Submitted to the AFRO by Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
At any given moment, there are about a half a million stories that need to be told about the reality of growing up and trying to grow old in Baltimore City. Stories about racial and economic inequality; about predatory policing and structural racism; about health disparities and food apartheid; about some of the people who died, like Freddie Grey and Tyrone West, Taylor Hayes and Wadell Tate; and, about all of the people who are trying to live. In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul tells his fellow shipmates that an angel told him that the ship was going to crash and in order for them to survive, they would need to hang onto the broken pieces and make their way to shore. This is what it feels like trying to grow up and grow old in some neighborhoods in our city—you do everything you can to hang onto the broken pieces and try like hell to make it to the shore.
Life in Baltimore City is complicated. It is challenging and hard. It is racially segregated and economically divided. It is a tale of two cities—one mostly White and the other mostly Black, separate and unequal. I believe that in order to understand the deep sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and malaise that hangs like a cloud over certain parts of our city, you must intentionally spend some time in both Baltimores. You have to visit the schools, the corner stores, and the churches. You have to catch the buses and walk the streets. You have to try and see what it feels like to hang onto the broken pieces and what it feels like when you do not have to do this. This is what I have been doing for the past five months as I have been conducting my unofficial ethnographic study of Baltimore’s hypersegregated Black neighborhoods. I have been trying to understand what life is like within the Black Butterfly, trying to find some answers to the questions that I have been wrestling with since 2015 when a Harvard University study concluded that out of the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, children born in poverty in Baltimore City have the worst chances of ever escaping it.
As much as possible, I spend my time talking to young people, asking them questions and trying to listen to them. I want to see the world from their perspective. I want to hear their stories and in some small way, help to shoulder their pain. Part of the reason why I do this is because of Jason, a ninth grade student from Frederick Douglass High School. I met him in the hallway last year when I hosted a teach-in at his school. I asked him (like I asked all of the students that day) what his plans were for his life and what did he want to be when he grew up. At first, he did not respond. He turned and leaned up against the locker. He sighed and checked his phone. I just stood there, quiet, hoping that he would answer me. “My father is dead.” he said, “My brother is dead. I had two cousins, they got shot. My uncles are locked up. What do I want to be when I grow up? Nothing. I’m from Baltimore, I’m already dead.”
I did not say anything. He looked at me and then turned and walked away. I wanted to go after him. I wanted to talk to him and tell him that he was going to be ok. I wanted to ensure him that he could make it, that I was going to help him, and that together we could change his future. I wanted to do and say all of this, but I did not. I felt overwhelmed. Standing in the hallway, it was hard to breathe and hard to imagine a different way forward. His life, according to the data, was being shaped by racially segregated neighborhoods, poverty, poor schools, subpar housing, drugs, gangs and a history of racism; his response showed that he had been listening, he had been watching, and he is no longer waiting for someone or something to come along and save him. He did not believe that he could be saved and, on that day, standing in the hallway, listening to his story, I failed to tell him that he could. I will not fail again.
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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