While the nation wrangles over the deaths of black men at the hands of police, there are black boys living in high-crime D.C. neighborhoods who are just trying not to get shot. By anyone.
Some don’t go outside to play because there are too many shootouts in their neighborhoods. Some don’t walk home from school for fear of being hit by a stray bullet. Others don’t dare sleep by windows, if they get to sleep at all.
“I hear gunshots all the time,” said Donya Pimble, who is 11.
Tawj Tymus, 11, nodded in agreement. “All the time,” he repeated.
The boys were among 150 youngsters who had found safe haven in a summer camp run by an education nonprofit group called Life Pieces to Masterpieces. The group, founded in 1996, has pioneered a year-round character- and leadership-development program for black boys growing up in poor, violent neighborhoods.
“We tell our African American boys that they have the innate ability to triumph over any obstacle and to realize their biggest dreams,” said Selvon M. Waldron, executive director of the organization. “We let them know that they are not lacking in talent or intelligence, they are not deficient in any way. All they need to do is activate that inner power. You should see how they light up and get to work.”
In the 20 years since the program began, Waldron said, most of the boys — they now number in the thousands — who enrolled in Life Pieces to Masterpieces have graduated from high school and have been eligible to attend college.
Problem is, there are always more boys on the waiting list than the program can handle. More than a hundred are trying to get in right now. Life Pieces could always use more volunteers to help the boys with homework. They could use more money for field trips and more healthy foods for snacks. And yet, when it comes to doing something to reduce gun violence, not enough people move from ranting to action.
Participants come mostly from Wards 7 and 8, where the rates of poverty and violent crime are among the highest in the country. Unemployment for black men in the two wards is estimated to be 30 percent.
At ages 3 to 14, the boys are too young to understand the structural underpinnings of the racial and economic inequities around them. But they are never too young to be blamed for behaviors that often stem from childhood traumas not of their making.
As early as age 3, black boys are being suspended from pre-K, in one case for “disobeying” because the child kept falling asleep at school. No one asked if gunfire had kept him awake at night. By age 9, black boys are being suspended more often, for longer periods of time and for less offensive behavior than any other group of students.
At 12, some boys become the “man of the house,” because far too often no adult male is present. By 17, some of them have become so stressed-out, so filled with doubts about their self-worth, that any perceived slight sets them off.
From then until their mid-20s, homicide will be the leading cause of death for so many young black men like him.
The paintings of the boys at Life Pieces to Masterpieces often reflect that tragic reality. There’s one with a question mark over a blank headstone? Whose is it? Who’s next? The black youths must face such questions almost daily.
“One of the younger boys was coloring in his coloring book, innocently, and said, nonchalantly, ‘Somebody got shot in my building today,’ ” Waldron recalled, “and he just kept on coloring.”
To boys growing up in such neighborhoods, it hardly matters who is doing the shooting. Cop or gangbanger, a bullet is a bullet. Anti-violence marches come. Police brutality protests go. But as these kids know all too well, when the marchers go away, you’ll still be dead.
Maybe that’s why superheroes are so popular among the boys at the summer camp.
“They are intensely interested in drawing characters with super powers,” said Minami Hofmann, a visiting artist and teacher at the program. Bulletproof characters, faster than a speeding bullet. “They’ll become the character and talk about using the super powers to help their communities and protect their families and friends,” she said.
This summer, the boys are also learning about South Africa and the personal qualities that made Nelson Mandela a national hero. How he turned anger and fear into courage and wisdom.
Not quite Superman or the Black Panther, but real and humanly possible.
“Mandela was brave and fought for justice,” said Avonte Forte, 11. “If I could change anything, I would work to stop the violence.”
It would be super, though, if the boys didn’t have to fight alone.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.