a : purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art
b : a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension
3: elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression
After all of these years, I have gotten used to the early morning phone calls. They never bring good news. Yesterday, a young man I’ve known for three years was shot. He was one of over a dozen people shot and/or killed in Chicago overnight. We are used to these numbers. This was actually on the low end of the usual range.
I was alerted about the shooting by his cousin: another young person I’ve known for a few years. I went to the hospital to check on him. He will recover. The temporary relief was quickly replaced by dread that cannot be dislodged in the pit of my stomach. I learned from his cousin that his friends were already planning their retaliation for the shooting. The cycle of violence is unbroken.
As I waited to see him, I spoke to his family members and what came across was a profound sense of weariness and of resignation. He’s been talking about dying violently since he was 10 years old, his aunt tells me. What is the antidote to this certainty about one’s impending mortality? Whenever I start to slip into a mode of thinking about death as an abstraction, I am slammed right back into reality by events.
When I finally see him, he smiles wanly. His first words are: “Think I’ll be on the news, Ms. K?” I burst into tears.
This is what it’s about, isn’t it? Even lying in the hospital shot, he can’t show any vulnerability. He is still sarcastic and ‘tough.’ He’s a teenager, not yet a man. He’s scared and I know it. I’m sobbing. “Awww, don’t Ms. K. Look, I’m good. I promise, I’m good.” But he’s not “good.” I apologize and ask if he needs anything. I don’t ask what happened. I don’t care.
Driving home, I try to gather my emotions. It’s difficult because I know that most people don’t give a damn about this young man or about his life. He lives in a community rife with structural and interpersonal violence. While I was lying in bed unable to sleep, I read an op-ed in the New York Times that captures the unremarkable routineness of violence in such neighborhoods.
“to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” – James Baldwin (quoted in Joan Didion’s “The White Album” 1979, p.30)
I think also about the unrelenting societal hatred and oppression directed at him and at his peers. Earlier this week, conscious black people in Chicago had more reason to be enraged. A white woman said she was robbed in broad daylight on Michigan Ave by a mob of black teens. Coverage of the event saturated our local airwaves:
An elderly woman was confronted on the Magnificent Mile by a mob of young men on Wednesday, who proceeded to take $100,000 worth of jewelry she was wearing.
A Chicago police source said the 69-year-old woman from Homewood Flossmoor was accosted by 10 to 12 African American men while walking in the 700 block of North Michigan around noon in front of Saks Fifth Avenue.
By Friday, it was revealed that she had lied. She fabricated the story but to many this doesn’t matter. Her name has still not been released. She remains anonymous. All we know is that she is a wealthy elderly ‘philanthropist’ who lives in the South suburbs. The young men who she accused of robbery are also anonymous, nameless. But they aren’t faceless, she said that they were black. Just the accusation is enough to impugn an entire race (still). We know this nameless “criminalblackman.” This is a familiar story.
An anonymous person writing in “The Independent” on September 18, 1902 explained the process of criminalizing black people:
Whenever a crime is committed in the South the policemen look for the negro in the case. A white man with face and hands blackened can commit any crime in the calendar. The first friendly stream soon washes away his guilt and he is ready to join in the hunt to lynch the “big, black burly brute.” When a white man in the South does commit a crime, that is simply one white man gone wrong. If his crime is especially brutal he is a freak or temporarily insane. If one low, ignorant black wretch commits a crime, that is different. All of us must bear his guilt. A young white boy’s badness is simply the overflowing of young animal spirits; the black boy’s badness is badness, pure and simple (in Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, edited by Gerda Lerner, 1972, p.168).
The trope of the “criminalblackman” serves as the key organizing principle in the treatment of blacks in this country. I can’t imagine how it will be dislodged. What I know for sure is that it has been and is killing us slowly as a race. So many of our young have to swallow their rage as they find themselves surveilled in stores and on the streets, as they try to make themselves small in elevators and in school, as they are targeted by cops for endless stop & frisks and as they are locked in cages by the thousands. I am amazed that so many are resilient and don’t lose their sanity. But some are in fact dying slowly…
I am a child of America
a step child
raised in a back room
I think again of his first words to me: “Think I’ll be on the news, Ms. K?” I hear them differently now. This is a young man living in exile in his own country. His humanity is unacknowledged. He languishes in a place that Richard Wright has called “No Man’s Land.” He is allowed no feelings. He is just a threat: all of our fears rest on and in him. I realize that perhaps he is asking whether he has been “seen” by the larger world. Have we taken notice of him? Do we know that he exists? Maybe this is his way of writing himself back into our national story. I don’t know.
I feel exhausted and want to close my eyes to what’s happening. In this moment, I wish I could be oblivious. So many others seem to be… My tears are uncontrollable now; the tissues are soaked. I pull over and call a friend. “Stay where you are, I’m coming to get you,” he says.”It’s OK, I’ll drive to you,” I respond. Somehow, I make it to his place still in one piece. I haven’t broken apart. He makes lunch. I try to breathe. Hours later, I’m still struggling to catch my breath…