Illustration: iStock

I don’t know why people dislike fights.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with equally matched competitors mutually agreeing to a physical altercation. In my hometown, fighting wasn’t just a rite of passage, it was a legitimate way to solve disputes. Where I’m from, one didn’t have to be mad or angry to engage in fisticuffs. You could simply invite someone for a friendly fight to settle any impasse.

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Before there was Google, when two boys needed to settle an argument about which football team was better, say, the Cowboys or the Steelers, they would go outside to a patch of grass and fight it out. When I was 12, I found $5 and went to McDonald’s. On the way to get my Big Mac, another one of my friends claimed the money was his. We decided to go “down to the ditch bank” and settle it.

He won.

And we still went to McDonald’s. There was no animosity. Sometimes a fight is as quick a solution as “rock, paper scissors” or a neverending argument. Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. Fighting sometimes settles things quicker. Sometimes, the best way to handle a situation is to fight.

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There are a lot of things about the Kwanzaa pants story I still don’t know.

I also don’t know why my youngest sister, Comelita, loved Christmas but she always has. Even though we never celebrated Chrismas, her goal in life was to grow up, move to Charleston, S.C., and live in a home plastered with Christmas lights. She was very specific. She also accomplished her goal.

I also don’t know why all of my sisters hated Kwanzaa but I suspect it had something to do with the Kwanzaa dresses. Every year, my mother would sew matching Kwanzaa dresses for my sisters. They weren’t any uglier than any other dresses my mother made. In fact, they were quite cute. Maybe it was just the fact that the dresses were frilly and matching that irked them.

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Or maybe it was the fact that, as the only boy, I didn’t have to wear any homemade Kwanzaa attire. I wasn’t even burdened with any kente cloth requirements. I was free to wear whatever I wanted to the Young & Young Funeral Home Kwanzaa get-downs.

I also didn’t know why I didn’t see the Kwanzaa pants coming.

If there is any shared trait among my sisters and me, it’s that we are petty. One of our greatest sources of humor was concocting well-thought-out pranks designed to make each other miserable, the more elaborate the better. They were sometimes mean but they were always funny.

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And that’s what started the Kwanzaa pants fight.

I don’t know how the hell my family got so close to the Byrd family. They didn’t live in our neighborhood. They weren’t related to us. But ever since I could remember, they were a part of my extended family. The grandmother, whom we called “Sister Daisy,” was my first babysitter. The older two Byrd girls were our last babysitters. On weekends we would take the 312-mile trek to their home (it was only six or seven miles, but when you’re a kid, it felt like an eternity).

Perhaps it was because the Byrd girls loved my sister Comelita. There was no hiding that she was their favorite. During the holidays, the mother of the Byrd clan, Sister Byrd, would come pick Comelita up and take her on a tour of the Christmas lights in the city. I’m pretty sure that was some kind of violation of our family’s anti-Christmas, pro-Kwanzaa code but it was allowed.

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I also suspect that the older Byrd girls, who had become ingrained into my siblings’ pettiness, were the ones who concocted the Kwanzaa pants plan from the beginning. The Byrd family also had a brother whom we called “Amp.”

While I lived in the city, Amp was a pretty quiet, stoic, country boy. We were the same age but Amp was bigger than I was. He was faster than I was. He was stronger than I was. He was more handsome than I was. We both knew it but neither of us said it out loud.

When I visited his house on the outskirts of the universe, he would show me how to do country shit like shoot a bow and arrow or put a quarter on the train tracks and let the train flatten it. Or sometimes we would engage in his favorite pasttime—we just fought.

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When he came uptown to visit me, I would proudly introduce him to my uptown friends because he couldn’t be tackled when we played football and he was tall enough to block shots in every game of tap-out 21. Amp wasn’t much of a shit-talker like the rest of my friends and I had to convince him that their method of roasting was really a show of love because my friends loved to roast niggas.

The Kwanzaa dress planning usually began with my sisters looking through these huge, oversized fashion books made by companies who sold dress patterns. Once the sisters reached a mutual agreement on a dress, my mother would buy the patterns and sew the dresses over a period of weeks.

Except for one year.

One year, for some unknown reason, the Byrd girls were there when my sisters were choosing the patterns. As usual, I paid them no attention because I didn’t have shit to do with the Kwanzaa dresses. That was my sisters’ cross to bear.

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I was outside with Amp when I was summoned in the house by my mother.

“What size pants do you wear?” she asked.

I didn’t say anything because I could tell that shenanigans were afoot. A distinct look of fuckery was noticeable on all my sisters’ faces. They were up to something.

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“Why?” I responded.

“Boy, that ain’t what I asked you!” said my mother. “What size —” And before she could answer, Comelita and Robin appeared out of nowhere holding a pair of my pants, giggling.

“You can just look at these,” they said, handing them over.

I was fucked. I knew it. I didn’t know what was going on but in all the days of my life, my sisters had never been what anyone would describe as helpful. Sabotage was in the air and I could smell it. Amp wondered why I was so mad, but I eventually calmed down. And nothing came out of it. Nothing happened. Everything went back to normal until a few weeks later, Amp absentmindedly made a strange remark.

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“We’re supposed to go with y’all to the Kwanzaa thing,” he informed me. “What am I supposed to wear if I don’t have Kwanzaa pants?”

“Kwanzaa what?” I asked. “What are Kwanzaa pants?”

“I’on know,” said Amp. “I just know my sisters said we were going to the Kwanzaa and that your mama was making some Kwanzaa pants.”

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Motherfuckers!

It was too late to disrupt their plan. It turns out that my sisters had convinced my mother to make me a pair of pants out of Kente cloth. My mother confirmed that this would be my Kwanzaa gift and that I would love them because my sisters had picked out the pattern and the material.

And even worse, my sisters and the Byrd girls had gotten Amp wrapped up in their bullshit. Apparently, all the Byrd girls were getting Kwanzaa dresses and me and Amp were getting Kwanzaa pants. Ugly Kwanzaa pants.

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And God were they ugly. They weren’t even made of Kente cloth or any other African fabric. They were just bright yellow. That’s it. No red, black or green highlights. No African symbols. Just a pair of daffodil-yellow cotton pants. How were these even related to Kwanzaa?

Even worse, the night we were supposed to wear the Kwanzaa pants was on Bike Night. Every year Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s local chapter would give away a bike in a raffle. The raffle tickets were only $1 but every kid in the neighborhood would come to the Kwanzaa celebration to win that bike. Of course, you had to be present to win.

So on Kwanzaa Bike Night, Amp and I draped the bottom of our bodies in sunshine pantaloons, piled in the Byrd family’s station wagon and went to celebrate Kwanzaa. I felt like I was emitting light from my thighs. I felt neon. I felt like I had stolen “the glow” from Bruce Leroy.

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And Amp didn’t give a fuck.

Amp was from the country. He didn’t give a damn. He didn’t know about Kwanzaa, free bikes or that his legs weren’t supposed to look like someone had spun his britches out of canary feathers. Amp didn’t care. On Bike Night, there were usually so many people at the Kwanzaa celebration that people just hung outside in the funeral home parking lot. All my homeboys were there. They had met Amp a few times but they didn’t let their unfamiliarity with him get in the way of a good roasting session.

Now, the main culprit was a dude named Deion, who we called “Freaky D.” Although Freaky D was once my next-door neighbor, he was not even part of our normal circle of friends. Freaky D was older, streetwise and had started smoking weed when he was like, 10. I don’t even know why he was at Bike Night because Freaky D was known for two things: Stealing cars and talking shit.

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Freaky D was assisted by his apprentice, Puerto Rican Julio. PR Julio’s name was really Bobby but he was mixed but he told everyone that he was Puerto Rican. I think Julio overcompensated for his biraciality by being a master roaster. Like Freaky, he was older than me and Amp and was a neighborhood roastmaster.

If this happened in 2018 it would be called severe bullying, but back then, it was just a good one-sided game of the dozens. I’m pretty sure this was technically child abuse or at least slander, but because Julio and Freaky D were older, they knew no one was going to fuck with them, so they wouldn’t let up.

“Aye Mike, did you pee on yourself?”

“If the lights go out, at least we won’t need a flashlight. We can just use Amp’s pants!”

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“Is that your leg or an ear of corn?”

“Do you have to plug those pants in or do they run off batteries?”

“You tryna holla at Tweety Bird?”

Now I was used to being the butt of jokes but Amp was unaccustomed to the unrelenting nature of this brutal hazing. Plus, Amp didn’t know Julio and Freaky D’s rep. So Amp did what anyone would do.

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He invited them to fight ...

Both of us.

“How did I even get into this?” I asked myself. As if the Kwanzaa pants weren’t embarrassing enough, I was about to get my ass kicked in front of the entire neighborhood.

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The funeral home/Kwanzaa headquarters was located next to the oldest black barbershop in town, where Short-Foot Joe cut hair. As you can guess, one of Joe’s leg’s was shorter than the other but he was a wizard with the clippers. Behind the barbershop and the funeral home was a wooded area with a path that led to the town’s only black-owned liquor store which was, coincidentally, owned by my mom’s best friend, Miss Sandra. Miss Sandra’s son’s, John and Alvin, are the people I picture in my head when I define the term “play-cousins.” We still call each other cousins although we really have no blood relation. John and Alvin were desperately trying to give me tips.

Well ... they weren’t really tips. Alvin suggested that I should just go down after Julio gave me the first hard shot, which would probably give me some form of brain cancer. John, always the joker, said: “Well ... if you get kilt, at least you’re already at the funeral home.”

“Technically we’re on the path to the funeral home,” I said.

“Exactly,” John retorted.

That path was great for hiding winos who wanted to sip gin in the shade. It was dark enough to let Majorie Lewis give me my first kiss. And it was the perfect arena for a tag team match between two guys in dandelion pants facing the original Young Thugs.

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Now here is what people don’t understand about fights. Most fights don’t end in a knockout. Most don’t even have a clear winner. Usually, there is a scuffle and the two people get too tired, the crowd gets bored or the police come. In my neighborhood, even the most uncivilized wouldn’t break the most important rule of fighting but it had to be announced before each scuffle:

“One-on-one. No jumping in.”

The impromptu fight commissioners decided that Amp and Freaky D would fight first.

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Amp took off his shirt and looked like a wiry young Adonis.

Freaky D took off his shirt and had tattoos.

My fight wasn’t even scheduled to start yet but Julio took off his shirt and then ...

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Wait. Julio had hair on his chest!

That shit wasn’t even fair. I was too young to be fighting someone with chest hair! I was still in junior high. Niggas in junior high shouldn’t be in the same fighting division with chest-hair-having niggas! I should have called child services or something. Children are the future!

But I didn’t say anything. I figured, after Freaky D stomped a mudhole in Amp’s ass, I wouldn’t look like a wimp in comparison. The audience’s excitement would have died down by then or they would leave for the bike raffle. I prayed to Jesus, Horus, the Kwanzaa gods and the ancestors. I made sure that I mentioned that Julio had chest hair, just in case the deities didn’t know. I also said a prayer for Amp because it was my sister’s pettiness that got him into this dangerous position.

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Amp whipped Freaky D’s ass.

All I recall is that after Amp Byrd unsealed that can of whoop-ass and poured it all over Freaky D like it was champagne in a Puff Daddy video, I distinctly remember Freaky D saying, as he was picked up off the ground: “But for real ... He’s strong, bruh.”

Then, it was my turn.

Being a smaller kid who hung around older kids who liked to fight, I never really won many fights but I knew what it took not to lose a fight. Most fighters attempt to knock out their opponent with hooks and overhand punches. But the key is to jab your opponent until they get tired of getting punched in the face. A jab will never hurt anyone, but it will keep them off you and it will produce convincing results like black eyes and bloody noses.

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The only other trick in my entire fighting arsenal was that, whenever anyone bigger than me would grab me, I would grab their shoulders, hold them in place and sweep their legs out from under them with my off foot while the other foot was planted in the ground. In Alabama, it’s called a “kag.” In South Carolina, we call it a “juuk.” I was a master juuker.

Julio swung at me and missed. I jabbed him in the face, blacking his eye. He swung at me and connected, knocking me off balance. But I managed to grab him and steady myself. I juuked him and ...

The shit didn’t work.

This nigga stood there, all hairy-chested and stone-legged like a muppet statue. Like a statue to the God of Puerto Rican pectoral strands. I pulled him down, and we both fell to the ground, with him on top of me. He straddled me, reared back his fist preparing to hit his now-stationary target. I could hear Julio opening the can of whoop-ass when ...

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Miss Sandra and Short-Foot Joe burst through the path, pulled him off of me and stopped the fight!

I was saved!

Well ... kinda.

Miss Sandra told my mom and she promised the worst whipping of my life. Both our pants were ruined and we had disrupted the Kwanzaa celebration and disgraced our families. I rode back home with the Byrds in silence as my mom ranted that I would only wear fatigues to Kwanzaa from now on since I wanted to go to war.

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Of course, my sisters enjoyed this immensely. I blamed everything on them and their stupid Kwanzaa pants prank. This was all their fault for bringing up the idea of these goofy-ass Kwanzaa pants.

My mom never did whip my ass. For three days I walked around the house on edge waiting for her to spring out of nowhere like a ninja with a belt. It never happened. She also never made any of us wear Kwanzaa clothes again.

Amp and I are still friends, although I rarely see him. But when I occasionally get together with him, he looks the exact same way he did on the night of the Kwanzaa pants fight. He hasn’t gained weight and his black hasn’t cracked. Wherever we are, the first one to see the other will say, “Boy you look good!” to which the other will respond:

“But not as good as you looked in those Kwanzaa pants.”

I earned a lot of respect in my neighborhood that day, too. Oldheads from my neighborhood know that I have never been tough or mean but I would no longer be the little nerdy kid. Somehow, the story spread that Amp and I beat up Puerto Rican Julio and Freaky D even though only half of that was true. And if you went to my hometown with me, and simply asked someone from my era: “What’s the one thing you know about Mike?” I can guarantee that to a man, they would all say:

“Mike’ll fight.”

Oh yeah. I forgot to mention that at his first celebration, aside from winning the fight, uptown respect and a lifelong friendship, Amp also won the Kwanzaa bike.

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He loves Kwanzaa.