In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much – how little — is
Within our power
– Emily Dickinson
I am sometimes called to police stations to help young people in conflict with the law. Back in August, my neighbor’s son was arrested and I received a panicked call from her. They live in a building across the street from mine. By the time I got to the police station, he was being released. Apparently he was part of a neighborhood sweep and was arrested with several of his friends by our local police. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong. I believed him especially since he was so quickly released from custody.
I received some devastating news this morning. The young man shot himself two weeks ago in South Carolina. He is dead and he left no note. His sister called to tell me the news. The entire family is crushed.
Apparently, the young man had been sent to live with his uncle in South Carolina in order to provide him with a less stressful environment. His mother had been rocked by her eldest son’s arrest. She worried deeply that he might meet a tragic end if he continued to walk the streets of Chicago. A young black man in this city is always at risk. My neighbor who is a single mother of three thought that her brother could provide her first born with the support and mentorship that she felt she no longer could when he turned 17 last March. After the August incident, she shipped him off to South Carolina for his senior year of high school.
Now he is gone… Too soon… Today I am haunted by some words that he shared with me when I ran into him a week after his arrest. I asked him how he was doing. He answered in the way that 17 year old young men sometimes do, with a monosyllabic response: “OK,” he said. I told him that we would need to get his arrest expunged from his juvenile record. Then he said: “It doesn’t matter, nothing good is going to happen for me anyway.” I was on my way to a meeting (which I was running late for) and I casually answered: “Don’t say that. Of course good things are in store for you.” I told him that I had to run and that I would see him soon. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t think about our conversation again until this morning after I heard the news of his suicide.
As I write this, I am having trouble seeing the computer screen through my tears. I didn’t follow up to see how he was doing. I didn’t know that he had been in South Carolina since early September. I didn’t recognize the depth of his pain. I simply didn’t see it.
His sister told me that a friend of his has said the young man was depressed and saw no future for himself. He didn’t have the grades to get a scholarship for college. Apparently, his friend told the family that he received an e-mail from the young man a couple of weeks before he shot himself. In it, he wrote in capital letters: “I HATE MYSELF AND MY SKIN.”
The tears won’t stop. I have no more words. I don’t want to write anymore so I will let James Baldwin, my favorite writer, speak for me. In 1970, he wrote his eloquent Open Letter to Angela Davis. I basically have the letter memorized because I find it so relevant and timely for our current historical moment in the U.S. I will quote two particular passages that are, to my mind, relevant to the tragedy of my neighbor’s son’s untimely passing. May his soul find the peace that he couldn’t find in our world.
“The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make Black people despise themselves. When I was little I despised myself; I did not know any better. And this meant, albeit unconsciously, or against my will, or in great pain, that I also despised my father. And my mother. And my brothers. And my sisters. Black people were killing each other every Saturday night out on Lenox Avenue, when I was growing up; and no one explained to them, or to me, that it was intended that they should; that they were penned where they were, like animals, in order that they should consider themselves no better than animals. Everything supported this sense of reality, nothing denied it: and so one was ready, when it came time to go to work, to be treated as a slave. So one was ready, when human terrors came, to bow before a white God and beg Jesus for salvation—this same white God who was unable to raise a finger to do so little as to help you pay your rent, unable to be awakened in time to help you save your child!
We know that we, the Blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.”