In the fall of 2013, an 18-year-old walked into my classroom and chose a seat in the back. He was tall, quiet, his hair in cornrows and appeared self-assured, although that first impression made it hard to tell if it was the affected confidence of a young man. I took attendance, called his name. He raised his hand and asked to be called RJ.
It took me some time to learn that RJ’s mother was a student in one of my other classes. Mother and son had started college together.
Over that semester both of them thrived. The more mature mother excelled all the way through, while RJ started hesitantly, but finished strong, scoring an A on his final essay. I felt sure that RJ would go far. He revealed a sharp mind, a calm demeanor, a healthy sense of humor, and a smile that could arrest anyone’s anger. At least, that was my impression.
Now, every murder of a young Black man reminds me of RJ. Almost two years have passed since RJ was murdered. He was shot five times. He was 23.
In the film “Straight Outta Compton,” Bruce Beatty plays Ice Cube’s father, Hosea Jackson. In an early scene, his son is being harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department, and Hosea tries to intervene. “These boys, they all grew up on this block,” he explains to the police officers. They respond by warning Hosea to “get back inside,” but Hosea stays where he is, on his own property. Unable to protect or even to reach his son, Hosea stands at the curb and delivers a short line that brought tears to my eyes. He shouts, “Son! We right here!”
This line might be emblematic of the fears of all parents. But it clearly represents the very specific fears felt by African American parents.
Six decades ago, James Baldwin contemplated what every Black parent faces: “how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised.” All parents know the worry of keeping their children out of harm’s way. Keeping them from common or universal dangers is hard enough. So I empathize with how difficult it is for Black parents not only to help their children navigate universal dangers but also to protect them from the kinds of dangers they are more likely to encounter because of the color of their skin. One of those dangers is gun violence.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Black American is 10 times more likely than a white American to be murdered with a gun. Might this be one of the reasons we’re still unable to put controls in place to curtail gun violence? It’s a shameful thought. But then, what did Congress do after 20 first-graders were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Not much. Seems we’re immune to shame. And after enough time passes, most of us forget.
In his novel “Affliction,” Russell Banks writes, “You read the account and move quickly on to news about the Middle East or a flash flood, and unless you knew the victim or the man suspected of killing them, you forget all about it.” This strikes me as accurate. We all do it. We all forget. We move on until we’re hit with a new wake of violence.
But RJ’s mother will never forget. Neither will his toddler daughter. Neither will I.
Photo still from “Straight Outta Compton,” 2015; credit Jaimie Trueblood