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By Stephane Dunn, PhD.


Saturday, October 24, 2009.

I nicknamed him Psycho because he reminded of a young guy whose actual street name was Psycho. Actually, he reminded me of a thousand such young black men. Psycho and I met one evening as I sat on the front porch step of a friend’s store on the fringes of the projects.


I was on a rare return trip home to little Elkhart, Indiana, USA,  and an old high school friend was filling me in – a long list of who was in jail, on the way to jail, newly released from jail, strung out, selling drugs, and dead. Psycho wandered by for a hair net. He rocked several gold chains around his neck, but otherwise he looked, at twenty-five, almost school boyish in neat cornrows, a white t-shirt with Tupac on the front, and black jeans that didn’t quite sag so much they’d fall down without the blinged out belt he wore.

Somehow we got to talking –Tupac, music and Psycho’s life. He had a beautiful three year old daughter and an estranged girlfriend-baby mama whom he’d struck more than once. I questioned him about his daughter; would it be okay if some day a man hit her because she didn’t obey him or she took his car keys or mouthed off at him? He looked at me, black eyes deadly earnest, ’I’d kill that nigga’. No question.’ He was out there – as we like to say- living that thug life, a drug dealer extraordinaire with high plans for life after he left the game. He was going to do real estate, maybe open a barber shop, or another store, invest . . . I asked him again and again when ‘after’ was going to come. Soon he kept saying, soon.

We talked into the evening, the warm summer evening fading into late night; he ignored his beeper and both of us barely noticed the cars slow crawling by with the pumped up wheels and the Psycho looking imitators honking and hollering out. We were old friends by the time we hugged goodbye and I said to him last, Don’t stay out there too long. I don’t want to hear about you getting killed or going to prison.’ Nine months later Psycho was shot to death trying to flee his killers--three other young black men. They murdered him on the steps of his apartment building practically in front of his new girlfriend and their child, whom thank God the killers spared.

Right now, in Chicago, the murder of a sixteen year old honor student by three other young black men is making headline news. Usually, it doesn’t though it happens every day in small towns like Elkhart and big cities like Chicago. Despite it being an epidemic, we remain in denial, the proof of which lies in the distorted language used to characterize the perpetrators. The words ‘gang’ and ‘gang violence’ like ‘thugs’ are thrown around a lot so much so that they are merely vague euphemisms for something we want to believe can be chalked up to wayward, ‘bad’ ‘black’ and violent seeds and familiar violent groups (gangs) on the margins of society and our communities.

The only answer has been, as one CNN reporter echoed, to lock them up if they can be discovered especially when they dare kill other ‘respectable’ young people like the sixteen year old Chicagoan. Perhaps it’s too difficult to confront that we are up against a cultural psyche, a consciousness that has a generation of children bred to disvalue life – their own and others and to see going to court and prison as a rite of passage.


Unfortunately, this nihilistic worldview does not just belong to some anonymous mass of gang members. The ‘thugs’ come from families with grandmas and aunts and folks whose hearts will break when they see that mug shot on the news. Too many are potentially productive young people who give in to the thug life so prevalent around them. Given the numbers of young folk in prisons across the nation, it’s clear that locking them up is merely the only resolution we’ve got, not the one that’s preventing others from going or staying out and it is not, obviously, keeping the blood from running in the streets of the President’s adopted city or my hometown.


With thanks to Mark Anthony Neal, PhD, at The New Black Man.

Stephane Dunn, Ph.D, MFA, is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Morehouse College. She has also taught at Ohio State University. A scholarly and creative writer, she specializes in film, popular culture, literature and African American studies. She is the author of articles and commentaries and the book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008).

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