It has taken me 24 years to embrace the nickname “Freaknik Lawyer.” In the last decade of the 20th century, the term “Freaknik” held negative connotations for many in the Atlanta community.
No reputable professional person wanted to be associated with the Black College Spring Break Festival which rapidly became known as Freaknik. Sadly, the negative rap Freaknik received two decades ago lingers.
Recently, I remarked to a neighbor that I was working on my memoir. She was excited to learn about my new project, but when I told her the title of my book, it conjured up the negative memories of crowded streets, scantily clad ladies and the smell of burnt rope in the air.
“Oh no,” she exclaimed. “I was working at Morehouse College when Freaknik was popular. The people were everywhere; I’m sure glad they don’t come to Atlanta anymore.”
For two decades Atlanta could count on a steady stream of Black college students flocking to the streets of Atlanta; just as Californians have come to expect Monarch Butterflies who migrate from their winter home in Mexico for sunny California in the spring of the year. The larvae are peculiar. They will only eat milkweed, a plant not found in Mexico, but California.
Black college students had a profound need to be around other Black people in the city; many of them thought Atlanta was the Black Mecca.
Atlanta for young Black college students held out the opportunity for freedom to pursue the American dream without any racial undertones. Black college students could not find other Black people on the beaches of Florida, so they flocked to the Black Mecca just as the snowbirds of Florida were beginning their migratory pattern back to their northern meccas.
Middle-class Negroes in Atlanta hated to see the third weekend in April come. They were ashamed of the behavior of Black college kids in the streets of Atlanta and whispered under their breath about the behavior of these students. Few considered the positive vibe engendered among the students as they frolicked for a few days before getting back to the grind that college can be for students.
I came to the Freaknik nickname by accident. When the Black mayor of the Black Mecca declared he was prepared to “sic” the police powers of the State of Georgia on Black college students to discourage them from coming to Atlanta en-masse, I had to render aid to these students. I provided pro bono legal representation to Black college students arrested during Freaknik in 1995, 1996 and 1997. Although I called for volunteer lawyers, none showed up to help.
So, when a white colleague hurled the words “Freaknik Lawyer” in my direction, I did not take too kindly to his description of my work on behalf of Black college students who were seeing the inside of a jail for the first time in their lives. “Freaknik Lawyer,” in his tone did not flatter. It was more akin to name-calling in the days before social media.
Except for a nickname given to me by my grandfather, I have never liked nicknames. Early in my childhood Granddad called me “Jack Rabbit.” I believe that nicknames are a subtle form of bullying. Grandad did not say it in such a way that I felt he was demeaning me. But I could not figure out why in the world when granddad thought of me, I reminded him of a Jack Rabbit.
When I was 33 years old, I became a father. After my son learned to walk, he had this habit on Sunday mornings of getting out of his baby crib, scampering across the hall and jumping into bed with his mom and me. We could hear his little feet land on the floor moments before he hopped in between us.
One Sunday morning before Coley joined us in bed; I went to the kitchen to prepare coffee. On my way back to the bedroom, I saw Coley come out of his room and quickly move across the hallway on his way to our bed. He had the quickest feet I had ever seen. Without thinking about it, I said “Jack Rabbit 2.”
Suddenly, it dawns on me why granddad’s name for me was Jack Rabbit. I was as fast as a Jack Rabbit. As a baseball player, speed was the name of my game. Stealing bases for me was an art form. Chasing down fly balls was as easy as water running off a duck’s back. Bunting for a base hit late in a close game, a piece of cake.
My brother Gerald was nicknamed “Wild Grass.” For most of his youth, Gerald stood out in a field of grass like a wild blade of grass. I am not sure how our grandfather was able to discern these tendencies that we would exhibit later in life, but he did.
I believe that nicknames are a subtle form of bullying like Donald Trump calling Jeb Bush “Low Energy” on the 2016 Presidential Campaign trail. Nicknames point out a perceived flaw in an adversary that the bully believes will elevate his or her persona.
Some people embrace nicknames. It is easier to laugh along with your adversaries than to continuously punch them in the mouth, I guess. A college classmate received the name of “Dick Head” for obvious reasons from Winston Woolfolk. Today Dick Head is still Dick Head. While I know the name of the person who gave him that nickname, for the life of me, I do not know Dick Head’s birth name.
By the way, Winston Woolfolk’s nickname is “Rip” shortened from “Jack the Ripper.” A name Rip received the old fashioned way. Since the statute of limitation may not have expired, we will leave it right there.
Since high school, I have not included meat in my diet. My college baseball teammates did not want me to think I was better than them because they ate meat and I did not, so they decided to nickname me “Meat Man.” I dislike any name other than my name.
Gerald and I cornered a teammate after practice one day and were about to “jack him good.” He begged us not to beat him up. That was the end of that nickname.
In this age of social media intimidation and bullying, name-calling is at a new level. At the beginning of the 2020 Presidential Election cycle, I wrote a piece pushing back on people who debated whether Senator Kamala Harris was Black enough to be a Black candidate for President.
Denise Y. McClay, whom I had never encountered in my eleven-year social media career took issue with my piece:
“Your view is too simplistic… Your article borders on the ‘Acting White’ argument bastardized by Black Right-Wing shills, for White likes.”
Damn, a life dedicated to serving others at great sacrifice to myself and my family, and after three scores and nearly ten, I come down to “Acting White… bastardized by Black Right-Wing shills, for White likes.”
This description from a young Black woman who was not born when I committed my first act of resistance against tyranny and injustice in the middle of the 20th century.
McClay’s misguided name calling missive caused me to reflect on a life dedicated to resisting injustice and inequality in the affairs of my community. Seven weeks and 55,000 words later, what follows is Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance (Cascade Publishing House, Atlanta, 2019).
The expected date of publication is in the fall of 2019.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium, and Black College Nines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org