By Karsonya Whitehead

I am almost certain that my Nana came and visited me in my dreams last night. She told me that I needed to imagine a world where justice exists and then fight like hell to make it happen. She said that Baltimore was on fire and was in desperate need of a burnout. My Nana, even in death, is still finding ways to make me think deeply about who I am and who I want to be in this city. This year has been a particularly challenging year in Baltimore and we are dealing with multiple issues including a spike in violent activities, with over 300 homicides; a 30 percent increase in carjackings; a 20 percent increase in shootings; the recent death and incredible loss of Congressman Elijah Cummings; and, the resignation of Mayor Catherine Pugh, after a very public and embarrassing financial scandal. We are now at the beginning of an election season, and it feels like everyone is jockeying for a new position, perhaps at the expense of the people. It feels like we are on fire and that we are burning out of control. It is Dante’s Inferno playing out in my life yet again. 

I was a junior in high school the first time I read about the nine circles of hell. My history teacher had us read Dante’s book in preparation for our field trip to the White House. Given that my teacher was radical and fiery, I was not sure if we were going to be protesting the government or touring the building. He was a civil rights activist who had been arrested multiple times for civil disobedience and would often close the door during class, lower his voice, and ask us to think out loud about what we were willing to do to overthrow the system. He would post quotes by Martin Luther King and Karl Marx and ask us to imagine a world devoid of capitalism, militarism, and racism, and then to imagine what it would take to make this world possible. 

Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)

He would have us write open letters to Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, talking about what we could do to bring about a revolution. My teacher assigned us passages from Mao’s little red book and then had us question the efficacy of the Vietnam War, World War II, and Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that one should speak softly and carry a big stick. He would stop by our table during lunch and ask us to think about what America would have been like if Dr. King had lived or if the South had won. He would encourage us to take sides and then walk off as we would begin to have vigorous and sometimes very loud and passionate debates. 

On that day, as we sat across the street from the White House making protest signs, my teacher explained to us that we were living in Dante’s seventh circle of hell within the first ring of violence. He said that it was because we were growing up in the “murder capital of the world,” and being raised to see Black violence and Black death and Black anger as normal. We were being led to believe that people who looked like us were criminals and predisposed to violence. We were being taught that police brutality was a normal response to Black people because we needed to be policed and controlled. Images of Black depravity were inundating us, and we were not being taught to question this version of reality. We were on fire, and we did not even know it. As I sat in the grass, listening to my teacher rant and rave about politics and Reganomics, about violence and Dante, I could not imagine another way of being. I had become comfortable with the fire, and similar to the characters in Plato’s Theory of the Caves, I saw the flames and believed that the fire was real. 

Much like the Washington, D.C. of my childhood, Baltimore City is now in the first ring of the seventh circle of hell. 

We are in a place of suffering, surrounded by violence. It is overwhelming, and it feels like it will never end. It is depressing, and it is a stench that hangs in the air. We are living during a time where everyday acts of violence are as commonplace as breathing (though, admittedly, there are days when it is hard to breathe 

in this city). Violence no longer moves us or interrupts our day. We are drowning under the weight of continuous traumatic stress disorder because this violence is marking and defining our lives in this city. It is not supposed to feel normal. We, as a people, are not predisposed to violence. We do not hate ourselves, and despite our current reality, we know that we can save Baltimore. We can rebuild it. We can pull it back from the pit of hell. We can douse the flames, and then we can set it free. 

Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is the award- winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

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