Feb 07 2013

Scaring Black Children: Night Riders, the New York Times & Trips to Hospital Emergency Rooms…

I couldn’t sleep last night…

The New York Times published an article yesterday that profoundly disturbed me. I haven’t been able to shake it. Even though I’m an insomniac, thinking about it kept me up so I decided to write about it here. The article opens:

In a darkened classroom, 15 eighth graders gasped as a photograph appeared on the screen in front of them. It showed a dead man whose jaw had been destroyed by a shotgun blast, leaving the lower half of his face a shapeless, bloody mess.

Next came a picture of the bullet-perforated legs of someone who had been shot with an AK-47 assault rifle, and then one of the bloated abdomen of a gunshot victim with internal injuries so grievous that the patient had to be fitted with a colostomy bag to replace intestines that can no longer function normally.

Temple University hospital in Philadelphia is sponsoring a program called “Cradle to Grave.” Again, I turn to the Times for a description of the program:

The unusual program, called Cradle to Grave, brings in youths from across Philadelphia in the hope that an unflinching look at the effects that guns have in their community will deter young people from reaching for a gun to settle personal scores, and will help them recognize that gun violence is not the glamorous business sometimes depicted in television shows and rap music.

The program is open to all schools in the city, but about two-thirds of the participants were referred by officials from the juvenile justice system. Children younger than 13 are not normally admitted. So far, about 7,000 teenagers have participated since it began in 2006, and despite the graphic content, no parent has ever complained, said Scott P. Charles, the hospital’s trauma outreach coordinator.

This program sounds like another offshoot of the “ Scared Straight” programs from the late 80s and 90s that used to take black and brown children to visit prisons to show them how “terrible” they were in order to “prevent” them from ending up behind bars. Besides the fact that “Scared Straight” programs have proven to be completely ineffective and even counterproductive, they are also profoundly cruel.

I often say that our society hates black & brown children. I am always accused of generalizing or of hyperbole. But I can point to a pile of evidence that I am in fact right. I think that people who protest at this characterization are focused on whether individuals are mean to other individuals. They look at themselves and think I don’t have any personal animus towards individual black & brown children. That’s fine. What I see, however, is a set of policies and programs that harm children of color consistently and disproportionately. I count this Temple University Cradle to Grave program as more evidence of how much we despise black and brown youth in this country (especially if they are poor).

Close your eyes and imagine the children from Sandy Hook being subjected to such a program. I’ll bet that you can’t imagine it, if you are being honest. For Sandy Hook’s children, such a program would be seen as “traumatizing.” But for the young people who I work with here in Chicago, we assume that Cradle to Grave is just fine because after all they’ve seen worse, haven’t they? There is no “innocence” to protect in Jamaal and Shenay.

Yet on the same day that the Times published their article about the Cradle to Grave program in Philly, Ta-Nehisi Coates was featured on the opinion page writing about the trauma of gun violence for inner city youth. Here’s an excerpt that I found particularly poignant:

I grew up in Baltimore during a time when the city was in the thrall of crack and Saturday night specials. I’ve spent most of my life in neighborhoods suffering their disproportionate share of gun violence. In each of these places it was not simply the deaths that have stood out to me, but the way that death corrupted the most ordinary of rituals. On an average day in middle school, fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety. I feared the block 10 times more than any pop quiz. My favorite show in those days was “The Wonder Years.” When Kevin Arnold went to visit his lost-found love Winnie Cooper, he simply hopped on his bike. In Baltimore, calling upon our Winnie Coopers meant gathering an entire crew. There was safety in numbers. Alone, we were targets.

Coates beautifully articulates the sense of foreboding and routine trauma that he and some of his peers carried with them growing up in an inner city community. What good would it have done to take a young man like Coates into a hospital emergency room to see severed limbs and gun shot wounds? Wasn’t he already experiencing enough anxiety, worry, and pain? Isn’t he already surrounded by the fear of premature death? Why isn’t our focus to provide grief counseling and healing circles for young people who feel that they are living under siege? Why is “tough love” always the default remedy for black & brown children?

As usual when I am overwhelmed with questions and can’t find immediate answers, I turn to history. Several years ago, I watched a documentary about Robert F. Williams titled “Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams & Black Power.” The film references an incident that Williams helped to publicize which became known as the “Kissing Case.”

It was 1958. Two little boys, Dick Simpson & James Hanover Thompson ages 8 and 10 respectively, were playing with an interracial group of children in Monroe, North Carolina. One of the kids in the group suggested that they play a “kissing game.” As part of the game, the boys sat in a circle and the girls took turns sitting on their laps and kissing them on the cheek. After a while, the children ended their game and went home.

A little white girl named Sissy Sutton was telling her sister about the game at home later that day when her mother overheard the conversation. She became concerned when she heard that black boys were involved in this incident. Concern quickly turned to fury. Sissy’s mother armed herself, gathered up some friends and went looking for the two black boys intent on killing them. Someone called the police. They arrived to find the mob of white people already at James Thompson’s home. When the boys arrived, they were arrested and accused of raping Sissy.

During the time that they were in police custody, the boys were severely beaten. They were tortured physically but as importantly psychologically. In the Negroes With Guns documentary, we learn about an incident that occurred on Halloween night. The boys were locked in a cell in the basement. It was dark. They heard people coming down the stairs. The boys looked up to find several “men” dressed in white sheets screaming and yelling at them. The “men” threatened to kill them. Absolutely terrified, the boys screamed for help. They knew about the KKK in Monroe. Even at 8 and 10 years old, they were aware that the Klan killed black people. As the young boys screamed, the “men” pulled off their sheets which revealed their police uniforms. Think of the terror that those children experienced. It must have felt like the worst of all worlds to them: they were afraid of being killed by the Klan, only to find themselves face to face again with the police officers who were their torturers in the first place. Scaring black children has precedent.

White people have always fostered & exploited black people’s fears in this country. As I’ve written before, it was not accidental that the early members of the Klan chose to wear white sheets. The origins of this costume can be found in slavery. In the book Night Riders in Black Folk History, Gladys-Marie Fry shares a story that was recounted to her by a black resident of Washington D.C. who had heard it from his ex-slave ancestors:

“Back in those days they had little log cabins built around in a circle, around for the slaves. And the log cabins, they dabbed between two logs, they dabbed it with some mortar. And of course when that fall out, you could look out and see. But every, most every night about eight or nine o’clock this overseer would get on his white horse and put a sheet over him, and put tin cans to a rope and drag it around. And they told all the slaves. ‘Now if you poke your head out doors after a certain time, monster of a ghost will get you.’ They peeped through and see that and never go out. They didn’t have to have guards.”

Fry makes the case in the book that these disguises were intended to scare slaves and to exert social control. It isn’t surprising that the first Klansmen would adopt this uniform and add their own embellishments to it. They were playing on blacks’ beliefs about the supernatural which would have had their roots in African religions.

We’ve become so accustomed to fear and have internalized so much trauma as black people that some of us have become enured to the cruelty of subjecting our children to programs intended to scare them straight. The Times unironically quotes a person with the title of “trauma outreach coordinator” as saying that “no parent has ever complained.” It would be funny if his obliviousness weren’t so tragic for black & brown children.

I don’t know what else to say about the Cradle to Grave program except that a person whose job it is to be a trauma outreach coordinator should really know & do better. We are in desperate need of better history education in this country. I believe in the adage that when you know better, you do better. Black people, we have to refuse to allow our children to participate in these programs. We must demand healing opportunities for them instead. The impact of the violence of racism and oppression is profound. If you don’t believe me, just listen to a 62 year old James Hanover Thompson recounting the impact that the kissing case had on his life. Also please read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s column. The following sentence really resonated with me:

But in some corners of America great tragedy has bloomed into a world that does not simply raise the ranks of the dead but shrinks the world of the survivors.

I really think that programs like Cradle to Grave contribute to “[shrinking] the world of the survivors” by exacerbating their trauma while providing no outlets for their grief and no space for healing. Quoting Nancy Regan, let’s “just say no” to these programs.