More than anything, Payne wanted approval and affection from his mother, who had been hardened by her experience in Harlem. In her opinion and the view of some others, Payne needed some toughening. A shy and sensitive child, he wrote short stories to process the trauma at home. He wet the bed at night. He bathed irregularly, so young girls made fun of his body odor. “It made me really angry and belligerent,” he says. When his family lost its stores and fortune, he spiraled into depression. “To go from the middle class to no Christmas presents, no birthday presents, to rats and roaches running all over the place, man,” he says.
At the same time, Payne was growing aware of the world around him, the disparities in life and the inequities of class. He saw it in the parents of friends who were hooked on crack or heroin. He saw it in the unstable homes or single-parent households all around him. He saw it in the faces of people who passed him hustling on the sidewalk, without giving him a glance. “I thought, how could they let this happen?” Payne says.
Forced by his parents into street peddling to help make ends meet, he would spend days on the corner, humiliated, angry, nearly in tears. There he listened to the drug addicts who worked for the family and his alcoholic uncle—the people he calls “my first set of friends”—talk about life and history and culture while he sold, among other things, books about black leaders and revolutionary movements. He read them all.
“He was in a miserable state about it,” says Scott Gaddy, a friend since fourth grade. “He would say, ‘Every day, I wake up and realize millions of people are suffering, and it doesn’t make sense. We’re all binded together.’”
School offered a validation of Payne’s talents and intellect. An excellent student, he decided in 10th grade that he’d become a psychologist—“a clinical psychologist, though I had no idea what that meant”—and he played sports well enough to earn a football scholarship to college.