"The only premise of the book was to just go out and listen."
And the book, edited by Miles Harvey, who is quoted above, is remarkable. It's one of a kind, as far as I know -- How Long Will I Cry? -- the first publication of a newly formed nonprofit organization called Big Shoulders Books, which is affiliated with Chicago's DePaul University. It's available free of charge, because ... how could a cry in the wilderness be otherwise?
It's a cry in the wilderness punctuated by gunfire. Usually all we hear is the gunfire, emanating from "those" neighborhoods, the violent ones, "so physically and spiritually isolated from the rest of us," as Alex Kotlowitz describes them in his foreword. How Long Will I Cry? is an attempt -- no, I mean a beginning -- at ending that isolation.
It's the dream and collaboration of lots of people who live in and love Chicago, cultural mecca and, in recent years, "murder capital" of America. This book begins telling the city's untold story, which is the untold story of so much of the country. It lets loose the voices of children, teenagers, adults who have been wounded by the violence that is the shadow side of American and human culture: the voices of those who have lost their children and their friends to it; the voices of those who have grown up with it; the voices of those who have participated in it and been dragged into it.
There are 35 interviews in all. Together they convey the complex dynamic of poverty, despair and hope beyond hope. We need to listen. We need to find a collective resolve to end the violence.
The project began as a deeply personal cry, in the wake of the 2009 murder of an honors high-school student named Derrion Albert, whose beating death -- he was caught in the middle of a gang melee on his way home from school -- was captured on someone's cellphone video. This tragedy, which went viral on the Internet, set a lot of changes in motion in this city.
One of them was the collaboration that led to the creation of How Long Will I Cry? The initial dreamers were Harvey, an English and creative writing teacher at DePaul, and his friend Hallie Gordon of Steppenwolf Theater, who wanted to give a public forum to some of the city's most desperate voices. Harvey helped turn Gordon's dream of a theatrical piece composed of these voices into reality. He enlisted the help of his creative writing students, who began interviewing people all over the city. The result was a Steppenwolf production that toured Chicago and, eventually, in expanded form, the book.
I used to think that, as long as I raised my children right, as long as I kept them in order, then my boys would be safe. But now I know differently. If I don't take care of my neighbor's kids, if I don't take care of other youth, my own children aren't safe. So my goal is to work with the high-risk children and be proactive.
The speaker is Pamela Montgomery-Bosley, whose 18-year-old son, Terrell, an aspiring gospel musician, was gunned down in the parking lot of his own church in 2006. Montgomery-Bosley, like other moms who were interviewed, has devoted her life since her son's murder to reducing violence and helping kids.
"Everything our youth have to look forward to," she goes on, "is violence -- it's the games, the videos with shooting at the police, the songs. There's a whole lot of pieces to this puzzle. Gun legislation, that's a big one. There are so many guns in our community that I don't know if they are dropping them out of cargo trains. Our youth can go get guns for $25; some can get them for free... People sell guns like it's candy."
"I got cut in a knife fight about two weeks before I left the gang," said a young man identified pseudonymously as Jaime, one of a number of ex-gangbangers who tell their stories, including their dangerous exit from gang life.
"It was my final march around the enemy 'hood," Jaime said. "I used to love to fight. No matter who it was, how big he was, how old he was, I would fight. But after me getting cut, that's when something in my head said, 'I can't do this.' I have a scar about five inches long, by my stomach. It scared me. It scared me to know that somebody would always be better, somebody would always be stronger, somebody would just not care. That's what freaks me out."
How Long Will I Cry? chronicles young people's rage and pain growing up in violent families. "Did I get hit? Yeah, we all got hit," said Cristine Figueroa. "I think my brothers got it much worse than I did. My dad definitely used corporal punishment. Sometimes he would go overboard. The thing about my dad is that he didn't take pleasure in it. I know that's how he grew up. He was subjected to very serious abuse, not only at home, but at school. And so that's how he dealt with my brothers. Back then, it was very difficult to handle and to understand, and I felt a very deep sense of hate. I was robbed of my childhood, because I always lived in fear."
But Figueroa, who tells of moving from victim to aggressor as she grew older, eventually transcended her own rage and survived her lost teen years. She went to college, ultimately obtaining a master's degree in public administration, and has worked as a probation officer with both teens and adults, managing to bring compassion and understanding to her job. She has helped troubled young people pull themselves together. When it happens, she's overjoyed.
"See, if you're not going to try to figure out what is going on or what has happened with a young person, then you're simply punishing the kid; you're not dealing with their behavior. So you can't restore. That's the real question: How do you restore?"
This is the barest sampling of a stunning array of stories. The book exudes raw honesty. The pain in it is palpable. It doesn't deliver easy answers, but it humanizes rage and violence as it conveys the stories of nearly three dozen people who have survived poverty, gang life, shattered families and tragedy. You can visit Big Shoulders Books to obtain a copy and join a community of people with growing awareness about the roots of our violence. This is where hope starts.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at email@example.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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