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My friendship with my one-time best friend Starling ended on this week thirty-five years ago. It was a friendship that “began with a fight and ended with a fight,” as I wrote in Boy @ The Window. The second fight had as much to do with inflated preteen egos as it did with intolerance and ignorance. But that couldn’t be helped, given the way we were, the way our families had been back in the first days of the Reagan Years.

We’d been friends since the last third of fourth grade at William H. Holmes Elementary Most of our conversations the first year or so of our friendship had been about music, politics, history, and other things related to school or pop culture. By the time we reached Mrs. Bryant and sixth grade, a good portion of our conversations turned to Christianity. I guess that this was inevitable. Starling was the “son of a preacher man,” a Southern Baptist pastor. Starling wanted to see me become an official child of God and brother in Christ. My search was one of truth and God, and if Jesus was the one who could get me there then so be it. I didn’t feel the same sense of urgency for water immersion and John 3:16 as Starling did for me.

Back area behind William H. Holmes ES (where my two fights with Starling occurred), Mount Vernon, NY, November 22, 2006 (Donald Earl Collins).

Back area behind William H. Holmes ES (where my two fights with Starling occurred), Mount Vernon, NY, November 22, 2006 (Donald Earl Collins).

The return of my prodigal stepfather Maurice Washington/Judah ben Israel and his bringing the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing to 616 put a temporary end to my Christian enlightenment in April ’81. Him and my Mom had been separated for about six months. During that time, my idiot stepfather had discovered the ways of Yahweh and Torah and alleged that he was a changed man. So we all had to change, to stop eating pork and bloody meats, to start wearing kufis, and to somehow see this fool as our dad.

Starling stopped speaking to me immediately and entirely when I showed up on a mid-April Monday with a white kufi on my head. on the last Friday in March. Our friendship was suddenly over. This was what our second fight was about, our friendship, my bizarre religion and my acceptance of it. At least it was for me.

As I wrote in the memoir,

I guess that Starling at twelve was definitely his father’s son. I could certainly understand Starling’s perspective on this. I’d betrayed him when I came to school and professed that I was a Hebrew-Israelite. Starling had been talking to me for months about becoming a Christian, a Baptist, and now here I was embracing Afrocentric Judaism, similar in many ways to the Nation of Islam and its variants in terms of its racial politics. The practitioners I’d been around tended to see Black Christians as “weak,” out of touch with “their heritage,” and as “worshiping the wrong God.” Starling couldn’t accept this. We ended up in our second and final fight. I was fighting for our friendship, literally. Starling beat me to end it.

I felt betrayed myself. Starling had turned his back on me at a time in which I needed his input the most. I still cared about the same things, thought about the same issues, and wanted someone whom I could banter with about music and politics and religion. But given Starling’s background, even back then I realized that he thought that I was well on my way to hell. Starling and I saw ourselves as adults in many ways, so he assumed that I had made a free-will adult decision for becoming a Hebrew-Israelite when I walked into Mrs. Bryant’s class with a kufi on my head. He had no idea how much I was struggling with my mother and stepfather’s decision to make our family a Hebrew-Israelite one.

Screen Shot from Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson's "Scream" (1995) video, May 5, 2016. (http://www.vidivodo.com).

Screen Shot from Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” (1995) video, May 5, 2016. (http://www.vidivodo.com).

So I projected the outward appearance of supreme confidence and faith in Jehovah and this slant on the ten Lost Tribes of Israel, to protect myself from being hurt and to see if this whole Hebrew-Israelite thing really was for me. Not a good move going into middle school and the Humanities Program later that year. I had no idea how much worse my life was about to become in the two years between the end of my friendship with Starling and my family’s fall into welfare poverty, bumps, bruises, babies and concussions along the way.

It wasn’t until the end of eighth grade that Starling and I began exchanging “Hi’s” again. Even then, this was often forced. The only conversation I had with Starling after our fight was at the end of ninth grade, with him letting me know that he was moving with his family down South. Starling Churn left with his family for Wilmington, North Carolina in the summer of ’84, still believing I was well on my way to eternal damnation.

That friendship’s rise and fall has helped me understand who friends really are. Ultimately a friend is someone who isn’t a relative but you gravitate toward and have shared interests with, a person who has sympathy and empathy for you and your life. A person who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re fucking up and who doesn’t shun you when you lose your way. That’s a real friend. I’ve had and still have, thankfully, a core group of ride-and-thrive friends who fit (or at least come close to it) this definition.

Starling and I couldn’t. We were tweeners, after all, and pseudo-intellectual ones with inflated egos from straight-As at that. And in a country that barely tolerates anything other than blind, unthinking Christianity and a false sense of patriotism, maintaining a friendship in the midst of a major religious shift — even a childhood one — was and is nearly impossible.