An Interview with Actor Derek Morgan

ATM: As a black male during the latter part of the 20th century, how was it attending Benjamin Franklin High School with other Latinos? 

DM: Puerto Ricans and black people have a great relationship in New York. This is where I learned the term “cus.” We called Puerto Ricans cousins. I grew up in Spanish Harlem, in the projects where black people and Puerto Ricans were the two groups you saw in the projects. We called it the “block.” We did not call it the “hood.”    

ATM: A lot of times in entertainment projects children or young adults seem freer in the sense of their mind. They seem more explorative vs. a kid who is not from the projects. This kid has rules, and they are grounded. 

DM: We had to make our environment work for us. Growing up in the projects feels free because you are not paying for anything except rent. You are not paying for water or lights. It seems that they let us move in there and they did not impose anything on us. A lot of people came from living in tenement buildings around New York City. Coming to the projects was like a step up. When black people moved to the projects, it was a big deal. You are moving on up to “east side” which is where I grew up. The five-story walk up is a dismal life. Whereas the projects were a new apartment, it was a new building, and all of them were made of red brick. Later, they started using different color brick to make them more attractive.

There were rules. We disobeyed them. We had our own police department. The cops chased us off the grass and harassed us. Sometimes, they would beat us up, then take us to jail for a few hours. We destroyed these places. We did not own it. Most people who do not own anything just simply tear it up. They have more freedom with it because they are not paying for it. I believe, in a strange way, this is where the creative mind takes shape in people who have nothing to lose. Fearless. People do not respect something they are not paying for. Creative people would take advantage of this freedom. I used to raise monkeys in the projects. How’s that for a creative mind?  

ATM: What breed? 

DM: I had a spider monkey, a black masque (miniature chimpanzee), and a squirrel monkey. The spider monkey had long limbs. He is tall. He is about up to your knees when he sits down — kind of like a daddy long leg spider. 

ATM: Did you give them away? 

DM: We gave away the spider monkey. The squirrel monkey died. The miniature chimpanzee died of tuberculosis. They wanted to quarantine our apartment when he died. This is a highly contagious disease. Monkeys are the next best thing to humans. He got the disease, and it affected him the same way it would a human. This little monkey was my friend. He did everything I did. He ate from a plate using a fork and would drink from a cup. His name was Peppy. My mother found him in The Bronx at some pet store. 

ATM: Did you know that monkeys represent good luck? 

DM: No. I did not know that. Is this a part of the Asian culture? I know it’s a symbol on the Chinese calendar. 

ATM: Maybe. Typically, a monkey is playful. Everyone starts as a toddler and moves into an

adolescence stage. There are stages of growth in human development. We all started young. We were always playful. As we get older, we are expected and stereotyped to act in a certain way. You cannot do things that you did at 14 at the age of 30 or 40. This is publicly, but you can do anything in the privacy of your home. You will get stereotyped of acting like a child. A monkey is playful all the time, and they do not stop.

Like the saying “I am a kid at heart.” Monkeys are always kidding at heart. To dictate human growth should be by appearance. Some older people look young and the other way around. Some 30-year-olds act 14. Some 16-year-olds literally have the mind of a 35-year-old based on the things they have endured. I know people like this. I know people who just never grew up. It shows in their actions. But by law, they are considered an adult. Over the age of 18, I judge by intellect and experiences. 

DM: You are right monkeys are always playful no matter how old they are. I am young at heart. I can enjoy a joke that others do not find funny. A lot of people are mean spirited today. They choose not to enjoy a compliment. How can a young person be serious when there is so much around you to enjoy? 

ATM: Maybe they are trying to tap into the stereotyped persona of an adult. 

DM: My older brother passed away a couple of years ago. We had no relationship while growing up. I did not like the guy. I was living in Los Angeles for a while, and then I came to live in Manhattan. One Sunday I was at a church and when the service was over, I started gathering my things to leave, I looked to my left (it was a big sanctuary) I saw my brother walking out from the front row. He was an atheist his whole life. I had not seen this man for over 15 years. I waited for him in the lobby. We said to each other, “What are you doing here?!” We talked for about three hours in the cold. We had never had a conversation in my life.

He was telling me what life was like growing up with my mom and sister. This is before I was born. He said he took on the persona of being serious because he thought this was how a man should act. He did not realize that he alienated a lot of people and family members. He was so dead serious! We called him arrogant. In hindsight he wished he had used a different approach to life. He thought it was working, it wasn’t. We became family that day. I miss him. He was a good guy. 

ATM: Every day we meet people. Certain people you cannot hold a conversation with. It can be either because you do not possess the same knowledge as them. Or they do not possess the same knowledge as you. This is often the disconnect with people. Some people stick it out because some people are polite. Or you possess knowledge that is unchained to someone else’s knowledge.

DM: I get it. Whatever you know is not chained to someone’s information.

ATM: Forget Webster’s definition. This is all what the word “smart” truly means. Typically, when you say something, and someone goes, “Oh, you are smart.” It is because they do not possess the same knowledge as you. When we talk to people sometimes, we cannot have conversations with them. But it is not until you reach the intellectual level to possess the same information when you can have a conversation with them. But yet when you go through particular events or situations in your life, you can now have a conversation with them. It was not until going through whatever you had to go through. This is life. You begin to understand.

DM: Right. You did not have it at that time. It is not so much life’s journey, but in your journey of life, you were able to find out what the information was. You could have found out the information ten minutes after you all finished talking. But, you did not. It took you a minute to discover it. For someone whose information is not chained together, and I go, “Wow you are really smart.” You feel yourself. Back in the day, it was called “smelling yourself.” If you know the knowledge and I know the knowledge, then we called it having something in common. It is not about smart but knowing this together and having something in common. Then you might have more insight, or I might, but you will never see me as smarter than you. You see that I have an edge on this part. They would not call this person smarter. I would call them to have a different way of doing this common knowledge thing we have. If both of us know about computers, then this is what we talk about. But if I know nothing about computers and I am still analog, and you are talking to me about them, then I will call you smart. You are not smart. You just happen to know about computers.

ATM: Exactly. When you say something to a person about something, they might not be aware of; they put the title “smart” on it. I say, “Wait what makes me smart or what I am saying smart? It is because you do not know what a computer is or how to operate one? What is it?” They stand there and have nothing to say. Like what deems a person actually smart or even intellectual. It is all just possessing knowledge differently. I am no smarter than the next one. It is not even being a genius or being bright. Or it can be how you say something.

DM: Okay. While in Atlanta, I run into a lot of brothers with heavy dialects. They will tell me something that I know nothing about. I start to think this person is really smart to sound so ignorant. I am admiring them because they sound like a fool but look at how it is sounding. He just brought me up on the game — same principal. You have more information. I do not know anything about farming. So, when you start talking about farming, you got me.

ATM: There is a saying that can go over people’s heads, but it stuck with mine. “A dumb person cannot act smart. But a smart person can act dumb and smart.”

DM: Let’s stop right here. I will give you someone’s name, Goldie Hawn.

ATM: Oh, she said this?

DM: No. She is a super intelligent person but played an incredibly dumb person on this show called Laugh-In. She was a real ditz. Everyone brought into the fact that she was ditzy. She was not. She was the opposite of this. You are right. Smart people can play dumb, but dumb people cannot play smart.

ATM: I have seen a person who purposely does not seek to educate or better themselves. They are considered nonintelligent. I have seen them try their hardest to have a conversation and trying to sound smart. It does not work. If someone hears a large word and picks up on it, then they will go throughout their day repeating the word. I ask them, “Did you just learn this word?” How did you know? “Oh, because that word is supposed to be a verb and you are using it as a noun and adjective.”

DM: This is funny. This is true. You did not stop to look it up or what it means. You did not find the context or break it down. You did not look at a thesaurus. You tried to remember how they use it. You tried to do it all day long.

ATM: And relate it to everything.

End of Part 1