Even Urban Kids …

In an interview of Vincent Harding done by Krista Tippet, Harding talked about his commitment to young people, speaking to their hope and their desire to effect change. He recounted a story of youth from Philadelphia who visited him in Colorado. They were greeted with love and respect and one young man asked Harding, “Uncle Vincent,” (they had begun calling him that), “how can you love us so much?”

The question was a powerful one for Harding because it spoke to these young people who still had hope untapped within them. They were clearly “urban” youth in appearance, Harding said; they dressed, spoke and behaved as the stereotypical urban young person is wont to do. But the question from the young man belied a part of urban youth that is typically ignored or even thought to exist: souls that yearn to be loved, appreciated, respected…and serve.

Harding’s story reminded me of an encounter I had some years ago. I was speaking to an unruly crowd in a high school in Columbus, Ohio. To say they were unruly is an understatement, actually. They were rude and loud …and were not the least bit interested in hearing my little presentation on Black History. It was important to me…but I am afraid I failed in communicating my love for black history to them.

After the presentation, I had the audacity to ask them if there were any questions. I was quite ready and prepared to just exit the stage and the auditorium… to my surprise, a young woman, very pretty, raised her hand. I asked her if she would stand, and she ignored me. I asked her again…standing would help me and others hear her question, but, egged on by her peers, she refused and made a rude comment. I had to hold myself back; I am “old school,” and was taught that youth are to respect their “elders.”  I wanted to remind her who the elder was in this moment.

But I was silent. I listened to her question and answered as best I could. Not a moment too soon, my time with this assembly was done. I was on the front row, gathering my things, when to my surprise, standing in front of me was the young woman who had asked the question.

I looked up …and was surprised. In her eyes were giant crocodile tears. She said, “I am sorry I was rude. I thought you were good…I just want to know, how do I know God loves me?”

I had to choke back my own tears.  This girl, who could not have been much more than 16, was pleading for help. I supposed that among her peers, it would have seemed “uncool” to appear interested or to come off “polite.” Yet, there she stood, the tears in her eyes telling the story of the pain in her spirit. She wanted love. She had something to give but without love, it was never going to come out.

I hugged her and answered her as best I could. I gave her some books she could read. And I told her she could contact me at the church whenever she wanted. I never heard from her again. I hope she graduated and went to college and is in the process of loving this society of which she is a part.

The story of the young man who questioned Dr. Harding, and the young woman who questioned me, tells me that instead of complaining that urban kids are unruly, bad and impossible to deal with, there ought to be more of us looking for ways to reach their spirits and souls. They are human beings, not urban objects. They have songs to sing, the songs of talent and gifts they were meant to share with the world. I am almost sure there would be fewer gangs if more of us could find a way to reach these kids, too many of whom feel unloved and unneeded.

Just this weekend, Hadiya Pendleton was buried, an innocent victim of yet another shooting in Chicago. She made a plea for there to be fewer gangs, but that will never happen if kids keep growing up feeling worthless. It seems that the gang activity, the behavior that causes so many shootings in urban areas, is more a function of kids failing to thrive because of lack of positive attention and pouring into their young minds and spirits. It would not be surprising if the person who shot young Hadiya was performing some sort of initiation ritual for a group of young boys who have banded and bonded together in order to feel respected, loved and needed. Left with far too much time on their own, they devise ways to find that which every human being needs.

I read a story shared by Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until she left the safe confines of her all-black community and went out into the world that she felt the alienation that so many urban kids feel within their own communities. She was looking for a job to earn money for college, but she had cut job postings out of the white section of the newspaper, and was rebuffed again and again by incredulous white employers who told her over and over that they “didn’t hire colored.”

She was getting used to that, but came to watershed moment when, one day in her native Memphis, a thunderstorm began while she was out looking for a job. Her grandmother, “old school,” had taught her that one remains inside, quiet and if at all possible, hidden while the storm was on. The storm was to be respected, her grandmother would say, because “God was doing his work.” Being in the midst of such a storm, outside in it, for goodness’ sake, went against everything she had been taught. Yet, when she looked at building to which she might have run for cover, she saw white faces looking at her, with the unspoken sentence, “not in here you won’t come.”

She didn’t try. She walked to the “black side” of town to try to find shelter, but ended up getting on the bus. She was angry. She felt the lack of love and concern and respect for her being just because she was black. She defiantly sat in the “white” section of the bus, on the front side seat. Nobody bothered her.

The difference between Gwendolyn and our kids is that Gwendolyn had a movement into which to pour her anger, creativity and dreams. She was enveloped by people, black and white, who loved her and showed her respect. Any possibility of failure to thrive was cut short by the people who stood in the breach.

There seem to be too few people standing in the breach, and so young innocent children, like Hadiya, are cut down before they get to give to the world their unique gifts. The children who are rude and defiant now were not born that way. They were created and shaped by all sorts of factors.

There are a lot of young urban girls and boys with “crocodile tears” in their eyes and spirits. We just have to take the time to look for them.

A candid observation…

Black Men, Dying

Some time ago, the late playwright James Chapmyn wrote a play entitled, Our Young Black Men Are Dying and Nobody Seems to Care. The play highlights the struggles African-American men face in this country and shows how it affects their very psyches, their spirits, their will to go on …

I thought about that as I read about the latest incident of a black man being shot and killed in Chicago. The 30-year old father was sitting in his home when a shot rang out from a passing car. It went through a window of his home, hitting him in the head and instantly killing him.

Ironically, his mother was visiting a friend not too far away. The two of them were talking about another son of hers who in April of this year was killed by gunfire. He was 25 years old. When she heard the shots fired while she was visiting her friend, she immediately bolted out to see what had happened. To her horror, her second son lay dead.

The rate of black men dying by homicide is high and has always been high; the homicide rate in the city of Chicago for the month of November was 49 percent. Black men are dying, either on the streets or in prisons, and nobody seems to care.

There has been legitimate outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, allegedly by George Zimmerman earlier this year, and just a couple of weeks ago, a young, unarmed African-American teen, Jordan Davis, was shot after a white man, irritated because the music in the SUV in which a  group of young black men were riding was too loud, allegedly fired eight shots into the vehicle, killing Davis. Again, there is outrage as the accused man, Michael Dunn, may try to use the same “stand your ground” law that Zimmerman is using as justification for his actions and that outrage is legitimate.

But where is the outrage over the fact that black people keep killing…black people? Is there outrage and the media simply does not cover it, or has the African-American community grown numb to the widespread violence in so many of its communities?

There are a few isolated souls who protest against the violence that rips through too many African-American communities. Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church. leads an annual march against violence in Chicago. Other pastors have been known to lead protests and hold conferences to address the issue.

But their efforts get little national attention. It is as though the country has fallen asleep on this issue, not caring about the young men, dying…

This issue is difficult to even write about. Dr. Robert Franklin, the outgoing president of Morehouse College, said in passing last week that our young black men need much help. Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, has identified the so-called “cradle to prison” syndrome. Tony Harris, a former CNN anchor, recently did a documentary about the plight of young black men living in Baltimore. He, too, said that there is so much to be done.

Violence often comes, writes Dr. Joy Degruy Leary in Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America‘s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, because of anger, and anger in African-Americans is directly linked to legacy of chattel slavery in this country. She asks, “Why is it that anger is such a large part of the experience of most African-Americans?”   Her answer, quoting Dr. James Samuels, is that “anger is the normal response to a blocked goal. Often, if a person’s goal remains blocked over time, they will begin to consider the possibility of failure and so experience fear, and when we are fearful, we also lash out with anger.”

Young African-Americans are faced with feeling “less than” and “not worthy” early on in their lives. They are parented by parents who wrestle with feelings of failure, and then they go to school which are often in bad physical shape, with substandard teachers, huge classes, outdated books, and far too little of what they need to receive a quality education. Jonathon Kozol writes that he has seen little black children enter school excited about being there, but by third grade, their excitement is gone; they have internalized that they are “not so special.” They stop trying. They fall into a mindset that is ripe for the anger that produces violence.

Dr. Leary says that African-American parents continue to raise their children “in the face of a multitude to indignities, disrespect and blocked goals. Their frustration is passed on to their children…

And so, black men, black youth, black boys are dying, either on the streets, or they end up in prisons and die spiritually while they are caged up.

More of us need to care.  The 49 percent homicide rate in Chicago for the month of November is scary, and Chicago is not the only major urban area experiencing this kind of violence.  If we in the African-American community have fallen asleep in order to numb ourselves to the constant pain of our young men, dying, we need to wake up and look at the issue in a new way…and do something. White America needs to understand that much of the violence in our country is due to young people feeling hopeless and frustrated due to the shock waves of slavery and its child, racism; Michael Dunn, accused of shooting and killing Jordan Davis, is a victim of racism, too.  Nobody, black or white, can afford to ignore  or escape the problem.

Author James Baldwin said in an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961 that he was no longer angry with America. He said he is very worried about it…because the “country has no notion whatever of what it has done to itself.” The price of keeping blacks and whites separated, stepping on one race while lifting up the other, has had disastrous effects on both races. Both races are violent.

But the violence in urban communities comes too often from black people hurting black people. Too many African-American communities are sleeping and too many white communities are point accusatory fingers and shaking their heads about “those people.”

There is not “those people.” There is “us people,” and “us people” need to all be concerned and working against the epidemic of black men, dying.

A candid observation …