Can’t Forget ‘Bout You

emmett

My dad enjoys telling stories. Some educational. Some allegorical. Some heartfelt. Some hyperbolic. Some too everything to actually be true.

Each of these stories, though, are now etched in my consciousness to the point that I can start, pause, embellish, and finish them as well as he can. Maybe he’s just a very gifted storyteller. Maybe I’ve just heard each of them too many times. Either way, they’ve become such a part of our relationship that it feels like they’re my stories now too.

Some of these stories are a bit more memorable than the others, though, and one of these involve the first time he became aware of Emmett Till.

He was eight years old when the famous Jet Magazine featuring Till’s horrifically disfigured face hit the newsstands. It was at that moment that the civil rights struggle became real to him. Sure, he was somewhat aware of how volatile things were becoming in the South. And, although Lawrence County, PA wasn’t Jessup County, MS, he’d already experienced racism. No fire hoses and lynchings, but racism still. But, for an eight year old, seeing stuff on TV or hearing your parents, uncles, and aunts talk about it doesn’t compare to the visceral impact of seeing an image like that. In his mind, if something like this could happen to a kid who was only a few years older than him, it could happen to him too.

My dad wasn’t the only one who had that reaction when seeing Till’s photo. For many people—White and Black people who weren’t necessarily on the front lines—the fight for equal rights was a real, but still somewhat abstract battle. The circulation of that picture served as one of the many “Wake up!” moments that occurred in that decade, an instant that shocked people into action.

I thought of this yesterday while reading a few of the articles published this week marking the one year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. I’m sure we all remember how his death galvanized the nation. I seriously can not remember another time in my lifetime where so many people were so visibly united against injustice. We marched and cried. We organized and demanded. We rocked hoodies.

And, despite what some people seem to think now, this action did manage to achieve the immediate goal. A year ago, George Zimmerman was a free man. Right now, he’s awaiting trail for murder, and I do not think this would have happened without the motherf*cking ruckus we caused.

But, while Martin’s death had unique circumstances, it was a part of a much bigger issue—gun violence in our communities—that still remains epidemic. Yes, violent crime has been on a decade-long decline pretty much everywhere—even Chicago—but saying 600 murders a year is better than 900 is like saying AIDS is better than Ebola.

We’ve collectively tried everything from stricter gun control laws to support groups comprised of ex gang-bangers to stem this tide, and nothing seems to really help. Well, we’ve tried almost everything.

I still read the local newspaper at least two or three times a week. (Yeah, it’s easier to read the paper online, but there’s something about reading, holding, and folding that still draws me to it) Often, I read about murders. Sometimes, people I personally know will be involved in the murder in some way. More times than not, though, I have no connection to the murder victim. They’re nothing more than a name, age, and location. And, while the news will sadden me, I usually forget all about it by the time I get to the sports. I doubt I’m the only one who goes through a similar process.

But, what if the paper and every other magazine, show, program, periodical, and website reporting on the news started running pictures of the deceased along with the stories? Not the prom and Facebook profile pictures that’ll occasionally be used when the story airs on the news, but the pics of how they look right now.

The crime scene photos. The bloodied, bullet-ridden bodies. The shotgun-shelled corpses left with half of a head. The seven year olds with holes where their hearts used to be. The faces with lifeless eyes still open, forever staring until a family member or kind detective closes them. The rotten, unrecognizable blobs laying in woods or underneath a houses, found only because it’s getting warm outside and they’re starting to stink.

I doubt they’d be as forgettable. I doubt we’d be able to turn the page as easily, to let them escape our minds as we read boxscores or play Sudoku. I doubt we’d be as willing to say and continue doing nothing.

It worked for my dad. I wonder if it would work for us.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Let’s Talk About Trayvon Martin Today

As the title suggests, I want to talk about Trayvon Martin today. I want to talk about his murder. I want to talk about the release of the 911 tapes. I want to talk about how I haven’t mustered the courage(?) to listen to them yet. I want to talk about how I begin to break down whenever I see his picture. I want to talk about the picture attached to this post, and how that baby-faced kid — a baby-faced kid who could have very easily been my little brother, my nephew, my cousin, my neighbor’s kid, my son, or, well, me — had no idea that he was going to be stalked, pursued, assaulted, and murdered before his 18th birthday just because he happened to be black at the wrong place in the wrong time. I want to talk about the fact that his murderer hasn’t been (and may never be) arrested. I want to talk about how, despite the fact that I know hate is wrong, I haven’t been able to think of a word strong enough to convey my hate for George Zimmerman. I want to talk about the effect this murder has had on his family, and how this unbelievably sad story has galvanized the nation.

When we’re done talking about Trayvon Martin, I want to talk about 19-year-old Anthony Scott and 6-year-old Aliyah Shell — the two youngest of the 10 people murdered in Chicago last weekend. Aliyah was killed in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight (3:30pm) as she sat on the porch with her mom. Anthony was called to a vehicle, and shot in the head as he approached it.

I’d also like to talk about 2-year-old Taizon Arin and 11-year-old Donovan McKee, two kids recently murdered by their mother’s boyfriends. Taizon died of blunt force trauma to the head. Donovan was ordered to get the sticks he was beat to death with, forced to clean up the bloody mess he made while his murderer took breaks from beating him to death, and eventually died after being beat over a nine hour span. 

If we have some time, I’d definitely like to say a few words about Kenneth Alford Jr, one of the dozen or so people I’ve personally known who’ve been murdered. It’s been almost six years since he was shot to death, and Kenneth — who was known as “Stubbo” by, well, everyone — was a friend of mine and a basketball rival I’d known since I was maybe 11 or 12.

It’s funny. I was a much better player than him — bigger, stronger, better shooter, better handle, just better — but he always got the better of me when we played against each other. As anyone who’s ever played ball will tell you, some guys just always have your number. Stubbo had mine, and it frustrated the hell out of me.

If he was still around he’d definitely be playing in one of the over-30 YMCA leagues I currently play in. He’s long gone, though — murdered because of mistaken identity — so I’m left to wonder if he’d still have my number.

Actually, I misspoke a couple paragraphs ago. When counting the dozen or so people I’ve known who have been murdered, I didn’t count former students — kids who sat in my classroom when I was an English teacher. If you add them to the list, that “dozen” number doubles.

I feel awful saying this, but I don’t remember each of their names. But, I do remember that I said a prayer for Chandler Thompson, Richiena Porter, Isaiah Talbott, and Stephen Tibbs every night for maybe three years straight.

It’s been a while since I’ve done that though, so maybe we can talk about them for (at least) a couple minutes today, for no other reasons then it’ll make me feel better about neglecting to pray for them and forgetting the names of the rest of their gunned down classmates.

Lastly, while I may be tempted to spark this discussion, we don’t have to talk about my 16-year-old and 19-year-old nieces. They were both shot at a Sweet 16 house party a few months ago, but they were both lucky enough to only suffer non-fatal wounds.

I don’t know where I’m going with any of this. I don’t know why I stopped praying for Chandler, Richiena, Isaiah, and Stephen. I don’t know what to do with all of this emotion, all of this feeling the murder of Trayvon Martin has left me with. I don’t know what do to. I do know, though, that any glance at the “Local News” section of any one of the 100(?) or so major American newspapers will sadly remind us that Trayvon Martin’s murder isn’t the only one we need to talk about today.

 —Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)