Man on Fire

By Martti C. Peeples

Stanhope Gayles Jr. is a man on fire, on a mission to help stir more young men to choose a better path in life. How capable is this man? Judging from his own personal journey, very capable.

Question: What makes your caged bird sing?

Answer:  “My bird’s been caged for so long. In order for it to sing, it had to be released. And just the freedom of being released is why I began to sing. When you don’t know you’re caged, every day is just a day. But the moment you realize you’re free, you sing, and from the day I was free, I’ve been singing, I’ve been singing!!!!”

Reared by a single mother, Stanhope lost his father by the age of 2. Stanhope would, by the statistics, be another life lost, or spending his time in jail. Growing up wasn’t easy. Stanhope faced molestation by a member of his family, and by the age of 15 had turned to alcohol to help ease the demons and pain of his past. He explored his sexuality at a young age. With an absent father and a childhood in a poor neighborhood, the odds were stacking up against him. His mother had him later in life and there may have been a cultural gap; Stanhope admits he had a rocky but nurturing relationship with his mother. He was the youngest of seven children.

His mother had one condition she was not going to back down from: “You will finish school.”  He was forced to join a gang and had to downplay his intelligence in school. His mother said he must graduate from high school. Which he did, to honor her condition. But in between graduation came gangs and drugs. Stanhope recalled the day he was out with some gang members and his mother pulled up on him and blessed him out in front of them. Although embarrassing to him, she was sending a message to the gangs: “You’re gonna have a fight on your hands if you try to take him.”

After graduating from Southeastern High School in Detroit, he went to work at 1300 Lafayette where he had the privilege to work with Martha Reeves and other well-known Detroit talent. A year later, Stanhope joined the Marines, and his travels took him from Paris Island, California to a two-year deployment in Okinawa, Japan. While living in Japan, he mastered the language and now speaks fluent Japanese. When he returned home, he was still under contract with the service and joined the 1775th Military Police in Taylor, Michigan. By September 11th 2001, Stanhope was activated and went to the Pentagon, then to Virginia, Germany, then later to Iraq to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While serving his country, Stanhope fell back into his old vices of alcohol and drug use. This is not an uncommon practice among our vets, who have dealt with traumatic events and followed orders which may go against their will in the name of honor, duty, and valor. When most vets return, services are limited or delayed, which only drives our vets deeper into depression and, at times, states of homelessness.

As Stanhope has stated, while serving, you are in a way dealt a false sense of reality because you have an institution providing you with room and board, feeding you, so some vets mishandle money because, in their mind’s eye, every need is taken care of and they feel the money is for them to do with as they wish. In Stanhope’s case, he also had the added pressure of dealing with his addictions.

When Stanhope returned to the city, he was met with far greater chaos than when he left. Growing up, there were a lot of black-owned businesses; his grandfather at one time owned a gas station. Now many of the businesses were owned by Middle Eastern people, and African Americans had migrated to work on the automotive assembly line. But opportunities for the new generations to gain employment had started drying up. Returning veterans were unable to find employment in a city that was dealing with gangs, drugs, murders, and a high drop-out rate. Neighborhoods were the sites of turf wars among gang factions.

Stanhope was in a budding relationship, but lost his fiancée to breast cancer. Instead of returning to his old habits, he found himself writing what he thought was rap. He showed it to someone and the person said, “This is not a rap, this is poetry.”

Putting pen to paper helped save Stanhope in more ways than one and opened up a desire to grow and explore more opportunities in life. He was raised with the old-school values of respect for self and others. His mother instilled in him the value of recognizing each person’s individual worth. Now he has returned to Detroit, his hometown, to be a part of the community.

“Without my faith, without my spirituality, I’m nothing.”

Second part of my original question, “What makes your caged bird sing?”

Answer: There’s no possible way I can stop my song. The song has been given to me to sing, it’s been given to my spirituality and it changes from day to day, it’s a beautiful song, it’s a painful song. But I know what it is for me and hopefully I can continue to sing to help inspire other birds to sing.”

Please read the next edition of Thrive Detroit to read about his mission and how he is working to be a part of the revitalization of Detroit’s youth and neighborhoods.

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