Humans of Poughkeepsie is an ongoing project seeking to highlight Poughkeepsie residents and community members. Each featured member will share a collection of stories—connected or not—that reveal the multifaceted nature of the self.
This week, Tree Arrington shares his story. Arrington is the founder and CEO of R.E.A.L. Skills Network, which is a Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit that, according to its mission, “serves area youth along their paths to leadership.”
One time my mother was very sick. She had the same lung ailment that Nat King Cole had. She was minutes from death, and they said, “We need to try this.” She had nothing else to lose. She survived, and Nat King Cole didn’t. That surprised me. That’s when I learned money has nothing to do with health. As a reality, you think things don’t happen to rich people. They happen to common people every day. That was an awakening for me then. I was very scared. I was afraid. If I had lost her—she was all I had at that time. She meant a lot to me. I was young. She survived a long time afterward—had my sister a year after. They said my sister was gonna kill her. They were trying to have my mother have an abortion. That’s when abortions were illegal, except for if they were prescribed by a doctor. They said childbirth and the pregnancy were gonna tax her because of how strenuous the operation she had gone through was. And that’s when I learned about Sputnik, which was the first Russian capsule to circle the Earth. I didn’t know that then. I couldn’t read or write until I was 29. I didn’t know that when my mom said, “You in there trying to get Sputnik,” and I got older and really thought about what she meant, it was that my little sister was orbiting inside her. My mother had a fascinating wit that, after I became read, I realized how much stuff she said verbally. It would bring clarity to you if you were a little confused. It could wake you up. She had great sound bites, something I think I acquired from her. I say stuff sometimes that shakes people.
I graduated—a couple times. I graduated with my GED in prison. I graduated with my Associate’s degree in prison. I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree at Marist. I graduated with my Master’s in Psychology and Social Work from Fordham. I got School Supervisory Certificates, which allow you to be a principal or superintendent. I also have a Master’s in Education Administration. I just love getting degrees. I guess it fed my ego from not being able to read until I was 29. So, now I just read everything. I like discourse. I miss that. I’d like to do that again. Maybe I’ll get enough guts to go lay this down, sit in a classroom again. But not just anything, good stuff: psychology, sociology, Afrocentric history— any type of actual story, not just His-story. His-story is a little twisted sometimes. I like true story, actual story, how young kids say in the hood, “Facts.”
School didn’t understand my learning disability They still don’t understand half the disabilities they’re dealing with, so they damn sure didn’t know what they were doing with me. But there’s a lot of hatred in there too. I’ve had teachers say the most discriminating things in the world to me and to people who look like me. If you said you wanted to be a lawyer, that was preposterous. Right away, they wanted you to say something else. There are millions of doctors and lawyers in the country. Why couldn’t everyone be one if they wanted to? People would say these random comments. Remember with Obama? They used to say, “He’s so articulate.” What the fuck is he supposed to be? Black people are articulate. We’re the first to speak, the first on the earth. We created civilization, agriculture, arithmetic and medicine.
This was a slave-trading town. You can’t go five minutes from here without them looking at you funny if you Black. That’s five minutes in any direction. If you cross the bridge, you’re in Highland. They’re wondering where you’re going. If you go five minutes to the right, you’re in Hyde Park. They’re looking upside your head. If you go five minutes to the left, you’re in Wappingers. If you go behind you five feet, you’re in LaGrange. How did all these Black people get into this little dot in the middle of all that? Slavery. This was a big slave town. The end of the Underground Railroad was here as well. It was Smith Street—Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church. If you made it there, you were free. You could get further upstate or to Canada. This was like a big pitstop.
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