By Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, Special to the AFRO
Over the past weekend, as we celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., eleven people were shot in this city. This is not shocking or surprising news, in fact, it is the assumed norm. We are expected to have multiple shootings. We are expected to be a dangerous city spinning out of control. We are expected to soldier forward as if this is the only reality that can exist. We are expected to accept the continued omission and erasure of our stories. Given that there is an implied dominant narrative—where the stories of violence and death and poverty are centered as if they are the norm—we (those of us who are conscious and who are working for change) must be willing to work to decenter that reality and then center our stories of survival. We no longer have the option to wait as politicians and thought leaders spend more of their years and more of our money pondering possible directions and solutions. If we want this city to change, it is up to us to imagine a new way forward.
I thought about all of this when I began my unofficial ethnographic study within the Black Butterfly neighborhoods of Baltimore City in an effort to get a sense of what life is like outside of the White L. What I found is that it is not until you experience it for yourself—when you walk through the neighborhoods, visit the schools and churches, shop at the corner stores, talk to the residents and hear their stories—that you begin to get a sense of how much work needs to be done to tear down that economic barrier and bring this city together. In September, I spent a bulk of my time in and around the Greater Mondawmin area and got to know Ray and Dave, two elderly gentlemen. They both grew up in Edmonson Village and have never lived outside of the city. Ray told me that he was a veteran and that he remembered, in bits and pieces, what it was like to fight in a war and then come back home to Baltimore. “You commit your life to fight for this country,” he said. “Then you come back home and where you live is worse than where you were fighting. It’s like the war never ended.” “I got drafted too.” Dave said. “I fought. I know a lot of people who died there; but right now, around here, this is like Beirut.”
They both started laughing, perhaps it was a type of gallows humor, but I found it difficult to join in. “Yea, that’s right,” Ray noted. “Baltimore is my Beirut.” I asked them if they could remember a moment when the city and its narrative began to shift. I wanted to know when did Baltimore, the place of their childhood dreams and where they came of age, become this Baltimore. They started talking to each other, offering dates, agreeing and disagreeing, finishing each other’s sentences. “1968,” Ray said. “It changed when King got killed.” Dave nodded his head. “Yea, it ain’t really been the same since then.”
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
It was on April 6, 1968, two days after Dr. King was assassinated, that Baltimore City found itself in the middle of a riot Uprising. It began on Gay Street, after three hundred people had come together (peacefully) for a memorial service. In less than six hours, more than one thousand protestors had come out and started to fill the streets in East and West Baltimore. The city responded by banning sales of firearms and alcohol and declaring a state of emergency. Spiro Agnew, then Governor of Maryland, called in the National Guard and the Maryland State Police. Eight days later, six people were dead, 700 had been injured, 5,800 people had been arrested, 1000 small business were damaged, and property damage was somewhere in the $12 million range. Although most of the damage was centralized in the neighborhoods were the protestors lived, it severely affected the city and parts of Baltimore have never recovered. If, as Dr. King once wrote, riots are the language of the unheard, then during this time, Baltimore’s inner city—which suffered from sub-par housing, high rates of infant mortality, drugs, gang violence, underemployment, and high unemployment rates—seem to be working hard to make their voices heard.
It has been almost 51 years and if you walk around the Black Butterfly, talk to the residents and listen to their stories, there is growing sense that they believe that once again, their voices are being silenced.
“They keep saying that Baltimore is changing, that it’s getting better,” Dave said. “But from where I sit—” “Me too.” Ray interrupted. “I’m sitting here too.” Dave chuckled and then looked around the neighborhood, maybe at the sea of dilapidated houses, or at the trash on the sidewalk. Maybe he looked at the liquor stores, or at the young boys standing on the corner. Or maybe, he looked far beyond what my eye could see. He then shook his head and said, very quietly, “It’s just not getting any better for us.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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