THERE ON HIS STOMACH, branded against his smooth black skin, was his mark of manhood. A scar from a bullet wound. The boy was 15 and the wound was two years old, placed there during a common street robbery in Northwest Washington.
The boy, whom I met on a playground of Meyer Elementary School at 11th and Clifton Streets NW, told me his name was Tommy. Pridefully, he pointed to the wound and said, "Check it out. I ain't no chump, dig? I ain't no chump."
He was robbed of about $5. He said the assailants shot him for kicks and fled. He said he didn't cry. He walked home and his mother took him to a hospital.
The next day, he was back on the street bragging about how tough he was.
Unfortunately, Tommy is not an anomaly. There are countless young black males in America walking around with bullet wounds. Others aren't as fortunate. In 1983, 6,822 black males were murdered -- almost as many as were killed in the whole Vietnam war. A black man in America stands a one-in-21 chance of being murdered in an entire lifetime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. One in 21! It is vastly worse odds than the one-in-104 for black women, or one-in-131 for white men, or one-in-369 for white women. And it's worse still in the cities; in 1980, the murder rate among urban black males doubled that for their rural brothers.
I do not write about black-on-black homicide from the vantage point of a detached observer. My black skin, my 1958 birth certificate and my male gender make me part of the endangered group. Personally, I'd rather have cancer. Currently, about 95 percent of murdered black males between 15 and 34 are killed by other young black males, which is as disheartening as it is hard to believe. These men who call each other "brother" are killing each other faster than any disease, including AIDS, cancer, sickle cell anemia and high blood pressure. Murder is the leading cause of death of young black males.
To find more homicidal areas than predominantly black American cities you have to look to underdeveloped areas like Guatemala, awash in political chaos and violence. So when I am in poor black neighborhoods, I think about death and dying. It seems to be all around me and anxious to meet me. My heart goes out to young, impoverished, idle, hostile and ill-educated black men, but I try to keep a careful eye on them.
I'm talking about walking down Eighth Street NE, near H, after dark, reporting on a story about the brutal killing of Catherine Fuller, and thinking about all the other shootings that occurred in similar neighborhoods but never received much coverage. I'm talking close-range confrontations; hand-to-hand combat; constantly wondering. Is someone following me? Are the guys on the corner thugs? Are they watching me? Are they scheming?
Will I have to fake them out, act like I have a gun by tapping my left side as if checking to see that my "piece" is snug and accessible? Will I have to add a little more rhythm to my walk, act like I'm tough, like I'm from the 'hood in order to save my life? The threat of violence must always be present. Gentle men don't survive here, you've got to be "Rambo," or John Wayne. I'm talking about walking down the street and hoping it's not the wrong place to be and the wrong time to be there. And if someone approaches me asking for a match to light his cigarette, I know it could be a set up, and I had better play it just right or it could cost me my life. Of course, the right answer would be, "No."
But it would be better for me to use some slang or some broken, black English and say, "Naw, man. I ain't got no match."
My white counterparts impress and intimidate each other by mentioning the names of the schools they attend or the names of powerful friends or relatives. For me, it's the way I walk. I've got to be cool.
This is not mere intuition. The odds of being murdered are greater among young black men than for any other single group in the civilized world, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 34 percent of all murder victims are black males, though they represent just 5.6 percent of the U.S. population. This senseless terrorism is out of control.
I am talking about being near 14th and U streets NW one midnight looking for a story about the underclass. A man holds a pistol to the head of another man lying on his back on the sidewalk.
It's about a debt in a drug deal. "Where's my money, m-----f----r?" the gunman asks.
"I aint got it, man."
The man with the gun cocks the pistol. The other man turns his head, tries to squirm away.
Half a dozen men about my age watch. Nobody says anything.
"I want my money now!"
Someone I'd befriended hours before the incident walks over to me and says he knows the debtor. He pleads with the gunman to give the debtor one hour to come up with the cash and he pleads with me to drive the guy to his home in a middle-class Northwest neighborhood to get the money. I am not eager to get involved, but out of a spontaneous emotion sparked by curiosity or brotherly love, I feel it is the right thing to do -- these brothers are messed up in many ways, but they are still human beings. So I do it.
Later, when the gunman counts the money, I see it amounts to about $20.
This is how millions of Americans live. This is what they think is normal. A terrible thing has happened to me and my brothers. But nobody cares. Let's face it, black murder is an old story. In 1920, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, whites had a murder rate of 4.9 per 100,000. For blacks it was 29.2. In 1950, the numbers were 2.6 for whites and 28 for blacks. In 1980, it was 7.0 and 33.8. Rarely is it front page news because it happens so often, it's boring and even expected. It's just something that happens. Even black people seem to accept it as axiomatic. But the silent treatment on the issue is actually not so silent at all. It says in a very loud, obnoxious, disturbing way that generally, members of our society believe that "blacks are going to kill blacks and there's nothing we can say or do about it that will make any real difference." Just like the people pulling the triggers, our society at large is saying: black life is cheap.
"Maybe," says Donald Temple, a young black man who works as a Congressional policy analyst and founded a community organization called Concerned Black Men, "Maybe if we piled all the bodies of blacks killed by blacks in front of the White House, maybe we'd get the message across. Maybe that would be as dynamic as the televised pictures of the starving Ethiopians."
Only quietly has the message started getting out. In recent months, the National Insitutes of Mental Health and the Surgeon General have all made the topic of "violence epidemiology" a high-priority issue of health as opposed to merely law enforcement. The CDC has formed a Violence Epidemiology Branch. They have a lot of work in front of them.
I was 10 when I first heard people shooting at each other. It was in a black neighborhood in Memphis, about ll o'clock one night. I was with my father and brother, visiting my grandmother. My father rushed into the bedroom, woke my brother and me and told us to hide under the bed. I could hear gunshots in the street outside the window and male voices shouting hostile obscenities.
"Stay down and be quiet," my father said.
After we were allowed back in bed I lay awake half the night. I had played with toy guns and watched lots of war movies, but none of it gave me a rush of excitement and curiosity like hearing those guns go off.
As I matured, fascination faded and depression and fear took its place as I happened upon closer encounters with angry "brothers" and their guns. When I was 16, a young black with a turtleneck sweater pulled up over his nose pointed a gun at my head during a robbery at a fast-food restuarant where I worked as a cook.
My half-brother, Steve, who grew up in Detroit, was shot several times in the chest, and lived to brag about it. But Steve, who died at 33 of a heart attack, used to tell me, "Ed, it's rough out here in these streets. You doin' the right thing stayin' in school, Ed. Hit those books and make something out of yourself, man. I wish I had listened when people told me that. But I didn't. I was livin' that fast life."
I heard constantly about friends and relatives who had been killed by other black men. I had friends who carried guns to feel safe and be cool. My good friend Rosevelt Whitaker started carrying a gun to avenge a school chum who had been chumped or bullied by two of his classmates. Rosevelt showed the bullies the gun and promised that he would use it if they messed with his friend again. They ran away. For the first time ever, the frail teenager felt a sense of power over other males who were tougher than he.
He grew to enjoy the comfort of having a gun with him at all times. Some dudes at Phelps Vocational School in Northeast D.C. poked fun at him for not completing a project correctly and one guy punched him in the face. He shot at them.
"Once you lose your virginity" as gunman, Rosevelt told me, you can shoot again and again without second thoughts, without remorse, without shame, without hesitation. He told me this at Lorton prison, where he is serving 20-to-life for getting high on purple haze, a hallucinogenic drug similar to LSD, and blowing away a white movie-theater owner at point-blank range. But, before doing so, it's important to note, he got his practice shooting at his peers, young blacks.
Perhaps there are so many killings among young black males because the level of anger is kept so very high -- often intentionally, consciously. In many black neighborhoods, exhibiting anger or toughness is a primary survival technique. You must look angry -- furrowed brow, grimace instead of a smile. You must walk angry, talk angry, think angry. Otherwise, a "brother" might think you're weak and try to take advantage of you.
This is what what people call street wisdom. It's wise to look any other young black male who comes across your path in the eye, but not stare at him. For God's sake, don't bump into him without quickly saying, "'scuse me." It may be wise to speak, to say hello, but then again it may be unwise, depending on the situation and the "vibe." And by all means, hello is not what I would want to say. Most likely it will be, "Wazzup?" Say it fast, deep and keep walking. If the other guy says, "Wazzup," I say, "Wazzup." We're not talking to each other -- I'm listening to my own voice more than to his. I really don't care wazzup, as long as he doesn't bother me.
On the mean streets of Washington, you're either a chump or a champ. You're cool or you're not. You're macho or gay. You're either with it or you ain't. You got it or you don't. You're savvy or awkward. You're hip or square. There seems to be little tolerance for the banal, the tame. You've got to have "some shit" with you, some "game." That way, people think that you can handle things and that you're regular. If I appear to be out of place, I'm a target. I'll be ridiculed and possibly attacked. As Langston Hughes wrote: "I stay cool and dig all jive. That's the reason I stay alive."
As I say, this is how millions of Americans live. Millions of children grow up to think it's normal. So does the rest of society -- that's why it doesn't care.
But whites and middle-class blacks are not immune for two reasons: 1) You never know when or where you will have to use a telephone or stop for gas and 2) The ghetto is never far away. In Washington, for example, there are dozens of neighborhoods where renovated houses in one block belong to yuppie married couples and their cute dogs while deteriorating apartment buildings around the corner are inhabited by impoverished people. The chances of running into one of those at the lower economic level who is short-tempered, possibly involved in drug activity and armed is not far-fetched.
Still, it is more likely that I, not a white person, will be killed by a black. Only about 5 percent of one-on-one white murders are committed by blacks. In any case, I believe that getting in an argument with a young black man is like comitting suicide. If I am driving down the street and a black guy gets angry because I cut in front of him, I'll let him curse me, give me the finger, whatever. I will not return anger, because to do so might instigate an assault, which could all too easily be fatal. I have come too close, too often.
Last summer in Chicago, for instance, I was on the South Side, near the Dan Ryan Expressway, and I pulled into a gas station to make a call. There was a black guy about my age sitting in a car parked near the two pay phones. After I picked up the receiver on one of the phones, the guy got out of his car and slammed his fist against the side of my booth.
He stared at me.
I tried to be cool, sort of smiled. He did not. In fact, my reaction made him frown even more.
I said: "You waitin' on a call, huh, bro."
The brother grunted and gestured with his hands. He was saying, "Dummy, can't you see I was waiting for a call?"
I told him matter-of-factly but gently, "I figured you were waiting to use the phone, my man. Give me one second."
The "brother" cut his eyes away for a second in disgust. I told my party that I would call right back. I moved to the other phone and started dialing while I kept my eye on the guy -- he was definitely carrying a lot of anger. After a few moments, the first phone rang and he started talking. I was relieved to know that he could talk and glad as hell that he had something to keep him busy while I was still in his presence.
Much as I wanted to avoid looking like a wimp, I also wanted to avoid an argument. In 1982, more than 65 percent of young black male murder victims were killed during or after an argument. And the weapons used are the most lethal ones. According to recent statistics, in about 71 percent of the homicides that involve young "brothers," they use guns to kill each other, mostly easily concealed handguns. They use knives in about 20 percent of the killings and in about 10 percent of the murders, they use other objects or their bare hands.
There is no limit to the escalation of violence, little sense of fair fight, little agreement that an argument settled by mere fists is settled for good. A couple of years ago in Washington, one black teen-aged male was fatally stabbed by another who had just lost a fistfight to the victim, according to witnesses.
The killer pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was released after serving about two years in jail, indicating that black life sometimes carries a very cheap price.
Justice is cheap in many black neighborhoods, for sure -- you do it yourself. There are no judges or juries, no civil grievances argued by lawyers. There are precious few neighborhood arbitrators or "godfathers" to settle disputes.
According to James A. Mercy and Mark L. Rosenberg at the Center for Disease Control, the basic character of a black male who is predisposed to kill is this: He is young, unemployed and poor; he subscribes to the ideology that masculinity means having a dominant male social role and he lives in a racially segregated environment and is the victim of discrimination; his self-esteem is centered around his physical prowess and abilities as opposed to mental achievements; his verbal skills are underdeveloped; he may consume a high degree of television and media violence along with a lot of drugs and alcohol. And he has a weapon.
Rosenberg and Mercy say that to prevent such black males from committing a homicide, society must do many things, including eliminate poverty, change conceptions of masculinity, reduce use of drugs and alcohol and teach conflict resolution skills for young males. Personally, I've seen many hostile brothers "cool out" -- not from serving time in prison, but from getting a good education, attaining a level of success and achieving the ability to express themselves in intellectual and creative ways. It's those self-hating brothers with nowhere to go and nothing to do who are mainly involved in this violence. Once they get on track, get some direction in life, they grow into decent men. Until then, they are like faulty bombs, ready to go off at a touch.
And until then, I won't trust them and they won't trust me. My black "brother," potentially the most important ally in the on-going struggle to uplift our race, is my enemy.
Whites and middle-class blacks, of course, deny the possibility that they could one day be affected. But if they believe that, why do they fear charismatic black fanatics who preach against "white devils" and "Uncle Toms?"
In the black community, urban terror has existed for years in the form of blacks murdering blacks and it's time to look at the tragedy as the national crisis that it is. Black people's pride and togetherness and the respect we have for our heritage will be measured by the extent to which we are willing to go to solve this problem. It is up to us blacks to call for the cease fire. As Calvin Rolark, a D.C. newspaper publisher and president of the United Black Fund has said: No one can save us from us but us.