The wailing cry of a mother who has lost a child is unforgettable. It’s the sound of a piece of her soul being permanently ripped away.
The fiery tears of the mothers of children recently killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are hard to miss on televisions around the country. As they mourn the loss of 17 young lives, we must learn to listen closer for that haunting sound–from wherever it emanates.
For too long, we’ve allowed the anguished screams of black mothers to be little more than background noise in our ears.
Noise that is easy to ignore.
Go ahead and debate guns, school security and mental health. It’s past time for that. CNN has afforded students from Marjory Stoneman a national stage to engage their senators. President Trump has conducted a listening session with victims of gun violence. Those touched by the mass shooting in Florida have had, and continue to have, countless opportunities to voice their opinions.
At the same time, I can’t escape the fact that violence has long been a reality for many Americans–particularly African Americans in urban areas. Too many of us seem to ignore it.
During a discussion about gun violence, a friend of mine pointed out that she grew up with metal detectors in her school in Oakland, California. She learned to avoid the mall because shootings were common. In spite of growing up around plenty of guns in the South, I’ve never lived anywhere where violent crime was a real concern.
When shootings happen in communities where violence with guns is rare, we’re outraged. We demand action and refuse to accept such losses of life as routine. But what happens habitually, right outside communities like mine, doesn’t regularly grab our attention, let alone our empathy.
What about those who still mourn Juzahris Webb? Last year, he was shot to death while walking home from Wenonah High School. At the age of 17, he died about ten miles from my home.
What of those who loved La-Corey Thomas, who was shot and killed while riding in a stolen Kia Optima after exchanging gunfire with shooters in another car? He died that same distance away. He was only 15.
What about the friends and family of Terius Hilliard, also 15, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ensley as he was walking to the recreation center?
Or those of Taleayah Stafford, an innocent casualty. She died from injuries sustained in a shootout in the Kingston area of Birmingham. She was four years old.
Each of these children was someone’s baby. But most of us will read brief notes about their deaths over a cup of coffee–if at all. Representing a fraction of annual deaths in one city, their loss of life is merely a footnote from the “bad” areas of town.
I’m not asking for tears for people we don’t know. They wouldn’t be sincere. We can, however, recognize that each of those extinguished lives had immeasurable value. When will we hear the wails of their mothers stricken with such tragic loss? What about their appeals for help? Who do we think those mothers are calling out to? They’re asking for anything that would make their neighborhoods safer and give other kids a chance.
Are we listening?
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t really understand the Black Lives Matter movement. I told myself that every life mattered and moved on. But how can I ignore the glaring difference between the treatment of a lost life in my neighborhood and the response to the same in cities like Birmingham? What’s the real difference?
I’ve heard all the excuses, the “justifications” for violence in neighborhoods we ignore. It’s a socio-economic problem. It’s poor schools. It’s higher unemployment. It’s the lack of fathers in the home.
What we never say is that we expect majority white communities like mine to be safe, but we accept violent crime as some justified norm in black communities up the highway. We almost never acknowledge that these different standards fall largely along racial lines, and we avoid the conclusion that our nation’s tragic legacy of racism has much to do with it.
We can’t keep ignoring reality and hope our trajectory will improve. We must acknowledge the lingering effects of racism and press through the ensuing conversations. We need to see where we can improve and protect lives outside of our own neighborhoods. That means actually spending some time there and getting to know people.
More importantly, we must ensure that those weeping for lost sons and daughters aren’t crying to deaf ears.
I’m done dancing around issues of race because they’re uncomfortable. We won’t progress by continuing to ignore the stark differences in how we respond to the loss of black and white lives.
Black lives matter. Full stop.
We should absolutely mourn those lost to mass shootings. But the sorrow of a black mother putting her child in the ground must be equally moving for us if we’re to chart a better path forward in America.