“This book began with a brutal murder, a viral video and a cup of coffee..."
The introductory sentence of “How Long Will I Cry?” pulls you in like magnet, then that traps you in a whirlwind of human misery that touches down and rips through Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, leaving a trail of blood and tears.
Violence is the norm of daily life in this collection of oral histories penned by creative writing students at DePaul University who interviewed those who have seen and survived too much to bear: children, parents, police and preachers, like Pastor Corey Brooks.
“I think that a lot of kids in this neighborhood feel like they don’t have anything to live for," said Brooks. "They don’t have any education, they don’t have any jobs, they don’t have any family, so what’s the point? They’re just like, ‘whatever.’ And when you start having that approach towards your own life, you begin to have it toward other peoples’ lives, as well … I think that’s where a lot of kids are. Life means nothing. Life has been devalued.”
In Deshon McKnight’s chapter, “Like Walking through Bagdad,” he recalls the gun battles he’s seen outside his window and the bullets that have missed him by inches. McKnight got his first gun at age 13. “All the dads in my family are either dead, in jail or hang with gangs,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old Ora Thompson (a pseudonym) explains why and when she started carrying a pocketknife in her drug-infested North Lawndale neighborhood. “I think I was in eighth grade, and my sister was in fourth. We were walking to the store, and there was this man.. And he looked drunk. Out of nowhere, he just ran up to my little sister, grabbed her and picked her up. Then he was like, ‘I’m taking you home with me.’ I was so scared I didn’t know what to do… I was like, ‘Put her down!’ …we just ran back to the house… For some weeks, I didn’t even come out of the house.”
Indeed, reading these accounts one wonders how anyone finds the courage or motivation to leave their homes and get on with their lives. But, life must go on and, somehow, people find a way to make the best of it.
Audrey Wright recounts how her 24-year-old son Gordie was gunned down while heading to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes. In response to his killing, Wright created a vocational training program in the South Side that teaches ex-felons job skills like weatherization, carpentry, janitorial, screen-printing and embroidery.
“I don’t hate… I can’t hate the young man that killed my son because that person has to give an account to God for all his wrongdoings. I don’t feel that I have to give up on nobody. I don’t ever give up,” Wright says.
Perhaps most inspiring are the testimonials of former gang members, convicted murderers, who’ve served their time in prison and now make it their life’s work to keep teens away from gangs and help parolees reintegrate into society.
There is redemption. And there is hope. You find it in the voices of children who resist the powerful lures around them.
“Forty-nine people got shot this weekend,” recalls nine-year-old Julian, who reads news articles for homework. Julian’s big brother Manny was killed by a paraplegic gang member. “I think they should stop making guns in the first place,” he says. “Can there be a day when there is no violence?”
“How Long Will I Cry?” leaves the reader with many haunting questions. How can we pretend to be living in a nation at peace when so many of our children are growing up in war zones? Will you do something about this violence, or will you be another bystander, like a driver in a gaper delay on the highway who slows down to catch a glimpse of an accident, then speeds home to safety?
"How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence" is edited by Miles Harvey. Casey Medal-winner Alex Kotlowitz wrote the foreward. The book is distributed free to anyone who pledges to be a leader in the fight against youth violence in your own community and support groups working to keep young people safe. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.