About Joe Davis
Joe Davis tells people, “If I had not gotten shot, I would be dead today.” By the time Joe was 14, he was drinking and using marijuana. At 16, he had moved on to cocaine and pills. By 25, he was a heroin addict and drug dealer. That same year, he was shot in the back by the boyfriend of a girl he’d argued with. After eight months in the hospital, Joe was released in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down. He went back to selling drugs, spiraling even further downward into addiction and health problems, until he attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills. He awoke from a coma determined to clean up his life and seek forgiveness from the people he had wronged.
Since then, Joe has earned an associate’s degree from community college, a bachelor’s degree in mental health, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. He is coordinator of Think First, a violence-prevention program operated by Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. In his free time, Joe travels to high schools and youth groups, taking every opportunity to speak with young people about his life, hoping to turn them away from the dead- end path he once traveled. With the support of his wife Terri, Joe has dedicated his life to turning others away from the way of violence and death.
Joe Davis Speaks
I have spent much of the past fifteen years speaking to young Black men like yourselves. When I’m speaking in schools or community organizations or correctional facilities, I see hundreds and hundreds of young brothers like you who have been left behind, and who will continue to be left behind. And for the most part, if you are left behind, it will be your own fault.
“My own fault?” you might say. “Fool, you ought to see where I come from. You ought to see what I’ve grown up with. I never had a chance. I had to get my hustle on the best way I know.”
But I’m telling you, I’ve seen just about every set of circumstances you could tell me about. I’m still telling you that you have a choice what to do about those circumstances. And yes, it’ll be your fault if you buy the bill of goods that so many people are eager to sell you. They’ll tell you that slinging dope in your own community is cool. Your own community—the one where your mothers and grandmothers sit on the porch, and where your brothers and sisters and children play. They’ll tell you to close your eyes to those people and do your piece of damage to your own community, trying to be a big balla.
I know what I’m talking about. I slung for a minute and made a few bucks. What I won from that was a few gun charges, a few drug cases, and one short bit in the joint. What I lost was just about everything— my self-respect, my family’s trust, my health, and nearly my life.
If you still decide to get your hustle on, let me tell you what you have to look forward to. Once you get a package, you’re responsible for it. You can sell it, you can use it, or you can give it away, but when it comes time to give that money up, you better have it. You pay up or you die. If you have the money, then you have to get a hammer to protect it from the stick-up boys who are trying to get their hustle on, just like you. And if you don’t have it, before you die you might have the pleasure of seeing your house burned down or your sister raped multiple times to remind you to pay your debt.
Maybe you think that selling dope or being a stick-up thug will get you respect. I understand how it feels to want respect. When I was in the fifth and sixth grades, I was a poor reader. I was embarrassed when the teacher would ask me to read out loud, and I’d try to come up with excuses. I knew if I did read, other kids would laugh at me. Then I’d get angry and start a fight. You know, to get myself some respect. I dropped out of school in tenth grade and drifted into the military—a traditional way out of the hood for many Black men. Only not for me. I had no discipline, no self-respect, even though I thought I could demand respect from others. I went in, got through boot camp, and was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I lasted for three months before I got into a fight. I don’t even remember what was behind the fight, but I was thrown in the brig for three months. Once I got out, all I wanted to do was party, and that’s what I did until the military got sick of me and kicked me to the curb.
When I came home, I was like a mad dog. I remember my dad telling me, “If a man doesn’t work, he’ll steal.” And I wasn’t interested in work. Still no discipline; no self-respect. My dad was right. I stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. I didn’t realize yet that I had a drug habit. I still told myself that I just liked getting high. But I was lying to myself. My every waking hour was about drug culture. That included stealing, lying, selling, and using.
I was 25—still young. One day I was getting high
in the house where I sold drugs. A young girl lived there. She was a strange girl who would do things like jump out windows or cut herself. Years later she was continuing to do these crazy things as well as have a lot of unprotected sex that produced a lot of children she could not care for. I realize now she had a mental illness. Anyway, on this particular day she was disturbing me, coming into the room where I was getting my fix. I told her to get out, threatened her. She told her fourteen- year-old boyfriend to shoot me. He did it.
When the bullet ripped into me, I fell into the street and my teeth drove through my lips. I tried to crawl under a car because I didn’t know if that young boy with a gun was still there. As I lay there in the street like a pile of garbage, I heard my mom screaming, “Oh no; not my baby; not my baby!” The cops came and picked me up by the back of the collar and my belt loops and threw me in the back of the wagon. I heard another cop say, “Somebody finally got that nigger.” I thought I was being slick, slinging dope in my neighborhood, being a thief and a junkie. But I was just a small turd in a toilet where everything stank.
In the hospital, as they were tearing my clothes off, I heard a doc say, “Oh, we got another one.” A Black man with a bullet in him is so common that the folks who have to care for us don’t see it as a critical event. For that matter, neither do we. If a Black child is killed, it may be a top news story at 6 o’clock, but by 11 that same child gets just a small mention. So the next morning when the doctors came into my room and said I was going to be a T-3 paraplegic and probably crippled for the rest of my life, I was already old news.
That night, all alone in my hospital room, I cried a river of tears. You name the reason, I cried for it. I cried because I was crippled. I cried because I was a junkie with no future. I cried because I was stupid and Black. Yeah, stupid and Black. I put that in because race matters. There’s a thing called “white privilege,” and it’s real, and it’s a problem. But as a race of people, you and I have been focused on what somebody white did to us. The fact is, nobody white made me sell dope. Nobody white made me turn my back on education. Nobody white made me get thrown out of the military. And ain’t nobody white going to fix us. That job will be up to us.
I got out of the hospital. I went back to the same house and began selling dope again, because it’s all I knew how to do. But I was crippled, a wounded animal there in the jungle. They say “there is no honor among thieves,” and they are right. My brothers swooped down on me like I was a hunk of fresh meat. They beat me and took my money and dope. I had to stop slinging and depend on my social security check. I already felt like crap because I wasn’t what I used to be, and now I was living in poverty. Like a damn slave, I had to depend on a handout. My dad is 73 and has worked his entire life. Once—just once—he was laid off and had to apply for public assistance. That was the only time my family was ever on welfare. Dad told me later that going to that office was the most humiliating experience of his life. And now, welfare is a way of life for many of us.
After I got beat up a few times, Mom let me come home to live. Dad never would have allowed it, but she just did it without telling him. To show my “appreciation,” I sold dope out of their house. Like a fool, I thought I could control the game. Of course, there was only the illusion of control. Those addicts would have rolled on my mom just as fast as they would have rolled on me. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
But one night I was upstairs in the back room, getting high like junkies do, and I decided I didn’t want to live anymore. That’s where cocaine takes you eventually. When you smoke it, you have a few moments of complete happiness, but then the dope is gone, and you plunge into depression. My thought was to take a bunch of pills and wait until I got drowsy. Then I was going to light a cigarette, smoke it down, and let it fall on the mattress. I was going to take my whole family with me—my mother, father, two sisters, and brother. The dope had made me that crazy.
It didn’t work out that way. The cigarette went out, my sister heard me choking, and I woke up in the hospital two days later with my mom sitting by my bed, stroking my hair. She and I had a long talk there in the hospital, with her telling me how much she wanted to see me straight again before she died. I asked her if she would help me, and she said yes.
For the next solid year, my mom helped me. She was like a soldier. She stood at the front door to keep away unwanted visitors. She blocked phone calls so that I would not talk to anyone who might help me get high. She did what I was not yet strong enough to do for myself. And in that upstairs bedroom, I began to believe that I did not have to get high to be somebody. I began eating normally, sleeping at regular hours. Eventually I ventured out onto the street, not for any madness, but to find a job. I was tired of being a slave. I wanted to be a free man, in charge of my own destiny. And I did find a job, and thirteen years later I had earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. It was hard; I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t. I’m still not an academic guy. I sometimes have to read a book three times, and even then I don’t get it all. So I humble myself and ask for help, just like I asked my mom to help me all those years ago. I’ve found that there are some really cool people in the world who thrive on helping others. And now, I am one of them.
My mother died recently in my home. After all I’d put her through, she died with the satisfaction of knowing that her boy was clean. I can’t tell you what it means to me to be able to tell you that.
There’s nothing anybody can tell me about how great dope is. It’s fun until it’s not fun, and then it ruins your life. And you don’t have to live that life. I don’t care what your circumstances are. I know for a fact that some of you come from nasty places. Maybe dope is sold out of your home. Maybe your mom has a new boyfriend who doesn’t like you, so he hits you every chance he gets. Maybe your mom is called a bitch so often she thinks that’s her name. Maybe you’ve been introduced to sex already, and not in a way that you wanted. Maybe your home is hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Maybe you get high with your own parents. But your past does not have to be your future. You do not have to become what your parents are because you see them smoke dope. You don’t have to become an addict because your mom is turning tricks. You don’t have to treat women like dirt. I know it is difficult to walk a straight road when everyone around you seems crooked. But it can be done.
I know that for many of you, no one has ever told you that you are worthy, that you are capable, that you can be better, no matter what your circumstances are. Let me be the guy who tells you. You are capable. You can be better. I am asking you—no, I’m begging you—hold on and do the right thing. Stay off the dope. Stay in school. Take it seriously. Study, study, study. I know that is a hard pill to swallow when it feels like someone has a foot on your neck, but I swear to you, it is your way to a better life. If you turn your back on education, you resign yourself to a life of poverty and dependence.
If your friends are holding you back, get some new friends. Read every day. Write something every day. If you are in a place where reading and writing are frowned upon, find yourself a place where they are not. If you hear criticism, if people say, “You think you’re better than us?”—know for sure that those people want you to fail, because that makes them feel better about themselves. Do not let their failures be your destiny. You can do better.
Brothers, if no one else has told you that they love you, let me be the one. I love you. Join with me in becoming part of our community’s solution, not part of the problem.