“An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago” came out a year before the widespread invigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder. But Alex Kotlowitz — a white journalist — reported accounts of mayhem overwhelming communities of color in Chicago. The New York Times (July 6) reports: “Nine children under the age of 18 have been shot dead in Chicago since June 20.” Three were toddlers. So far this year, hundreds of others have died; many were teens and young adults. Herein, the author states: “The thing about Chicago’s violence is it’s public — very public — and so each shooting or its aftermath is witnessed by many, children and adults alike.”
In the summer of 1987, a Black child said: “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver.” Note the word “If.” At a tender age, he was already aware of life’s mortal limitations. His name was Lafayette. He and his family were residents of the Henry Horner Homes — known locally as the “Hornets” — a congeries of low-income high rises of flimsy construction on 34 acres. The neighborhood was perfused by poverty and violence. Three decades ago, Kotlowitz wrote of Lafayette, his younger brother Pharoah and other kids and adults in “There Are No Children Here.” A mother who saw how the daily play of guns and discord robbed children of innocence and vanquished hopes for a decent and viable future spoke the words that inspired Kotlowitz’s title. The Horner Homes have since been demolished, but the embedded social chaos and economic malaise remain staples in many turbulent lives.
Last year, “An American Summer” arrived, chronicling summer months that unfolded in beleaguered sections of Chicago in 2013. The Windy City has become a notorious symbol of “personal and collective wreckage.” Kotlowitz sums up this miasmic mix: “Citizens killing citizens, children killing children, police killing young black men. A carnage so long-lasting, so stubborn, so persistent, that it’s made it virtually impossible to have a reasonable conversation about poverty in the country and has certainly clouded any conversation about race.” He admits he can’t offer any remedy that could mitigate the epidemic of mistrust, malevolence and murder. During the three months depicted, there were 172 homicides. An additional 793 people wounded. “By Chicago standards it was a tamer season than most.”
A grueling big city saga, it’s told in a series of potent vignettes involving little kids, teens and adults, mostly from Black and Latinx communities under siege. Surrounded by the persistent tumult, people contend with “complex loss.” The phrase encapsulates the strain and deprivation visited upon lives caught in webs of explosive anger, fear, mutilation and death. These are accompanied by resentment, retribution, resignation and mental exhaustion. It denotes spiritual and psychological distress unrelieved.
Sometimes in the wake of tragic and sudden loss, a kind of peace and acceptance can arise within survivors of the murdered. One social worker calls the experience “compassionate relief.” One such parent had long agonized over her son’s reckless lifestyle. When the young man met his death, his distraught mother “seemed peaceful and calm,” as though the inevitable she long feared had come finally to pass. The same has been observed in other women whose children have been devoured in the maw of violence.
Kotlowitz writes of Jimmie Lee, a man discussed in his previous book. In times past, Lee was not to be tangled with. A drug pusher and chieftain of a heavily armed gang, he ruled the roost in part of the old Hornets. Despite the brutal code of his wilder years, Lee looked out for local elders and insisted on some semblance of community order. Inevitably, the law caught up with Lee, and he did time. Now the aging, wiser ex-con is an OG or Original Gangster and oversees his modest club, known as the Night Prowler. Openly critical about the dismal latter-day reality on Chicago streets, Lee is perplexed, saying, “People get into it over nothing.” There are no rules. Way too many guns are too readily available. Indeed, one reason for so many innocent victims is the plethora of automatic weapons in the hands of people untrained in their use. Lee admits he can offer no cogent explanation for the alarming homicide rate. He tells Kotlowitz: “Alex, you’re gonna bust your head trying to figure this all out.”
“The shootings, the killings, accrue like so many teardrops.” And those teardrops are a rueful river. A little girl known affectionately as “Nugget” is celebrating at a surprise birthday party. She had just turned 11. Kids are dancing and having fun when outside, gunfire erupts, “which wasn’t all that unusual in the neighborhood.” Before she was able to take cover, Nugget was shot in the head and died immediately in front of her family and friends. Her death outraged the entire city, and marches and demands for more police and gun regulations followed. It’s one grisly incident among many. Nugget’s hideous death occurred years ago. Present relations between police and impoverished neighborhoods have not substantially changed. Distrust and antagonism are palpable and pervasive. And the proliferation of weapons on streets remains a grim reality.
Coronavirus adds another harmful dimension confronting those trying to survive the plague of bullets. Former Black Panther turned congressional representative Bobby Rush asserts: “The violence is like a virus… It’s part of this rage and anger, and the need to express power. It’s about absolutely nothing except for seeking a sense of validation.” Many murders go unsolved. Perpetrators have a good chance of never being prosecuted or convicted. Citizens may know the names of killers as well as the dead, but are likely to avoid lethal risks of testifying or speaking to police. There’s a rationale for silence. “And this is what everyone in Chicago’s neighborhoods know: If you do the right thing, bad things often happen.” With the intrusion of COVID-19, Blacks in Chicago — who comprise 30 percent of the city’s population — account for 70 percent of viral deaths.
In a recent email, Kotlowitz says there was hope that COVID-19 might affect some reduction in the violence, “but no such luck. We’ve had a miserable two months… Honestly, I can’t explain it — other than that people are angry and desperate and without much hope. It’s been heartbreaking.” He is adamant about the need to understand “the intersection of race and poverty. It’s impossible to talk about one without the other.”
Anyone concerned about the current state of our own municipality as well as our nation would do well to put this powerful piece of writing at the top of their reading list.
Read more of the July 22-28, 2020 issue.