Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Escaping the Avenue

I recently listened to an episode from the podcast, This American Life, that was aired in mid-February titled "Harper High School." It is about a dominantly black high school in Chicago that is seemingly normal until you learn about the number of gun-related deaths that occur each year. During the pep-rally at the start of school in August, the principal makes a tribute to all the students who passed away recently- a disturbing number of 29 individuals. The interviews show what it means for students to live in their community that is riddled by gangs and violence. After reading James Baldwin's Fire Next Time there is a shared theme present in his ghetto in Harlem and this community in Chicago. To be black means that you are born into a system that unless you fight against will push you down and keep you there.

In Harlem and in the gang-riddled streets of this black community, to escape the violence of the streets is a rarity. In the beginning of Baldwin's book he describes the sense of entrapment that being black entails. According to white society, being black in America means that you are pre-set to never achieve the level of success held by whites. Baldwin's own grandfather, a former slave, felt this way, and Baldwin's father, although he didn't feel inferior and rather preached against white domination, was still aware of the oppressive grip white society held upon black communities. Baldwin himself as a youth describes the sinful pull of the Avenue on himself and other young blacks because it is an outlet for the feeling that black lives are unwanted in America. Nothing is more painful than the pain of feeling less than human in America's eye and being powerless to change it. Baldwin's brother is broken by this, but Baldwin fights against it though because he sees the wrongness in America and the thousands of black lives being destroyed by racial inequality.

At Harper High School, to escape the violence of gangs as a student is nearly impossible. The one student interviewed who is open about not being in a gang is posed to be the class valedictorian. He doesn't have friends at home who he hangs out with. Nor does he ever leave his house because of the very real threat of being shot on the streets. School is his only time when he can interact with peers, but he has no actual friend group because friend groups are usually gang members.

One black student named Devante is interviewed on multiple occasions. Devante, who is sixteen, accidentally shot his younger brother, who was fourteen at the time, the year before this interview. He is haunted by guilt and an inability to come to terms with what he did. Devante eventually runs away from the community knowing that otherwise he will never escape his future in a gang and the possibility that he might hurt someone else. His mother has mixed feelings about her son; she can't help but feel bitterness about what he did. This is shocking because Devante is not the true culprit. The true culprit is the fact that American government is not doing enough to curb gang violence amongst youth except to enforce police patrolmen and put money in "turn around" High Schools. Guns flow freely and legally into this community. Despite the vast improvement and investment in Harper High, which has improved the lives of its students, the problems in the neighborhood cannot be fully addressed by the school alone.

The connection between Harlem and this community in Chicago is a lack of activism on the part of the government to change the system that is causing black destituteness and violence. In both situations, the community is left to address its own problems, which it does. Preachers fight to keep blacks on the right path in Harlem, while Social workers work tirelessly to save and improve as many lives as they can. The faculty at Harper High asks students to tell them about anything bad happening on the streets, although the youth are sometimes reluctant to do so. What is clear is that more outreach into the lives of blacks in this community is needed to eliminate the shootings and improve the ability to achieve a successful life.


  1. Very well said, Della. I was also struck by the violence and social destruction Baldwin described, but to hear that an equally, if not more, disturbing scene is an ongoing reality for the students of Harper High is heartbreaking- 29 recent deaths in one student body is just devastating. Like you said, the teachers and social workers are doing their best to keep students educated, happy, and alive, but where is the government in this? How does a community so overwhelmed by violence receive little to no assistance from outside authorities? Harper High students, just like Baldwin and his Harlem-raised peers, consider it the highest of accomplishments to not only graduate from high school but to live that long, period; society doesn’t expect much more from them, so this is a miracle within itself. These students, and Baldwin’s schoolmates, deserve the very best chance at a quality education and a safe, happy life, yet they cannot dream of such a chance, because their government has left them to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, as Alex mentions in “Resegregating Memphis City Schools” this may be the case for our own Memphis students in the coming year.

  2. I am glad you brought up the point of the lack of governmental support in the prevention of gang violence. In my Urban Social Problems class we recently discussed the CeaseFire program. This was a program that was implemented in Chicago, and funded by the city government, to counter gang violence through alternative means. The program uses the powerful voice of ex-gang members to intervene in the daily (possibly violent) interractions of current gangs. They are able to reason with the gang members because they have been through the same things.(the film The Interrupters is about this program)This program saw a huge amount of success and lowered gang-related crime in the Chicago significantly when it was well-funded. Once a new mayor was elected, the funding was virtually cut and crime rates soared again. I think that the US government should seriously invest in programs such as this that take an alterative approach to crime prevention. That programs like CeaseFire have existed previously gives me hope for programs that could be implemented in the future.