In Memoriam: Hadiya Pendleton.

It’s so likely I saw her, amid the Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth reenactors, among the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and the surprisingly soulful Isiserettes from Des Moines. It’s likely her performance, marching and shimmying as a majorette with the other band members from King College Prep got a shoulder-shake out of Sasha, a mellow head-nod from Malia, a slightly offbeat soul clap from the president.

The most prolific photo of her, splashed across websites under headlines regarding her death, looks like it may have been taken for a school ID. Her smile is faint, but her eyes are soft. At a recent news conference, her father addressed the at-large gunman, saying, “Man, you took the light of my life.” With just a glance at her, so incandescent with promise, it is easy to understand how true that must be.

I watched the entire Inaugural Parade at home with my daughter and my grandmother who, after two solid hours of pomp and pageantry, still managed to say with rapt satisfaction, “God, I love to watch people march.”

Hadiya Pendleton was among those proud marchers, many of whom were black. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that day was among the most blackness-affirming days I’ve ever witnessed firsthand in this country. Our first  biracial president entered his second term in office. The great civil rights stalwart and matriarch Myrlie Evers-Williams brought forth an invocation. He was serenaded by this generation’s most spectacular black pop star. And in his parade, droves of black folks beat drums and channeled black civil war soldiers and performed the soul songs we grew up hearing our mamas play while cleaning on Saturday mornings.

For us, comparatively safe in our living room, it was a good day to be black in America. But it was not a day of ceasefire. Even in DC, just miles from the celebration, someone, somewhere, faced his or her customary threat of gun violence.

The same was true of Pendleton’s native Chicago, where for years, the president lived and worked before moving to another predominantly black city and where daily, our own die at some indiscriminate bullet’s behest.

In inner cities, homicides don’t pause to honor inaugurations, not even of a black president who “should” — by the logic of some — make them feel such a spike in self-esteem that they begin to belt their pants at the waist, tell kingpins they’d rather work at McDonald’s for that good, honest minimum wage, and turn their guns over to nonprofits in exchange for canned goods and GED prep courses.

In inner cities, no one ever says to reporters, in the wake of multiple murders within minutes, “I thought we were safe. I never dreamed this could happen on my block.”

Even Hadiya Pendleton, whose school was in a relatively safe area and who sought shelter in a park not known for violent crime, must’ve known how possible it is for an unarmed child to be killed without provocation in her own city.

She was an honor student.

It’s true that I may have seen Hadiya marching across my TV screen last Monday, may even have glanced at her as I do so many of the young black girls I teach, and wondered how closely her look and her life resemble what my own daughter’s will be when she’s older. But I wouldn’t have needed to to understand what’s happening to her.

Rather that traveling across the Atlantic to Paris as she’d planned, Pendleton is traveling through the national news circuit, no longer a girl, now a disembodied reputation.

Rather than having the luxury of unqualified mourning, those who survive her have to spend these irretrievable moments of reflection and grief stockpiling reporters with Hadiya’s “positive” attributes and exceptional experiences. Those who survive her feel the need to insist that she is different than some of the other black Chicago bodies that are reported as little more than large and senseless homicide numbers. No gang affiliations. No bad grades. No “wrong crowd.” Beautiful, built for greatness. 

She didn’t deserve this.

It is fitting that Hadiya’s connection to the president is being used as her narrative hook: gun control reform is an issue that’s risen to prominence in recent weeks. Addressing it was one of the first orders of post-inauguration business. It would be difficult to write about this girl without twisting the knife of irony: she lived and died in the place where the president began his political career, yet had she not performed in his D.C. parade, no one outside of their city — which has been slowly burning from within for years before recent mass shootings in suburban areas forced the government’s hand on gun laws — would know her name.

Now that we do know it — now that the president knows it — we expect him to amplify it the way he’s so often done when children from the quiet alcoves of the country have been slain. We expect it, if for no other reason, because Hadiya marched and raised her own voice for him.

But he may not. And even if he doesn’t, we have our own imperatives. We have our own voices to raise, our own unctions to march. We are, after all, the ones we’ve been waiting for.

5 responses to “In Memoriam: Hadiya Pendleton.”

  1. A small, but vital, point regarding the ubiquity of violence: I read an article where people in the neighborhood where she was shot did indeed say the street where this occurred was usually quiet and peaceful, which goes contrary to your statement regarding no one ever saying to reporters “I thought I was safe”.

    It says something that people who read this story think of “the hood” being the murder scene, tragedies like this can happen anywhere.

    For that quote from residents about the quality of life on the street where this tragedy happened, see here:

    • Thanks for your comments. I did reference in the above post that the area where Hadiya was shot was a comparatively safe area. But that’s not the same of saying that you never thought a shooting would happen on your block/in your neighborhood (at least, not for me). I’ve also read articles that said those interviewed said they’d never thought this would happen *to Hadiya,* which also doesn’t seem the same as feeling safe where you are.

      It was not my intent to imply that urban areas can’t be safe or that tragedies can’t happen anywhere. However, to the point in your other comment, this article ( I read while preparing this post did indicate that Chicago’s homicide rate (though low for Chicago) is ticking up as other urban cities trend down:

      “Pendleton’s murder was one of three shooting deaths in the city on Tuesday. More than 40 people have been shot dead in Chicago since the beginning of the year. There were 506 homicides in the city last year, a 16 percent increase even as other large cities, like New York, saw murders drop.”

      This Raw Story article ( suggests that the area is “low-crime,” not crime-free (citing a single month where no serious crimes were reported and one resident who says nothing like this has happened since she lived there, without stating how long she’s lived there):

      “As of Tuesday evening, police had no suspects in the shooting. The 4400 or 4500 blocks of South Oakenwald Avenue, where the shooting occurred, was considered to be a low-crime area. No serious crimes had been reported there between Dec. 19 and Jan. 20.

      “It’s a great neighborhood,” Roxanne Hubbard resident Roxanne Hubbard explained to the Tribune. “Nothing like this has happened since I’ve been here.”

  2. I have to also add that while the current murders in Chicago are a tragedy, I took a moment to look up homicide statistics for that city and discovered that 2010 marked a 45 year *low* in the Chicago murder rate (see:, so what we’re seeing now is an increase in media attention to a problem that was much, much worse when presidents who are not from Chicago (or black) were in office. I wonder about the timing of said coverage often, now that I found that information. We have to be careful when we accept the media’s interpretation of life in a city and internalize it as truth. Often, the truth is far more complicated. As near as I can tell, the Chicago murder rate since Obama was in office has never risen above where it was in 2008, the last year that another president who isn’t from Chicago was in office. Coincidence? Perhaps. The media certainly did not give any credit to the city of Chicago or its citizens (or our President) when the murder rate there hit a historic low in 2010.

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