By Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
Special to AFRO
A few days ago, a young Black man was killed in this city. I do not know which block or which neighborhood, but I do know that it happened because it always happens. These are the times that try our collective soul. We need some air. We need to breathe. We need a moment to exhale, regroup, take stock. In between the Mayoral election (which feels like recycled air), the rising homicide numbers, and the ever-growing threat of COVID-19, we just need a moment.
Everything is happening at once in the city, and it feels overwhelming. I have spent the past two weeks planning for the inevitable, driving around the city collecting supplies and stories. I am a storyteller, and two years ago, I committed myself to telling our Baltimore stories. When I was growing up, my mother said to me that I was a natural-born writer and a storyteller. She gave me my first journal when I was 13 years old and told me to write and record our stories. “I am starting to believe that this world doesn’t want Black people to survive,” she’d say, “so your job is to record our stories so that even if we are not here, our words are, our lives are. You have to write to make sure we are not forgotten.” So I did. I started listening to my people and recording what I heard. It is second nature for me to lean in and listen.
This is why I love Baltimore and why it breaks my heart. We are a city with a million stories, and yet we are told that only a few voices matter. We have become used to corruption and violence, being lied to by our politicians and mistreated by those in leadership. We have borne witness to thousands of lives being lost or tragically altered in this city due to violence and corruption. It is not uncommon to see people gather at the spots where a life was lost or to smell the burning sage as we try to find peace within our moments of tragedy. At the end of 2019, Baltimore City recorded 348 people who had died due to homicide, and over 1,000 people had been involved in a non-fatal shooting.
Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
We are almost in the middle of March, only 55 days into 2020, and we have already had 54 homicides (as of March 10). I am convinced that there is a way forward, however, I am just not convinced that everyone in this city is ready to move in that direction. Our death and our suffering is as much a part of this city as political corruption and economic inequality. I have spent time walking through the city visiting stores, and trying to get a sense of how people are prepping for the looming coronavirus pandemic. It is during these moments when I am reminded that preparing for a disaster that you cannot see and have never experienced is a luxury. It is a privilege to be able to purchase one-months-worth of food, medicines, and supplies. The assumption is that you have savings that you can tap into, or that you have money that you can move around; and, you have the security of knowing that even if you have to stay home, you will still get paid. Disaster planning is not for the faint of heart or the poor.
I spent last week visiting Edmondson Village, purchasing toilet paper, and cough medicine. I met Valerie, an elderly Black woman, who was not as worried about the coronavirus as she was about the violence in the community. “I got robbed last week,” she began, “and I’m an old woman. Why would they think that I had money?” She was sweating a little bit and was leaning on the counter. eMy hart broke as she spoke about watching the boys in her neighborhood go from sitting on the stoop to standing on the corner. “I always watch them and talk to them, and sometimes I can see when their dreams disappear.” She kept talking but I stayed right there, at that moment, trying to imagine what it looked like when your dreams disappeared. She said that you can see the light of possibility go out in their eyes and get replaced with a look of desperate hunger, greed, a touch of anger. “It is actually frightening to see it happen.” She kept talking and I kept listening. I took notes and she wanted to know why. “I ain’t nobody special,” she laughed, “I’m just like everybody else. We all have a story to tell about our life in this city.”
We talked about the coronavirus and homicides: “I’m tired of our kids’ shooting and killing each other. We need to put somebody in office who cares that we are dying. We need them to turn that light back on in the eyes of our children.” I helped her put her groceries in the cart and I walked out with her. I offered her a ride but she wanted to walk. She grabbed my hand before she left and she reminded me so much of my Nana that I had to stop myself from hugging her. “A young boy got killed around here last week, you should write about him,” she paused for a moment and sighed, “Black boys are always getting killed somewhere in this city. They’re dead men walking; they just don’t know it yet. Write about them, tell their stories.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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