Good Kids, Mad Cities.

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TNC mulls Kendrick Lamar‘s latest over at the NYT:

I must confess my bias. I grew up in Baltimore during a time when the city was in the thrall of crack and Saturday night specials. I’ve spent most of my life in neighborhoods suffering their disproportionate share of gun violence. In each of these places it was not simply the deaths that have stood out to me, but the way that death corrupted the most ordinary of rituals. On an average day in middle school, fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety. I feared the block 10 times more than any pop quiz. My favorite show in those days was “The Wonder Years.” When Kevin Arnold went to visit his lost-found love Winnie Cooper, he simply hopped on his bike. In Baltimore, calling upon our Winnie Coopers meant gathering an entire crew. There was safety in numbers. Alone, we were targets.

The world I lived in, and the preserve of Lamar’s album, was created not by mindless nature but by public policy. It is understandable that in the wake of great tragedy we’d want to take a second look at those policies. But in some corners of America great tragedy has bloomed into a world that does not simply raise the ranks of the dead but shrinks the world of the survivors. “Good Kid” shows us how gun violence extends out beyond the actual guns.

Here is an album that people grappling with policy desperately need to hear. It does what art does best in that it bids the monotony of numbers to sing.

Not that long ago I mused a little bit about about all the little ways that growing up poor sticks with you. And I think the idea that you are not safe, in a moment-to-moment way, is one of the hardest to shake.

Going to and from the store or to a basketball court often meant opting for a longer route, walking a block or two out of your way so you could take  some better-lit street. It wasn’t quicker but it was the least fraught. (This was all certainly much, much worse for girls and women.) It’s funny now when I think about it: we ain’t even have straight lines.

One of the most infuriating ideas that pops up in the aftermath of high-profile killings of black people by nonblacks is the idea that Negroes are insufficiently outraged when the killer is black. If black folks do not appear to value the lives of our children every day in our communities, then why do we think that people outside the community would value those same lives?

There’s a large contingent of folks who think that Negroes in our nation’s many hoods don’t take violence seriously, that it’s something that folks shrug off or ignore. I can’t believe this even bears saying aloud, but no one considers the possibility of violence more than the people for whom violence is a quotidian reality; they think about that shit all the time. This is not some abstraction to them. The decision not to talk to the cops isn’t cosigning grisliness, it’s about simple self-preservation.  There are all those teenagers who wear t-shirts emblazoned with the faces of their slain friends, all those makeshift shrines at streetlight posts with stuffed animals that read “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

The societal implications of all this are huge. It’s very hard to educate kids with PTSD.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • “(This was all certainly much, much worse for girls and women.)… we ain’t even have straight lines.” — That straight line ish is really striking. It reminded me of my bus routes (yes, GD, i know, yawn!) but the reason i still mention my bus routes to/from school is because that daily harassment i experienced from 11 to 18 was *so* scarring, for me, it was less about the zig zag pursuit of safety and more about the very strong desire to fold in on myself and disappear.

    • You and your public transit stories.

      Could you talk a little more about this part of your experiences growing up in DC, tho? You’ve never really gone into much detail about that stuff, even as you like to get super candid with it.

      • i took the buses on very popular, main streets in DC (16th street and U street). Both were at lights so men in stopped cars would honk, wave, shout…sometimes follow.

        don’t even get me started on the ice cream man.

        • I kinda want to laugh at that last line, but damn. :-/

  • LeelahJames

    I completely relate. I grew up in Milwaukee, and it’s the same behavior. I started developing at 11 years old, and suddenly, my body did not belong to me; it belonged to the peering eyes of the streets. Like you, Big Gurl, I just wanted to disappear, so I wore baggy clothes just to hide. As I got older I grew into my looks, and felt more confident. But that nagging feeling that my body does not belong to me still remains. This is something that many women in every city, in every country share.

    G.D., Thank you for mentioning the constant fear that comes with being poor in the city. I too had to opt for a longer route just to go to the drug store. I’d have to walk up to the next block just avoid three blocks of sheer terror. I’m an adult, and I still have to do this.

    Melissa Harris-Perry talked about what prompted her to write “Sister Citizen.” She talked about seeing this commercial that ran during the mid-nineties. It was about this little black girl named Kesha who had to run past gangs and violence just to get to school everyday. The message was the she should keep running so her life can be better. But the whole time Melissa is thinking, “Well, can’t they make her neighborhood better? Can’t they make the streets a little safer?” She says that there’s this myth that the strong black woman must face adversity to be better; that violence and chaos are necessary adversities if one is to be better. I maintain that this myth is assumed for young black men as well: Learning that you are a threat to society and therefore must be policed is a necessary adversity.

    Maintaining these myths have obvious damaging effects, and you’ve written about it well. Anyone who has grown up in a violent, chaotic situation lives by different assumptions. So when you as an individual do the hard work of unlearning the myths, it’s only made worse when outside forces assert that they are necessary.

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