I am haunted by a photograph of a grandmother's anguish. To see the pain in the face of Rosa Brantley as she mourns her grandson Sean Smith, 15, is to witness the generational cry of all mothers who have seen a child die young. But Brantley's pain is deeper. It is the ancestral anguish of black mothers and grandmothers who have seen their babies killed, who don't understand what went wrong and are helpless to stop the slaughter.
Any parents who have ever sacrificed for their children must empathize with Brantley, who stayed at home and reared 10 grandsons with the help of a 27-year-old daughter. Both mercifully free of today's narcissism, they were swimming against the tide of a bad environment with systemic problems, but they were helpless to save Sean Smith, who had struggled against being sucked into the cesspool.
But what many Washingtonians either don't see or won't face is that the cesspool doesn't stop on the east side of the Anacostia River. Kids are shooting kids all over town. Once it was the city's young men who died at each other's hands. Now it is boys of 12 and 15 and 17, barely brushing or struggling through adolescence, innocent of whiskers and profound thoughts, whose lives are ending before they begin.
And no one is safe in an environment in which life is so completely devalued. Some residents may dismiss District youth fatalities, which were part of a record number of homicides in our city last year, as isolated incidents, even noting that the increased use of firearms by youths here is part of a national trend. But the fact is, these youth fatalities strike closer to home. Not only do many of the city's first generation middle-class blacks still have relatives or friends who live in these neighborhoods ("There but for the grace of God go I"), but, make no mistake about it, if this problem gets out of hand, their own children are not safe, even those who live in the suburbs.
As blacks, however, they are really our kids and we bear responsibility for them, whether they live in Southeast, Northeast or Prince George's County. It's not just that they rub shoulders with our own kids -- at the go-gos, in schools, at Capital Centre concerts and basketball games. But the fact is, we can keep our own kids safe only to the extent that we can help them.
A first step is recognizing the alienation of these youths, which reaches as deep as that described by Franz Fanon in "Wretched of the Earth." Permeated by low self-esteem while harboring a deep psychological yearning to be a part of this country, their seemingly endless appetite for designer clothes is a feeble way to satisfy their need to "prove" that they "are somebody." But they are so spiritually dead that they can even use a euphemism for killing people -- some laughingly call it "popping" a person.
The roots of their aberrant behavior go deep, according to Howard University sociologist Joyce Ladner. "Some of their mothers and grandmothers came of age at the same time we saw the demise of the extended family and the exit of a lot of black families who, profiting from gains of the civil rights movement, finally broke loose from the inner city and moved to the suburbs. But the people who stayed are fighting an uphill battle every day trying to stave off outside bad influences of drugs, bad housing, crime and poor schools."
Furthermore, the male figures in their lives have gotten caught in the transformation of the American market economy in which automobile and steel plants have closed, jobs have been exported to the Third World and to the Sunbelt, and unemployment among poorly educated black men in the cities has skyrocketed.
As U.S. materialism has increased under Reaganism, the polarization between the haves and the have-nots has widened. And as quiet as it's kept, the rules of success have been so rewritten that a whole generation of the black underclass has been relegated to scrap heap of history. Sad to say, many inner-city families are viewed with contempt by some black middle-class people.
Now another generation is about to be written off: the one that includes the children who are substituting guns for fists to steal or settle arguments of respect, turf and clothing. Forgotten by the rest of the city, some schools are havens surrounded by drugs and killings. One junior high principal in Southeast told a reporter of wanting his children to know about geography and long division, but because of a reality dictated by environment, they were more interested in who got shot, who got caught and where it's safe to walk. These are pressures as enormous as if a bomb had been dropped on only certain neighborhoods, while sparing others.
Yet as with nuclear fallout, the residue does not stay put; we all can get sucked into the cesspool. Indeed, the District increasingly seems to be moving closer to Detroit, a city that has come to symbolize the agony of youth fatalities and where guns are as commonly used as fists.
But before Washington reaches the infamy of Detroit, we must reclaim our children. That means the middle class, churches, the mayor and other city officials, government workers -- indeed, all of us -- must stand up, speak out, take to the streets if necessary. For this is war, and the opening shots have already been fired.