This past June 18, I participated in “Healing in the Heart of Richmond,” a day-long event held at the New Faith Cathedral, sponsored in part by Contra Costa Health Services, Survivors of Murder Victims, Inc. and Stand! Against Domestic Violence. We gathered in downtown Richmond to provide a forum for families who had lost members to violence and for individuals who had been violently abused. We listened as they shared their stories, ate healthy food together and then broke up into various healing workshops including poetry, drumming, massage, art and lamentations. At the end of the day, we all came together in the church sanctuary to light candles and say a prayer for peace in the city. The following day, two more young men were shot down and killed. Two more have died of gunshot wounds since then. As of this writing, 19 people have been murdered in Richmond this year.
The tragic state of our neighboring town brings to mind the lyrics of “The Prisoner,” a song written 34 years ago by one of the originators of the hip hop style of rhyme, Gil Scott-Heron:
Here I am, after so many years
Hounded by hatred and trapped by fear
I’m in a box, I’ve got no place to go
If I follow my mind,
I know I’ll slaughter my own
Help me, I’m the prisoner
Won’t you hear my plea
I need somebody
To listen to me
Black babies in the womb,
Shackled and bound
Chained by the caveman
Who keeps beauty down
Heir to a spineless man
Who never forgets
Never forgets that he’s a prisoner
Can’t you hear my plea
I need somebody to
Listen to me
Generations of black families throughout the United States have been traumatized by the searing harshness of living in a society which continues to deny them adequate schooling, housing, employment, medical access and hope itself. Young black men are disappearing into the streets, jails, the military and graveyards, leaving behind fatherless boys and girls who know no other way of living than the callous ways of dying all around them.
According to the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., one in eight black men between the ages of 25-29 is imprisoned and one-third of all black men in their 20s are either incarcerated, on probation or paroled. In some communities, black women outnumber the men by 30 to 50 percent. Rather than being groomed for successful futures, our youth have learned to live in the violent moment, within a spiraling mode of self-destruction. To call it “black-on-black crime” trivializes the matter. Most whites rob, rape and kill other whites so there’s more than color to this issue.
What I see in many of the more troublesome young children I have worked with in the Berkeley and Richmond public schools has been a kind of disconnect, a disassociation of the child from feelings of empathy and responsibility. Derisha has 80-year-old eyes that solemnly stare out of a 6-year-old body. Her eyes are ringed in darkness and they sag with lines formed by abandonment and neglect. She never smiles, always on guard. Tershawn moves about the room with a kind of frenetic, chaotic energy, striking out verbally and physically almost at random. Austin accompanies every “No!” with a strike of his fist. When I ask these kids whether or not they care that they are disturbing the other children they insist that they do not care and look at me like I’m crazy for suggesting that they should. At the end of the day, Derisha is in after-school care, waiting for her foster parent to pick her up. Tershawn is on the bus, being carried away from his hilltop elementary school to his blighted building where he will let himself in, scrounge around for junk food and then roam the neighborhood, looking for something to do. I leave Austin on the curb waiting for whoever it is that is coming to pick him up, late. I am left to wonder and worry where their anger is going to take them five, 10, 20, 30 years from now, if they live that long.
This past weekend I attended a half-day meditation at the Buddhist Zen Center at Green Gulch Farm in Sausalito. As I sat with my spine erect and my hands placed before me just so, my mind flitted about and then quieted as I became more comfortable with simply noticing how I sat and breathed in the stillness. I thought of Derisha, Tershawn and Austin and wondered how they would handle this sitting, this silence. I imagined Austin shouting “No way! I’m outta here!” and Tershawn telling me I must be crazy and Derisha simply rolling her eyes and strutting her thin, brown body away.
But what if they had to? What if they were forced to sit with themselves without talking, eyes cast down, listening to their breath and simply being with no one but themselves for 10, 20, 40 minutes? What would happen? What might they see or learn?
If our so-called leaders, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Kweisi Mifume among them, were to concentrate on nothing else but saving, restoring and re-educating young black men, we would truly have a revolution, the kind Gil Scott-Heron sang about in “This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” decades ago. It would be live, emanating from within and spreading throughout the nation’s troubled communities, infusing us all with purpose, new direction and faith. I’m not saying that meditation is the way out. That would be far too simplistic and the issues are quite complex. But we have to start somewhere. Perhaps canning the tired, old rhetoric and quietly listening to new voices may be the place to begin. Again.
Note: The children’s names have been changed. And note further that the kids who “act out” in class are not always black or poor.