On any given day, in the midst of either picking them up or dropping them off, I challenge my sons to think about and wrestle with two questions: what does it mean to be Black and what does it mean to be a young Black man in Baltimore City.
If you were born and raised here then you know what it means to fight for survival, having learned over time that this is a city that experiences incredible moments of joy and of sadness. After years of mourning the countless deaths that have happened around this city, one would think that going forward, the reasons why and the solutions for would simply emerge, that we would not be back at this place again.
It has been a brutally violent year, again with over 275 homicides as of Oct. 11. It has become our new reality as research shows that one out of every 2,000 residents is killed: the majority of which are young and Black who are shot in broad daylight. These are not scary fantasies that play out in the middle of the night, they are happening right before our eyes. They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our students and our neighbors—and we are being called to do something, to say something because silence is not an option.
We are being called to hold up a candle in the middle of a dark city. We are being called to be the ones that we have been waiting for. We are being called to do exactly what the MOMS are doing. Based in Baltimore City, these moms represent a unique group, they are the Mothers of Murdered Sons & Daughters and they consider it their mission to put names and stories behind the numbers and to do active disruption work to change the narrative.
Founded by Daphne Alston, whose son, Tarik Sharif Alston, was fatally shot and killed in 2008, MOMS is an intimate group. They do not recruit, they do not want new members, and when you do join, it is because your life has been forever changed. Meetings are run like support groups, with moms sharing their stories and their memories about their children. They are reminding us that the crime and violence that happens in our neighborhoods is directly connected to a crisis that is happening within this city and within America writ large.
It is clear that much of what determines how young Black men in Baltimore resolve conflict is determined by individuals whose lives are well informed by violence and disparity. Their decision-making has been molded by a context that has been developed in our community’s time worn narratives of pain, suffering, getting by and in many cases, simply getting over.
For these communities, the War on Drugs was personal and resulted in relentless attacks on their community by law enforcement. In so many ways, the purveyors of the war did not realize in a very practical way that for some, selling drugs put food on the table, bought clothes and shoes, kept the water and the heat on and provided bail money. When you couple this reality with redlining, underemployment and unemployment, food desserts and lackluster housing programs, it is easy to understand how this creates a breeding ground for the type of crime and violence that is happening in communities across the city.
The moms are from some of these communities. They understand the context of this crisis and most importantly, as no other stakeholder in the discussion of homicide, these moms are the most informed about the pain left in a homicide’s wake. They are the ones who have been left behind to heal, to mourn, to march, to protest, to hold candlelight vigils and to speak out and declare that homicide in Baltimore City is a community epidemic and a national health crisis.
They understand that the only way that we can see ourselves beyond the White gaze to a place where our communities are healthy and our children are safe is for us to have the difficult conversations and to do the hard work. The White gaze does not define us but in the long run, our actions will.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye.” She is the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.”