By Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Between Baltimore City and the rest of the world, there is always a hint of an unasked and therefore unanswered question. It is a question that is rooted in anti blackness and framed by years of deliberate Black oppression and suppression. It is a question that is difficult to ask of a city that seems to move from one scandal to the next, without pausing for a moment to catch its collective breath.
Outsiders look at us with a wary eye, head cocked, with the question ready on their lips. They are not sure of how to frame it, how to ask it without making us angry. They do not seem to understand that the very same question that they are afraid to ask is the same one that we ask, of both our politicians and of ourselves, all of the time: Is Baltimore (our beloved city) broken beyond repair? We are a city full of dreamers, and we want (no, we deserve) to be seen and treated better. We are, as Robert Browning once wrote, “a place where we desire for our collective reach to exceed our collective grasp.”
I think deeply about Baltimore City, about who we are and what we can become. I read our history and the stories about our city with one eye closed. This is an old lesson for me, one learned when I was in college, living abroad in Kenya with a blind woman near Mount Mtelo. She knew that I was a history major and she told me that I should always read the White man’s version of my history with one eye closed. Because, until the day comes when the hunted learn how to write, the stories would always lift up and center the hunters.
Stories and articles about Baltimore City, our neighborhoods and our residents, should be read with one eye closed. I remember this lesson fondly, and it is one of the reasons why I chose to conduct an in-depth ethnographic study of Baltimore’s most economically challenged, hypersegregated neighborhoods. I wanted to write, record and tell the stories of the people who live and reside on the margins of the margins. They are the most vulnerable and their stories need to be told and centered. I think of the words of my colleague, Treva Lindsey, who said that White supremacy does not love us; therefore, we need to learn to love and love on each other hard. This is what my act of radical political love looks like—a little bit of hope being passed from one hand and heart to the next by telling their stories, hearing them speak, bearing witness to their pain, and believing out loud with them and in their story.
Last week, I hosted a Teen Summit at the Academy of College and Career Exploration (it is located in the Hampden area, but the students come from South and East Baltimore), and I asked them, was Baltimore City, the place that they call home, broken beyond repair.? This was my second conversation with them, and they had spent some time between my visits, thinking about Baltimore and about who they wanted to be in the world. De’Shawn spoke first and was clear in his assertion that Baltimore City is broken but not beyond repair: “We just need a lot of help, and we need those who are supposed to help to do the work and fix it,” he said.Tiaja chimed in and said that the problem is that the entire city is dangerous. “People are getting stabbed inside the schools,” she said, “and then you can be in the wrong place at any time in this city and get shot. The people who are supposed to save us and protect us, are not doing their job.” They were just getting warmed up. “It is dangerous.” “It is broken.” “They don’t care about us, they never did.” Shanaya spoke up, “But we care about us, and we can repair it,” she said. We spent the next hour talking through the issues that this city is facing, from the state of the schools to community violence, from the mayor to the police force. I heard them. I saw them, and when I was packing up to go, Amir came over to me and said, “The first time you came I didn’t think anything was going to change because we talk about the problems all of the time; but you made us feel like we could change it. I don’t remember what you said, but it’s like you gave us hope.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “The Soul of (My) Black Boys.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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This article originally appeared in The Afro.