According to FBI statistics, black men made up 40 percent of all murder victims last year. That is a stunning number for a group that accounts for only 6 percent of the nation’s population.
You’ve likely read the grim statistics. The homicide rate in the US is among the highest in the industrialized world. The disproportionate incarceration rate of Black men, coupled with the homicide rate, result in what many would call genocide. At the very least, we, as a nation, are faced with a crisis that has deep roots in both historical and current economic and social conditions.
I dedicated most of my undergraduate studies examining racial identity formation and the history of slavery in (all of) the Americas. My graduate studies focused on urban education, analyzing what I understood to be the present day outcomes of institutionalized social and economic practices. That’s not what I want to discuss right now…
What I am hoping to convey is the heartfelt acknowledgment of the humanness of an otherwise grim statistic. To remember the light in my student’s eyes, the reluctant but luminous smile, the warm and tender manner of a young African American male. To somehow communicate to the world the significance that Rajohn’s life had on one teacher. To look beyond, or perhaps more deeply into, a statistic.
It’s been a bloody summer in Newark…The city hasn’t had a summer this deadly since 1990, when 38 people were killed.
RaJohn Powell, 18, was shot just after 8:30 p.m. on Blum Street Thursday night [8-19-10], and was pronounced dead at 9:37 p.m. at University Hospital in Newark, said Katherine Carter, spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
The teenager was standing on the corner of Blum Street when a “dark color Jeep-type vehicle” drove past him and circled the block once, Carter said. The vehicle rolled to a stop in front of Powell moments later, but as the teenager approached the vehicle, an unidentified assailant opened fire.
Powell’s shooting was the second on Blum Street and the fourth in Newark in a 24-hour period, authorities said. Powell’s death is the tenth homicide in Newark this month.
—James Queally/The Star-Ledger
Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but Rajohn was especially easy to like. He was the student who I could make eye contact with while his classmates were cutting up. We’d both shake our heads at their silliness. Rajohn had discipline issues in other classes. In my class he was different. He emanated a wisdom, a calmness.
While he was a little 5th grader I hugged him every opportunity I had. I’m not sure how much of ancient civilizations he would actually recall. What I recollect was his joy in being focused and accomplished in class– perhaps one of the few places where he could feel successful. Now, I’m not claiming that I had some special or extraordinary skill in reaching him– I think it was one of those rare occurrences where we recognized each other for the loving souls we are. Beyond the identities and roles, the subject matter and grades, there was this young child who I had the opportunity to nurture.
The last time I saw Rajohn was about five years ago when I had visited his home to meet his teenage sister’s newborn baby. Still short and stout, he was a little more stoic. Eventually I managed to get a smile from him. Once he warmed up, he had all kinds of questions about the fruits and veggies I had brought over to share. He seemed shocked and curious about my coming over– asking lots of questions and thanking me more than once. I felt good after that visit. I witnessed how, despite facing similar hardships, all of the children in Rajohn’s family have that same gentle manner, warmth and curiosity.
Somehow I knew he’d be okay.
I was wrong.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to know Rajohn. It is a sin that he wasn’t able to live a long life as a contributing member of our community. The greater sin is that perhaps he didn’t fully realize his capacity to love and be loved. To know how much he mattered. To express more of his unique gifts in the world.