Seeing Emmett Till's face in Southeast
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew in which he wrote: "You were born where you were born, and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason." Baldwin could just as easily have been writing about Southeast D.C. in 2010, even with President Obama in the White House, a Metro ride away.
How else to explain statistics like this one: In a city that has grown more racially diverse, more than 90 percent of the young people under Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) supervision are black. How else to explain the low graduation rates? How else to explain the violence, at once so senseless and so expected?
Two weeks ago, the D.C. Humanities Council and Provisions Library sponsored a discussion of Ernest J. Gaines's searing novel "A Lesson Before Dying," the book chosen for the citywide "Big Read" program. I was part of a panel that arrived at the event expecting to discuss how Gaines's work could offer insights to those who are part of the lives of the more than 900 young people in the DYRS system.
I first read "A Lesson Before Dying" as a 16-year-old locked up for carjacking in a Virginia jail. It was the first book I ever read cover to cover, and the questions it raises have haunted me ever since. The cells I was confined to were a long way from the death row of Gaines's story, but they were just as much a place where black boys went to be forgotten. I wanted to suggest to the disparate group of advocates, family members, young people and passersby that in Gaines's character Grant, we have a blueprint for how to care.
What I didn't realize is how difficult it is to discuss a book when a cloud of death fills the air. In the audience was a father who had lost his teenage son and a mother who had lost her teenage daughter in the March 30 drive-by shooting in Southeast. I don't pretend to know what to say in the face of such tragedy.
The discussion of the book broke down into a public meeting about DYRS policies, and from there it turned into a scream. No one could manage a word to make death make sense. There were shouts and chaos, grief and anger. One man had to be restrained. The mother rushed to the stage and slammed a photo of her murdered daughter in front of the four of us there. I wondered what it did to her to have to carry around the death of her child every day, in her head and in her heart, in the photos that spilled from her purse.
I wanted to look away from the photo, but I realized why it was there. In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and brutally murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, Mamie Till Mobley had her son's casket left open at his memorial service. She did this not just to remind the murderers what they had done; it was to remind the world, to remind a growing, interlocked network of communities, activists and political leaders what the turmoil of segregation and violence had wrought.
This time, the image of a murdered child was not about the same kind of racism; it was about black folks shooting down black children in the street for no reason. But James Baldwin could draw the line. "You were born where you were born, and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason." Fifteen years ago, I grew up in this area, and the most important thing for me to be was hard. I went to prison, and for many of us young black men there, behind chain-link fences and barbed wire, the most important thing was to be hard, to hold our own.
I admit today that I am not hard. I admit that I cried for two days thinking of the photo of this young girl. And still, I know my tears, these words, ultimately are a drop in the bucket -- that they don't approach the pain that this girl's mother must carry.
Worse, I know that the pain, the tears and the screams in the small meeting room don't approach the herculean effort needed to change this tide of senseless violence -- and I fear history and our children's children will judge us harshly if we fail to find a way.