Of course it is possible to be raised in Baltimore, black and lower-middle class, black and occasionally beset by situational poverty, and to never know the agony of losing the people we love to guns or to drugs. I imagine it may be rare — rarer, possibly, than I’d like to admit. But I know for certain the possibility because I am its evidence. I imagine the others relatively unscathed are like me: County-dwellers, suburbanites — or else quite unlike me: affluent city mainstays whose income or inheritance have extended them insulation.
For these seeming exceptions, there exists a tacit divide between those who find themselves managing grief every day and those of us who would scarcely know how, if it were suddenly required. Ease widens that divide — and how easy it can be to remain willfully ignorant of such grief in the cul de sacs, side streets, and enclaves of Randallstown, Owings Mills, or Pikesville. If one wants it to, the “harrowing” reports of Baltimore’s violence and despair that make their way to national media can feel a ten-hour drive away rather than a twenty-minute one. It does not take much turning away when no sidewalk in a six-mile radius has a makeshift teddy-bear shrine to a murdered child and no corner holds ominous congregants dapping crack or lean into the hands of fiending clients.
I am a person who braces for what I consider to be “the worst,” though nothing truly awful has ever happened to me and — right alongside my petitions for the continued strength of those to whom it has — I pray, albeit idly, that nothing awful ever will.
It seems a selfish supplication, though I have every reason to hope for it. I’ve a daughter yet to raise, in a world that has always been unsafe for women, in a country that has always been unkind to its black citizens. But it’s a prayer that leans hard on privilege, too; life in low-crime communities has bettered my odds. And I am no more deserving of this lot than my neighbors eight miles south are deserving of their poorer ones.
I pray for personal mercies just the same, and I hope the people I love, who’ve fared far worse in this life than I, won’t think ill of me for it.
It is this conflicted self I carry into the city, the self that is rarely onsite when the harassment and standoffs, protests and arrests begin, because their inciting incidents are rarely at my own back door. If I am present at all, it is to breathe lives in and to write them out. If I am there at all, it is to admire the wisdom to be found on their blocks — wisdom I do not and cannot possess, understanding as I do that the wisest residents smong them would trade some of that prudence which circumstance bestows, in exchange for a less treacherous lot.
I know, at heart, there is no interpreting, no distilling, no genuine deference to their experience that I can succeed at offering from the outside. I know that even the writing is seen as a kind of charity, and that charity is more often perceived as pity than as a gift.
And yet I am unsure what other alms I can offer. I find it disingenuous to march in the streets against neighborhood-specific atrocities I cannot begin to fathom. I find it empty to picket there, knowing well that I can go home and that home is a place apart, a community of picket fences. There, under the warmth of that hearth, I am no less an ally, no more a peer.
I knew nothing of Lor Scoota before he died. I doubt this is true of many young black folks who’ve lived within city limits over the past three years. Last week, as I watched the sorrow of hundreds spill into the streets to mourn him, I was reminded yet again of how surreal it can be to live in the County, mere miles from the triumph of any city resident’s sense of industry, mere miles from any day’s anguish when the hope he offered is extinguished. I was reminded of how often in Baltimore the dialect of loss that most often emerges at the intersection of resistance and grief is dance.
When I am most honest with myself, I admit this is not a dialect I long to learn and were I to try, this is not a dance I could master. But even as my distance may be cause for some secret relief, I don’t not presume it enviable. In this city, where grief abounds, ingenuity swells up to meet it. Hardship may encroach for what seems an eternity but so will laughter, so will rebellion, so will romance and filial love and glee. Someone will actually recover in an overcrowded, under-resourced clinic. Some parolees will remain free upon release. Some homeowner will dote on a yard in a block that’s avoided boarding-up. Some community will always follow up a vigil disrupted by riot-gear-clad police with a truly peaceful one. Against odds, more bodies will make their way back home than those that will fall by the forces of bloodlust and bullets.
That hardiness, though admirable, is not enviable, either. It is simply life being borne out as best it can be, given where it is conceived and delivered, given where it has no choice but to be raised.
And if the gaps between a sense of relative safety and one of imminent peril can be narrowed by comprehension, I will ever work toward making sense of what some claim is senseless and identifying roots where some claim there is mostly rot.