I live in a lovely, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago known for its trees, its schools, and its diversity. We’re also known for the safety of our streets, but we live at the edge of chaos, on the literal border of one of the city’s poorest, roughest neighborhoods. Literally: On one side of my town’s eastern border you’ll find our tony little arugula enclave; on the other, abandoned buildings and schools with no libraries.
We are safe here, but occasionally the chaos leaks out and across the street. Over the course of 15 years, I can think of five murders that took place within a few blocks of my home or my regular haunts, all of them Chicago’s violence spread west. These events don’t frighten me, because they don’t belong to me. Someone ran, someone followed. They’re not my story, however heartbreaking they may be.
But last night the chaos leaked out and took the life of a 14 year old boy.
Damani Henard’s family had moved from that rougher, tougher neighborhood to my town, so that he could go to high school here. He had ridden his bike into the city to visit friends and was, according to the Chicago Tribune, “about halfway home” when he was shot in the head and killed, apparently instantly.
That family lives blocks from my home. That boy was enrolled in our high school, would have ridden his bike down the same streets that my boy will walk come fall. His family had done what they could to make him safe, and they probably figured that a 15 minute bike ride down a well-lit, major thoroughfare was safe, too.
But they were wrong. Someone else — also a teenager, a 19 year old young woman named Ashley Hardmon — was shot and killed less than an hour earlier, not far from where Damani was killed. His mom figures her boy was collateral damage. “He coincidentally had on black,” she told reporters — as if, in a functional world, that would in any way consign a boy to death. But the world we live in is not functional.
This is not my story. This was Chicago’s violence. It spilled over again, through the tiny hole of a woman and a family trying to get away. Damani Henard was not my son.
But this is my story. This is my violence. That woman ran to my town to keep her boy alive, and the world in which we both live reached out and snatched him from her. Damani was my boy, just as much as every child in the streets of Chicago and across this grieving nation are my children, the children of all the adults who fail them again and again, unto death. This is what a nation awash with guns looks like: Dead children.
I’ve written before that white privilege is sending your son out into the world without the fear that he will not return — at the time I was referring to state-mandated violence, but race lies deep within the heart of this story, too. Who are Chicago’s poor? What neighborhoods go under-protected by Chicago’s police? What color are the families doing the fleeing? My black neighbors — the upper middle class ones, the professional ones, the ones who dress like me and talk like me and who send their boys to private schools because our high school, the school to which Damani was coming for shelter, doesn’t always serve its black boys well — they know far better than me that class and geography don’t always suffice. Their boys don’t have to be poor, don’t have to be surrounded by gangs, to be in danger. They just have to live inside their skins.
I made my son a cheese sandwich for lunch today. I held him as tight as I could without making him suspicious, without weeping. Damani’s mother will never hold him again.