Before I possessed degrees from some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, I used to be what one might call a “thug.” I say “thug,” but that is a bit of an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is true that there were a few junctures in my life where I might have been characterized as a wild child. It was in the seventh grade, during the late 1980s, that several friends and I once broke into a nearby high-school in what was then a lower-middle class Southside of Chicago neighborhood, filled with two-parent homes and multiple generation family dwellings. The age was also prior to the internet and thus the ready availability of expensive gadgets to entice us towards stealing anything more than just several packs of notebook paper and a few boxes of number two pencils. With nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, one by one, we simply hoisted ourselves up on each other’s shoulders and climbed through an open window someone foolishly left ajar.
After grade school, it is true that I attended what was considered one of the better high schools in the city, located a stone’s throw from the Obamas’ house in Hyde Park. However, I still used my freshman year to experiment with various forms of rebellion, including drinking and early-age sex. As reflected by the number of “cuts” that appeared on my quarterly report card, I sometimes skipped school to hang out with friends. Ten class absences here or twelve study hall absences there might have served as red flags to anyone who was not completely deceived by the parade of straight-A’s that flanked my various honors classes. To this day, I’m not sure if it was that I was just that brilliant, or that I wasn’t being challenged enough that I managed to cut class, earn high marks, all the while respecting my designated curfew hour.
Actually, my stellar performance did not prevent me from making the most egregious of errors at least once—not the wrong-doing itself, but getting caught in the wrong doing. Not yet even a sophomore in high school, I was picked up for the first time ever by the police for trespassing on private property. It was the middle of winter and me and my crew had nowhere else to hang out. Previously, about five or six of us had been kicking it at another kid’s apartment, sipping alcohol and taking in the fumes of the blunts Cahill and his friends were smoking. However, Cahill’s mom was due to return home at any minute. So, we quickly grabbed our coats and fled into the cold. Cahill indicated to us that he knew of another spot where we might chill for a spell, so, we each made our way to an apartment complex located around the corner. Quickly trailing a resident who was entering the building, we sneaked inside to gain some relief from the blistery hawk. About fifteen minutes later, several policemen burst through the door brandishing guns, while also apprehending those of us who were too slow-witted to speed off behind Cahill as he rushed up an adjacent stairwell. Even as the police lined me and my female companions hands up, face against the wall, I felt a need to prove my authenticity as a smart-turned-bad girl. “You can’t arrest us. We didn’t do anything!” I snapped. “We’re not arresting you. We’re taking you home.” With that, they packed us all inside the back of their squad car. To be sure, we exhausted every bit of the few remaining minutes that preceded the meting out of swift justice, trying to concoct excuses as to why the cops were accompanying us home.
But that was not all. During the course of my freshman year, my crew also grew to include petty neighborhood drug dealers, one of whom even made me his girlfriend at age fourteen. This, despite the fact that—unlike Cahill, who was murdered just the next year–a bullet recently had paralyzed JoJo from the waste down. Still, JoJo was smart, but, more importantly, fine as hell, with almond shaped eyes, olive skin, and lips that had turned a dark purple from smoking a few too many blunts. But, it was me, the smart girl, that JoJo chose to lay next to him in his hospital bed, after his friends had nodded their heads to just enough NWA, and had tilted their heads back to catch drips from the last go-round of the day’s forty ounce, at which point JoJo insisted that they vacate his backporch room.
“I’d rather…with you all Goddamn night ‘cause your…is good,” NWA let the base drop in lyrics that make even the most vulgar of today’s music appear as nursery rhymes. It is perhaps hard to imagine, but, despite enjoying limited mobility, JoJo was more than able, to say the least. Proof of this fact were not only the crystalline rocks I accidently grasped while one day attempting to locate the wad of bills he requested I retrieve from the pocket of his blue and black Task Force jacket (paralysis didn’t prevent his drug dealing); proof of his virility also was the child born to him by his subsequent girlfriend after we broke up.
“You probably are going to be a doctor or lawyer someday,” JoJo eventually conceded, after I informed him that I would not be hanging around his grandparents’ house after the summer ended. “Yeah, if I were you, I wouldn’t hang around here, either,” his response surprised me. Having experienced the pain and despair of a mother who was hooked on coke, JoJo might once have possessed dreams similar to mine of leaving his youthful transgressions behind, but for the permanency of his condition. Although I have wondered about JoJo many times over the years, that was the last time I ever saw him…
I tell these otherwise sordid tales not as a way of glorifying a hitherto closeted past, or to be glorified myself for having transcended a destiny that continues to face so many black children. My professional trajectory alone should exemplify the extent to which I value education, not as a panacea, but as perhaps the next best insurance for a life beyond the inner-city streets. I hate to imagine where I’d be without my education. A historian, I also appreciate the great extremes to which African-Americans have ventured to pursue higher learning, often under hostile and soul-wrenching conditions, helping to transform American schooling in advance of other educational reformers. In instances where others most certainly would have abandoned hope, altogether, the near herculean feats enslaved and quasi-free blacks accomplished in order to gain literacy and establish schools serve as daily reminders for me in my search for the type of strength that will allow me to overcome obstacles not nearly as formidable as the ones my forebears faced.
In truth, I share my own experiences as a way of illustrating the often precarious road that a great majority of African-American children face when they are trying to negotiate a culture that both rewards and condemns bad behavior in the same breath. It doesn’t take long to drum up more than a few examples where this is the case. One need only think of some of the most highly-acclaimed movies and iconic actors to witness the ways in which fictional bad boys and girls keep winning, winning, winning, while black children keep losing, losing, losing! And the Academy Award goes to: a) James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause? b) Al Pacino in Scarface, Godfather I, II, III, Carlito’s Way, Donnie Brasco–take your pic? or c) Denzel Washington, for Training Day (but most certainly not for Malcolm X)? d) Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle?
But, when it comes to the youthful indiscretions of African-Americans, we begin to speak out the other sides of our faces. Offering what perhaps appears to them the best defense for the frequent and targeted killings of young black boys and girls, people like Darren Wilson, Charles Barkley and others in Wilson’s peanut gang chorus come close to suggesting that “thugs” like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice and dozens of nameless black girls deserved to be killed, as do the potentially young looters who are fed up with these injustices. “I’d kill Michael Brown again if I could relive that day,” Officer Wilson assured ABC Correspondent, George Stephanopoulus in a now controversial interview, after which time Wilson feigned a bit more remorse. Echoes of George Zimmerman’s killer confidence, as well as that of Jordan Davis’ and, most recently, Tamir Rice’s killers resound in the testimony of Wilson and his supporters, who consistently resort to black character assassinations to justify murders in which otherwise well-meaning forces serve as the judge, jury and executioner of black “delinquents.”
But, if “thuggish” behavior serves as the proper justification for killing misbehaving black kids, I want to know just how many parents forced their teens to remove from their bedroom walls posters of Justin Beiber, Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton when they were arrested for charges ranged from reckless driving, DUI’s, drug possession and assault? How many parents have conducted surveillance checks on kids, who, coincidently, represent the largest consumers of a music genre conservative voices often associate with a violent black subculture? How quickly did you erase Eminem, TuPac, JayZ, Lil’ Wayne from their music libraries? How many of your janus-faced adherents have erased the pre-“Are We There Yet” Ice Cube from your own private stashes?
To be certain, incidents of “thuggishness” in American culture far precede the current racial climate, and it is not a phenomenon unique unto African-Americans. This much is evidenced in the work of early twentieth century social workers, such as Jane Addams and other seemingly well-intentioned white reformers who focused on providing “wholesome amusements” solely for white youth. Yet, one of the most under-regarded, but nonetheless significant contributions many African-American educators have made to the long civil rights movement has been in establishing the critical link between inferior educational resources, the dearth of recreational outlets and disproportionately high rates of delinquency among African-American youth whom social formers neglected before blacks became the center of crime and fear discourses.
The exigencies and very real dangers associated with living under Jim Crow often dictated that many of these same educators adhere to mainstream social norms that emphasized civility and assimilation as a precondition to first-class citizenship. Nevertheless, in establishing afterschool programs, youth recreational centers and fighting to achieve racial parity in extracurricular resources and facilities, African-American educators aimed for accountability in their own communities, on the one hand, and simultaneously addressed the interlinking structural inequalities that necessitated state intervention via increased funding for educational and social programs for black youth, on the other. I have found this much to be true in my own extensive research that examines educational segregation in Washington, D.C. during the pre-Brown years.
Yet, even as we castigate African-American youth for acting out in ways that other youth do all of the time; even as we slice funding for physical education in public schools, the Arts, and other extracurriculars activities–for which all teachers should be paid to direct and not expected to volunteer; even as we force shut “underperforming” schools and thus obliterate their associated social and athletic programs; even as we do this, there is a pitiable community center near the 103rd and Halsted and in the heart of Chicago’s South Side, that has there stood half-constructed and unoccupied for as long as I have been out of high school, or two decades. In the meantime, the city has pumped millions of dollars into providing thousands of pretty blue bicycles that carry certain types of residents and visitors through the more varnished parts of the city. What can we do about that? Like seriously, what can we do about that?
What I wish is that, instead of resorting to antiquated arguments that seek to pathologize black folks for failing to pull up both their bootstraps and their pants, people who presume to know the hearts and minds of black youth would offer some immediate relief and tangible solutions. To start, why not build up “no man’s land” community parks, rather than force kids to recreate on the streets and abandoned lots? Why not expand youth job opportunities and extracurricular programs? And support them with twenty-first century equipment, including installing updated computer labs where they can choose to work on homework or raise their tech IQ to meet the exigencies of a twenty-first century job market? In neighborhoods where youth violence indeed is a real issue, why not provide students with chaperones and/or transportation on their way to and from social programs? Why not better assist working parents in their afterschool or childcare needs to curb the sort of latch-key culture that spurs kids of all walks and backgrounds to what we as adults now deem as “unsavory” behavior. Otherwise, shut up about kids who are just like I once was (and, still am, to a great degree), and who might have nothing else to do on a Saturday but lift cigarillos or a bag of skittles. Oops, my bad—he actually paid for that.