For a while now, I’ve been struggling to write something meaningful about the tragedies that are occurring in our neighborhoods, the constant loss of black life. Every time I try to sit and write something articulate and intellectual, the words refuse to coalesce into something worthy of a would-be scholar. I read a lot of media pieces about rising and falling murder rates, in places like my native home, Chicago. “Chicago Homicides Down Drastically In 2013 To Fewest Murders Since 1965, Police Say,” reads The Huffington Post on August 13, 2014. While such articles are important, they, nevertheless, fail to provide more than a birds-eye view into the emotional and long-term impact of the violent realities that many African-American community members face each day.
Just the other day, I posted comments on social media regarding the wonderful contributions that men like my brother, Karriem Hamilton, are making to their communities. 39, a year older than I, he teaches at Harold Washington, a school dedicated in honor of Chicago’s first black mayor. Similar to my mother who has dedicated 23 years to teaching in the public schools, my brother’s job at the school remains uncertain. Like thousands of teachers, he receives notice each year that he must re-apply for his position. Despite the continuing praise he receives from his principal for generating high test scores, and despite the adoration he enjoys from students, the system, as it were, treats him like everyone else when it comes to the hiring and firing of teachers.
Nevertheless, just as my mom continued to volunteer, in the wake of her resignation, as a tutor at my grade school alma mater, my brother volunteers his time coaching his son’s basketball team, where an additional slew of youngsters look to him as a role model. This is why I beamed with pride when I received word, via social media, that his team ended the year undefeated. “My last game coaching my adopted sons,” my brother boasted in a post beneath a picture where he was flanked by two trophy-wielding students. “I wish them nothing but success at Harlan and Kenwood. Go Pacers!!” he remarked of their two MVP’s.
But, today, I awoke to a post that reveals how optimism is often a tenuous, if not a dangerous ideal to possess among many black folk. “My heart is heavy this morning,” my brother admitted in an uncharacteristically somber tone. One of his former students, Devontae Carthan, was murdered along 92nd and Dobson, in the Chatham neighborhood, in an apparent drive-by shooting within twenty-four hours of his announcement about the Pacers. According to his proud and former coach, the seventeen-year old was “highly intelligent” and graduated with top standardized test scores, most likely a testament to the commitment of teachers like my mom and brother, and less a reliable marker of his undeniable potential as a Southside kid. “Tae Tae,” whom my brother also refers to as “nephew,” was nowhere near being a thug, but an all-around great kid, my brother reports. Apparently, Devontae had scored in the 90s in reading and math on the ISAT, before attending Simeon High School, where teachers recently protested the elimination of one of the school’s most vital vocational educational programs in electricity. “But [Devontae] refused to cut his locks so they wouldn’t let him play basketball there. He then transferred to Harlan,” the same school one of his current MVP’s plans to attend this fall. “I would often see him on 93rd and he would hop in my car and we would talk about the latest happenings…I just talked to him last week and told him to get off 93rd because it was ‘too hot’ out there. Now he’s gone. Sick to my stomach…”
Here, Devontae Carthan is donning a shirt that memorializes 16-year old Michael Flournoy, another Simeon athlete, who was beaten and also fatally shot near 93rd and Dobson.
Of course, those of us who have lived in and survived neglected and disenfranchised neighborhoods know fully well that, for kids like Devontae, potential and personality often provide but flimsy shields against a determined bullet. Although none of my five siblings, nor I have ever suffered the misfortune of even being grazed by a bullet, we do share stories of friends long lost to inner-city violence, a few of them involved in gangs, but many of them still “decent” kids. In Chatham, our former next-door neighbors, the Gholstons–who seemed to enjoy the trappings of the black middle-class (i.e., nice house, stable jobs, educated, two-parent homes, influence of grandparents)–lost Shaun, Corey and his brother, Deon, to gun violence all in the span of several years. Our friend, Walter, who lived one block over, also lost his brother, Michael (whom girls likened to Ralph Tresvant, the lead singer of New Edition, especially since he loved choreographing routines to their music.) He also counts another 14 friends dead, the result of a convergence of forces that often chokehold black political, educational and economic potential in this so-called post-racial moment.
“My experience coping has been a slight case of shell shock similar to what the soldiers go through coming home from war. I can hear sounds that others misconstrue as being gunshots and I immediately know that’s not the sound made from gunfire,” Walter insists, while the huge scar he bears on his leg remains as credible proof of his experiences. “I have a tremendous sadness thinking about my friends who have been killed. It’s impacted me as well as my family,” he adds. “But, the media really doesn’t care in my opinion…They report the incident then go home to their families.”
With not only a physical attachment to a city wherein resides the majority of my family and friends, at a deep psychological level, I still experience the fear that I felt as young girl growing up in what many consider to have been, statistically speaking, the worst wave of violence in Chicago, the 1990s. For many of us, ever-present was the possibility that one could be “jumped,” (perhaps the most serious form of bullying) or shot for something so seemingly trivial as wearing the wrong colors or rocking a pair of Jordans or a Starter (pro-sports) jacket. Now, at least once a week, I have to force myself awake from a nightmare that involves me or one of my family members being shot for no apparent reason. Perhaps a reflection of my lack of geographical proximity to violence, ever since I fled the city in 1994 to pursue advanced education on the East Coast, however, I just as well assumed these sort of dreams to be normal. In this manner of being, I’m quite similar to my mom, who tends to normalize the occasional shootings that occur in her former school district and current neighborhood. “If I close the door, I can’t hear a thing!” she once said to me last year, after I expressed concern about gunshots she continued to hear in the aftermath of a drive-by killing just five houses down. “You know, that’s not normal!” I responded, although it has only been in recent years that I’ve come to appreciate such a reality.
Having attended and taught at some of the most prestigious (and predominantly white) schools on the East Coast, I recognize the ways in which these experiences have helped to normalize the concept of safety and “non-violence” for me. But while the educators in my family continue to risk their lives under educational bureaucracies that often exacerbate the conditions of battle-torn black neighborhoods, my dreams stand as a constant reminder that I’m not so far removed from that life as I’d perhaps like to imagine. This is one of the reasons why, to this day, I maintain on my desktop a picture of 15-year old honor student, Hadiya Pendleton, who was murdered just days after performing during President Obama’s second inauguration. Sadly, her young life was snuffed out in the aptly-named Harsh Park, in the Kenwood neighborhood, where I attended high school and close to where the Obamas own a house. As I work towards yet another East Coast degree, the image of Hadiya motivates me, while her dimpled cheeks also serve to alleviate some of that survivor’s guilty I’ve always carried as I enjoy varying levels of mobility.
Then, too, regarding guilt, I suppose one of the things that also has tripped me up the most when trying to write “something meaningful” about the precarious nature of black life in our inner-cities is that ever-nagging question: “Other than just write, what are you prepared to do about it?” It is a question that has plagued me over the years as I’ve moved in, out and around the ivory tower and studied black social justice movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Am I prepared to sacrifice in the ways that my mom and brother have? Or, will I just wind up another empiricist, or worse, a pundit, whose insight continues to be tarnished by my distance from the realities of my people? What can I do? What can we do?