The unspoken problem behind Hadiya's death

Mourners outside Greater Harvest Baptist Church before the funeral service for Hadiya Pendleton on Saturday, February 9, 2013, in Chicago, Illinois.
Mourners outside Greater Harvest Baptist Church before the funeral service for Hadiya Pendleton on Saturday, February 9, 2013, in Chicago, Illinois.
Published Feb. 16, 2013

I stopped celebrating Black History Month many years ago.

What is there to celebrate? I am writing about this issue because of the misguided emphasis too many African-Americans are placing on the murder of Hadiya Pendleton. She was the 15-year-old sophomore shot to death a week after performing with her school band at the president's inaugural. She was allegedly killed by an 18-year-old black gang member in a public park not far from President Barack Obama's South Side Chicago home.

Black people, politicians in particular, avoid discussing the problems at the heart of Hadiya Pendleton's death, the heavy toll of black-on-black violence and the moral decay that keeps us trapped.

I expect politicians to avoid the hard issues, but I worry when black residents play this cynical game. Damon Stewart, Hadiya Pendleton's godfather, did so when he spoke at the girl's funeral. "She is a representative not just of the people in Chicago," he said. "She is a representative of people across this nation who have lost their lives."

Stewart did not mention the real problem that begs to be addressed: Hadiya is representative of the high number of blacks killed and brutalized by other blacks each year in the United States.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 7,000 blacks are killed annually, 94 percent by other blacks. Along with being victims of black-on-black murders, African-Americans most often are the victims of violent personal crimes such as robbery and assault.

What is there to celebrate during February?

I came of age during Jim Crow. We were taught that history is a means to understand the present and a guide to securing a wholesome future. We studied our history and celebrated it every day. We were taught to admire and respect the courage and accomplishments of those who survived — with dignity — America's institutionalized racism, its violence and the poverty it created.

We were taught that those who came before us were our heroes, our role models. And we celebrated them. Our teachers placed the images and sayings of famous civil rights activists, educators, business owners, celebrities and others on our classroom walls.

I memorized the words of W.E.B. Du Bois behind my homeroom teacher's desk: "We cannot stand still; we cannot permit ourselves simply to be victims."

Du Bois' saying and those of other influential blacks were more than mere words. Based on real experiences, they served as a blueprint for life. They gave us a deep sense of personal responsibility, self-respect and a commitment to serve others.

They taught us empathy, the ability to care, to share in another person's feelings and emotions and thoughts.

We learned to be a community. We cared about our neighbors, their property and the safety of their children. This was social capital. We knew that our power came from cooperation and trust that benefited the greater good.

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Vandalizing a neighbor's home was to vandalize our own home. Assaulting a neighbor was to assault oneself. Killing a neighbor was to kill a part of the community. A neighbor who let trash pile up in his yard trashed the value of his neighbors' yards. Calling the police was not viewed as snitching but as being responsible and caring. We knew that crime destabilized our community and threatened everyone.

Empathy and social capital are absent from too many of today's black communities nationwide. In places like Chicago's South Side — where violent teenage gangs have replaced the traditional family — empathy is seen as a weakness and social capital is seen as that warm-and-fuzzy stuff that whites and black traitors practice.

Many African-Americans blame urban poverty for this crisis. But poverty does not explain away the lack of a moral compass, the source of the violence and general neglect that have turned our communities into dystopias.

What is there to celebrate during Black History Month?