More Than a Grim Statistic: Voices of Youth Violence
Posted by: Donna Seaman
Youth violence leaves everyone feeling helpless and heartbroken, emotional quagmires intensified in Chicago by the city’s notorious racial divide. For concerned Chicagoans living far from the stricken neighborhoods, the possibility of doing something productive seems remote at best.
This is just how Miles Harvey, author of the best-selling The Island of Lost Maps (2000) and Painter in a Savage Land (2008) and a creative writing teacher at DePaul University, felt as the number of attacks and shootings escalated, especially in the aftermath of the brutal mob murder of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert in 2009, which was captured in a video that went viral. Then he had a pivotal conversation with Hallie Gordon of the famed Steppenwolf Theater. Gordon told Harvey that as the artistic and educational director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults she longed to produce “a documentary theater piece about youth violence” based on the stories of real people. But how, she wondered, could she collect such oral histories? In one of those meant-to-be moments, Harvey suggested sending his creative writing students out in the field. Now Is the Time was born.
Gordon and Harvey received enthusiastic backing from their respective institutions as well as other arts and cultural organizations and the Chicago Public Library for Now Is the Time, a “citywide initiative aimed at inspiring young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance.” DePaul students fanned out across Chicago’s violence-riddled neighborhoods to talk to teens and adults affected by violence, and they gathered an astonishing number of intensely emotionally, stunningly philosophical, and utterly devastating personal stories. The result was 4,000 pages of transcripts, a precious oral history archive from which a play, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, was created, premiering at Steppenwolf Theater in February 2013. Now Harvey and his student interviewers have created a paperback book containing many more stories. Stories readers won’t soon forget.
In his hard-hitting foreword, Alex Kotlowitz, author of the groundbreaking, award-winning bestseller, There Are No Children Here (1991), the story of two boys growing up in Chicago public housing, and producer of the acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters (2011), reports on the horrific toll grief exacts from young people who have witnessed and survived violence and who have lost family members and friends, as well as the parents of the slain, the injured, and the traumatized. Kotlowitz candidly addresses the battering of communities, where hope and trust are smothered and fear rules. The title of the book is taken from the Old Testament, a passage from the Book of Habakkuk cited by the Rev. Corey Brooks, a socially active pastor on Chicago’s South Side: “O Lord, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save?”
In his stirring introduction, Harvey explains that How Long Will I Cry? is both a lament and a call to action. He credits his students for their profound commitment to this difficult undertaking, which often involved their returning for second interviews, during which people were even more forthcoming, their stories even more harrowing. And he praises the interviewees for their “courage and honesty.” The result of these conversations—of the brave acts of telling painful truths and of listening to them, the latter, as Harvey observes, seemingly a lost art in our loud, contentious society—is an arresting and revealing book of testimony that arcs from anguish to conviction, and that transforms the shattering statistics of youth violence into intimately human experiences.
The book opens with the jolting tale of T-Awannda Piper, a community activist whose center was across the street from where Derrion was killed, and who ran out to try to help him. Next up, a young Latino man on the West Side who quit his gang and fears for his life. A retired Chicago police officer. Each person is vividly and thoughtfully introduced. A man who survived two shootings, a mother who lost a son, teens living in violent neighborhoods, trying to stay out of the line of fire, a nine-year-old boy whose older brother was shot to death for no reason. LaToya Winters says, “Gunshots in our neighborhood was like hearing the ice-cream truck, as sad as that is to say.” A 19-year-old talks about a being born into a gang-affiliated family; his story is titled, “Like Walking through Baghdad.” Hyinth Davis begins, “I’m not trying to say it’s a curse, but it feels weird knowing that five of your friends got killed within the same year.” Each person is vividly introduced; each tale is a glinting concentration of the human spirit.
This is a book everyone should read, and everyone can: it is free.
Thanks to Big Shoulder Books, which produces one book, one “quality anthology,” a year meant to engage “intimately with the Chicago community,” while giving DePaul students “hands-on, practical experience in book publishing.” This book will engage the entire country and beyond, and school and public libraries are invited and encouraged to request copies. A brief study guide is provided, and, clearly, How Long Will I Cry? is an ideal book for book clubs and group discussions and programs.
As T-Awannda Piper tells us, “No matter what your circumstances are, you don’t have to allow someone else to write your story. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.”