Driving to work the other day, I was pondering the other war -- the shootings and stabbings, the ceaseless rain of death -- when I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me.
Don't Come Near Me or I'll Kill You.
That's all it said. Nothing to suggest that any other provocation, beyond just getting close, would be needed to set off the sticker owner. Even at 9 a.m., driving through a pleasant District neighborhood, the message shook me.
But I appreciated its directness.
Jay Bias got too close to a saleswoman he was buying some jewelry from at a mall. He was shot dead. Clarine Collier-Wilson made the mistake of walking with her daughters, ages 3 and 10, in the vicinity of someone who needed some quick cash. She was stabbed to death while her children looked on.
Don't Come Near Me or I'll Kill You.
I am, like Collier-Wilson, a mother who once thought nothing of walking outside with my two small kids in the evening hours. Actually, I felt protected by their presence. Who could attack a mother with her children?
In six years, my eldest will be a 15-year-old black male who will visit the mall and perhaps flirt with salesgirls. My other son will be almost 12, old enough to have his jacket or sneakers coveted by some other kid who may have a gun and the itch to use it. Inevitably, they'll get near somebody.
I'm afraid for my kids in ways my parents never were for me. I'm afraid for all black children in a world gone mad.
I see madness in the Uzis and the Magnums and last year's 703 D.C.-area dead; in endless recordings and music videos where the concept of love seems foreign. I see it in the barrage of profane language and behavior on our streets, in stores and movie theaters. The insanity is by no means limited to blacks. The gaudily made-up, 9-year-old Takoma Park trick-or-treater who proudly announced "I'm a ho!" -- that's "whore" -- last Halloween was white.
It is madness, surely, when people spend money on bumper stickers that proclaim 49 Percent Angel; 51 Percent Bitch, You Haven't Got a Prayer and I Love My Badass Attitude. I know it is madness when someone who loves black people as much as I do wonders what is happening to us.
How did we arrive at this place? At Don't Come Near Me or I'll Kill You?
The fact is most of the poor people, violent criminals, drug users, prostitutes and juvenile delinquents in the United States are white. The black middle class has never been larger or more visible.
But what comfort is that to Collier-Wilson's daughters, to Jay Bias's parents? To the families of the one out of 10 young black American men who will die violently this year?
I listen for reasons and hear nobody making sense of this. The usual suspects are rounded up: drugs-poverty-alcohol-disconnection-guns- Reaganism-racism.
Okay, I'll jump in any line formed to question the Reagan presidency's compassion; acknowledge that drugs, drink and indigence kill and maim the already wounded. Racism is the biggie -- once experienced, it clings to your skin like smoke; to your eyes like some errant blast of insecticide that allows you to see nothing else.
But what stops me cold is that none of this is new. Historically, American blacks have had little money and less prestige; have had frustrations that led some of us to abuse drugs or alcohol or ourselves.
But we never did to each other what we are doing now.
"We have always been under siege -- in the past, racism may even have been more virulent, and we may have had less to fortify us," says my college confidant, Jeff, who grew up in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods.
"But when I was growing up, people still talked about a guy who'd been killed in a street fight 15 years before -- they were still shaking their heads. What's happening now can't only be conditions. It must be something else. And we're afraid to examine what the something else is."
Afraid? I'm terrified. What if, increasingly, the something else is us?
What if it's our selfishness, wonders Jeff, now a writer at a major Northeastern newspaper. "Our parents invested everything in us. They swallowed racism, trained people who became their bosses, endured chronic low wages ... because there was a sense in our community that we were going to justify the sacrifices. ... Today, folks are dealing for themselves."
What about isolation in neighborhoods where people once felt responsible for every kid, home and life? Or TV -- which blacks watch disproportionately -- where easy money and death are more bountiful than laughs and laundry detergent?
What about leaders like Alderman Mike McGee of Milwaukee, who formed a Black Panther Militia out of the disenfranchised, or Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who threatened that black snipers armed with M-16s would be posted on rooftops if a solution wasn't found to a local police problem? Such "solutions" would certainly result in more black bodies.
Meanwhile, they spark more anger. And angry blacks almost always kill other blacks.
Too many leaders are like the rest of us -- obsessed with our problems and bereft of solutions. Unlike Martin and Malcolm in the past, and even Farrakhan today, they see black people only in terms of what we don't have. If there are career victims, surely there are those who've made careers out of convincing folks of their victimization.
The blame game. What about that -- our reluctance to even discuss how we may be at fault?
I look at the gantlet any criticism of blacks travels in my own mind: First, I ask, "Is the commentator black?" If not, his credibility is severely questioned. If he is, I wonder, "What kind of black person is this? An apologist, a Tom? A self-promoter who will say anything to get some print?"
Few people -- and comments -- finish the gantlet uncompromised. Sometimes we never hear the message, so diverted are we by the messenger.
I look at our community's reflexive dismissal of black conservatives. At the hordes screaming racism, righteously or ridiculously -- from Marion Barry to the Dallas drug dealer who complained on a radio talk show that the police and black activists who'd routed him and his gang from a local neighborhood would have left them alone if they'd been white.
I see how influenced we are by a certain segment of the white society we profess to reject. By its materialism and isolation; its ethos of every man for himself. Whites pay a toll for such thinking, but their body count is lower -- so far.
Finally, I look at the probability that no matter how often we remind white Americans of their responsibility, how assiduously we hold their feet to the fire, they will never do right by us. What then? Will we stay stuck in the groove of searching for their recognition and reparation, that illusory 40 acres and a mule? Will we overlook the brilliance and resources that shine back at us from our own mirrors?
As I say this, I feel a hot hand clamping my mouth shut. It's okay to decry the carnage. It's fine to lay the blame on drugs, poverty or righteous anger. On the white man.
But to say that we, African Americans, are ultimately responsible for what happens to us is to take one's credibility, one's very blackness, into one's hands and toss it to the skies. Few of us are willing to risk finding out where it falls.
Three weeks into 1991 and, once again, my New Year's resolutions are either faltering or shattered:
Read daily to my kids. Exercise. Listen patiently as my son explains which Ninja Turtle is best this week. Meditate. Help with homework, do dishes and pack lunches with grace. Stop black folks from killing each other.
As a single mother, I am overwhelmed. When the notion of being additionally responsible for a hamster is a terror, pondering your responsibility to thousands of souls is immobilizing. But I'm reminded of five years ago, when I split with my husband and was hurt by what felt like a brief coolness from my in-laws. "I didn't make this happen," I protested to a friend. "Their son was more at fault than I."
She stared at me. "But he's theirs," she said. And she was right.
"They" -- the gunslingers, the baby outlaws -- are ours. And though I welcome whites' efforts toward fixing the lives that they helped to mess up, I believe we can do the best job of helping our own. Who has a bigger stake?
So I claim responsibility. Next senseless death I hear of, I'll ask, "How did I let this happen?" Next outrageous tragedy grabs a headline, I'll wonder, "What am I doing so this won't happen again?"
But being responsible isn't enough. I have to act. And I'll have to climb over myself to do it.
I get in my way constantly. By asking questions like, "Who am I, a middle-class suburbanite, to think I have worthwhile solutions to offer?" By wondering, "Have I time to help?" By thinking, "Hey, I speak inspiring words to black kids, write honest pieces about black lives, work hard to raise my boys right. Isn't that enough?"
No. I can do more. We all can.
I can begin to look at the underclass as I look at my own family and friends -- if my boys or parents or best pals need something, I do my damnedest to give it to them. It isn't a burden because they're mine.
I can actively participate as a tutor or a mentor; join one of the 200 groups locally that address our problems. I can let schools know, as I'm doing right now, that I will talk to students once every week.
I can find ways to help the bad and the beleaguered accept their responsibility, and to move on. Do my part in dismantling the excuse machine. Teach my kids that my commitment to strangers is truly a commitment to them, and to me.
I can accept what I can't do. I can't give people so much I think they need: lucrative alternatives to the street's bounty; more leaders who mobilize us by reminding us of our power and possibility; more of the understanding that as lethal as white racism is, hating your own black self is far deadlier. I can't give anybody the sense of God -- of the largeness of Him, of that sense of rising to something better -- that gives me hope.
All I can give them is me. But if everyone said, "I am responsible," if each of us thought long and hard and creatively about what he or she could do; if we all gave ourselves as if our lives depended on it -- as surely they do -- we'd dent the madness. Wouldn't we?
I wish I were sure. A lasting solution to a problem as mind-boggling as Don't Come Near Me or I'll Kill You will require more sweat, more imagination than has ever been required of our overtaxed community. Taking responsibility is just a start.
But it brings us to what we truly must do if we are to save ourselves: refuse to throw up our hands, refuse to accept the notion that a generation of black children is lost to us. We can, as Martin Luther King suggested in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, "refuse to accept the idea that man is ... unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him." We can believe now, as he did then, that "amid today's whining bullets ... unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality."
Corny? Yeah. But in truth, the only antidote for something as frightening as Don't Come Near Me or I'll Kill You may be a bumper sticker that reads Don't Come Near Me or I'll Love You.
Now that would be really scary.
Ways To Help
Here's a very short list of groups using volunteers to provide tutoring, mentoring and other services to African Americans -- and in some case others -- in need. For a more complete listing of volunteer opportunities, contact the Volunteer Clearing House at 202-638-2664.
li,4 ft,ngoth cp,7,7.5 xi ih Concerned Black Men: Provides workshops, tutoring and mentors to black youth and runs the Stanton Elementary Adopt-a-School program. 1300 Seventh St. NW, Suite 1, Washington, D.C. 20001; 202-265-3175.
Coalition of 100 Black Women, D.C. Chapter: Mentoring, tutoring, counseling and other services provided mostly to young people. 1730 K St. NW, Suite 304, Washington, D.C. 20005; 202-296-0947.
Big Brothers of the National Capital Area: 1015 12th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; 202-789-4214.
Big Sisters of the Metropolitan Area: 4000 Albemarle St. NW, Suite 303, Washington, D.C. 20016; 202-244-1012.
Edward C. Mazique Parent and Child Center: Parenting workshops and tutorial programs for parents planning on taking high school equivalency tests. 1325 W St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009; 202-462-3375.
Midtown Youth Academy: After-school program designed to keep youth in school and off drugs; works with 4,000 youths from the inner city, halfway houses and shelters. 2206 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009; 202-483-3711.