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Charles Fox, Jr.

An Ode to Maya

I would have much preferred to have had my first column on Timbooktu be a bit more positive but the world has lost an icon. Marguerite Annie Johnson, better known to the world as Dr. Maya Angelou, has passed on from this place. Her light extinguished, never to burn again in this Earthly realm. It always seems that no matter how expected death is, no matter how ill someone becomes, death perpetually visits like a thief in the night. Stealing away from us those whom we love, cherish, and cannot fathom life without. Most of us never had the pleasure of meeting Maya but through her words, we came to know her. Her poetry and stories gave us hope, life, and aroused dormant passion in us. Maya was our collective mother, teacher, friend, Auntie, pioneer, and risk taker. She challenged us to take risks and to believe in the beauty and power of our own essence. Her death illuminates the fact that as we lose our legends to old age and illness, in communities of color we continue to lose countless potential “Maya Angelous” and “Nelson Mandelas” to poverty, senseless violence, disproportionate prison sentences, systemic inequality and disparities, and low/diminished expectations. How best to honor the legacies of our fallen heroes than to have an honest conversation about the painful truth that we have not and are not doing everything we can to protect, nurture, and cultivate our youth so that they can become all the things we know they can be.

Recently, I visited with a group of young people (all but one of which being African-American or Latino) who were living in a homeless shelter. I couldn’t help but think to myself that although I had never previously met these children, I had failed them. We have failed them. So much of our political/social dialogue, when it comes to poverty and economic depression/oppression, is centered upon the incorrect assumption that poor people are poor by choice. That somehow, their own actions led to their situation. I would assert that even if that were true (which, by in large, I don’t think it is), how does one say to a child living in shelter that it’s their fault that they are poor? Is that what we’ve become? How do we rationalize that allegation? I come in contact daily with young people who are dealing with circumstances and situations that the average person would not be able to endure. Whether it is absentee parents, drug addiction in the household, abuse/neglect, etc., the average adult would buckle under the weight of such obstacles. Yet somehow we too often ignore and dismiss children who live within these realities while they still find the strength to get up each day and attempt to make the best of their circumstances. We can do better for them.

Many of us were very quick to memorialize Maya Angelou via social media posts of photos, articles, and quotes (rightfully so) but too quickly we will forget that the way in which she lived was a decades long distress call to action. She challenged us to live out the promise of our best selves. How then, can we sit idly by and watch as countless children (who are not so different than the young Maya Angelou herself) fall through the cracks into hopelessness and despair. Her death should serve to remind us that, to use her words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How you interpret that is entirely your choice. I would like to believe however, that we can do better to let our young people know how important they are. How valuable, how powerful they each are. We can instill a sense of pride in them, nurture, and guide them. We must.

The homicide rate among Black youths is nearly 400% higher than the overall youth homicide rate. For every 100,000 Black children, about 29 of them will see their lives claimed by some form of violence. Each one a potential leader, teacher, mentor, parent, doctor, activist, writer, etc. Can you live with that statistic? I cannot. I refuse. How many “caged birds” are currently languishing and hurting while trying to navigate a world that has only shown them disappointment and abandonment?

How are these things acceptable in a country that prides itself on being the land of opportunity for all? How can we be content with the reality that children who come from less affluent backgrounds are far more likely to display lower academic aptitude than their peers, possess a far inferior vocabulary, have higher stress levels, and generally have less success in life than their more well to do peers? In a country in which a beautiful brown family can occupy the whitest of houses, this is unacceptable. In Chicago, one of our most beloved and grandiose cities, from 2008 through 2012, nearly half of Chicago’s 2,389 homicide victims were killed before their 25th birthday, the vast majority of them young men and women of color. How many “Mayas, Martins, and Nelsons” were lost during that stretch and in the two years since? How many “Detroit Reds” were snuffed out amidst a juvenile misguided life of poor choices before they had the chance to right their ship and become something more? What are we doing about it? What can we do about it? Will we let teenage angst, youthful mistakes, and decisions made by brains still developing define the rest of a person’s life?

I ask these questions not because I have all the answers. I ask because it would be an extreme dereliction of my responsibilities as a Black man to ignore the obvious. To ignore the truth that resides right before our eyes. We are not doing everything we can to ensure that every child has a chance, an opportunity to pursue their definition of happiness. This is not a policy proposal nor will you find a doctrine outlining solutions to these complex issues within these words. On the contrary, this is merely a call to arms. An S.O.S., if you will. Until we fully acknowledge and begin to address the epidemic of negativity in our own backyards, more precious lives will be lost. Far before they can read a poem at a Presidential inauguration, teach us how to be “Phenomenal,” or publish memoirs. It would be enticingly easy to drift back into an apathetic, “it’s not my problem” mode of thinking. It would be even easier to dismiss this as one of the many articles/columns focusing on a problem we are all familiar with but have not yet begun to solve. However, our future, the future of my children and yours is too important to ignore what is happening in our communities. Our youth deserve a chance. They deserve the same chance that the wealthy legacy student who was grandfathered into the Ivy League received. No one in the most decadent country on earth should be poor simply by accident of birth. No one should have to hear gunshots while walking to school, just trying to get an education. No one should have to bury their peers before they are even legally old enough to vote or have a drink.

Bob Marley once paraphrased Haile Selassie in a song entitled “War.” In the first line of the song Bob sang: “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is totally and permanently discredited and abandoned... Everywhere is war.” In 2014, we find ourselves still at war. Though the tenets of the battle may have changed slightly, we still must fight to end oppression and degradation not just nationally, but globally. Thurgood Marshall once said: “A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It's not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.” That is what we, must fight for. We are at war for the hearts and minds of our most precious resource, our children. Although we will lose some generals like Ms. Angelou along the way, we must honor them by continuing the fight. It won’t be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. However, I believe that it will be the most important thing we can do with our brief moment on this Earth. Maya Angelou said of Nelson Mandela: “No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn." We may spend our lives attempting to level the playing field and create equal opportunities for all. In that endeavor, we may see little large scale progress. However, the change we do help create will help set a foundation for our children alive today (and those yet to come) to stand on for generations to come.

I leave you for now with this: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” If Maya Angelou taught us anything it is that we are important, we matter, and we can and must do better for ourselves and for countless millions yet to come. The time has come to stand up for what we know is right. Our very future depends on it. Until next time, stay blessed in abundance good people.

© Copyright 2014, Charles Fox, Jr.