Commentary

The Sport of American Responsibility

What the Chicago gang violence reveals about the worst of us

Updated: September 25, 2012, 3:01 PM ET
By Kiese Laymon | Specal to ESPN.com

Way back in the day, when Twitter was a bootleg reindeer name, David Rozier invented farting during Mass. A few minutes before we marveled at the six Catholics at Holy Family Catholic School sipping out of one gold goblet, and right after Father Joe suggested we offer each other "a sign of peace," David tapped me on my shoulder, swung his right arm around his back and farted in his hand. Father Joe rolled his eyes from the pulpit as David proceeded to shake the hands of Ms. Bockman, Ms. Raphael and all the other sixth- and seventh-graders on our row.

Side by side, David and I looked as different as two Mississippi black boys could. He reminded me of a shorter version of my cousin Eugene, who lived up in Chicago. David had the forearms and calves of a wiry point guard with the teeniest head you'd ever seen in your life. He had bright, curious, clear eyes, a voice that was plenty octaves deeper than you'd expect and these elephant ears that Angela Williams plucked on field trips. David wasn't the flyest dresser in the seventh grade, but he -- like our boy Lerthon -- came to school fabric-softener-fresh with just a whiff of fried eggs and canned biscuits. I, on the other hand, was slightly less husky than the Human Beat Box and smelled like stale sweat and off-brand dishwashing soap.

The day David offered us his sign of peace, Ms. Bockman, who initially thought David was finally being über respectful of Catholic tradition, went off on me in homeroom. When I wouldn't tell her why I was laughing, she walked me into the hallway and pointed down to the principal's office.

"Kiese, you're not giving me a choice," she said. "Move it!"

As I walked down the hall to the principal's office with Ms. Bockman at my side, our homeroom door opened behind us.

"Hold up!" It was David Rozier. "Kiese ain't do nothing," he told Ms. Bockman. "It's my bad he was laughing. I'm responsible."

I looked at David and waited for something more, something familiar.

I got nothing.

David just stood there swaying with his peanut head tucked into his chest. He wouldn't stop tracing the brown splotches on the floor with his toe.

Since fourth grade, David Rozier and I had spent every day calling and responding, daring each other to revise all the rules of Mississippi juvenile delinquency. We were the Run-DMC of bad behavior at Holy Family Catholic School, and Lerthon was our Jam Master Jay. But in that second, I was a spectator, a confused fan. Hard as I tried, I couldn't understand the movement, language and work of American responsibility, especially coming from the mouth of David Rozier.

"I made Kiese laugh in Mass," David told Ms. Bockman.

"But you didn't laugh," she said.

"I passed gas in my hand and I spread it," I remember David saying without a smirk. I busted out laughing again. "Kiese wouldn't be laughing without me. I'm saying I'm responsible."

While we sat outside the principal's office waiting for the secretary to call our mamas, I joked that I saw Ms. Bockman smell her hand. David wouldn't laugh. After a minute or two of forced yawning to break the silence, I asked David why he accepted responsibility for my acting a fool.

"I don't even know," I remember him saying. "Coach Stanley said we gotta be more responsible for our team, and my grandma said I gotta start acting responsible, too. I forgot at first. Then I remembered."

I couldn't understand.

David and I got suspended from our rickety black Catholic school that day. Later that evening, in our black neighborhoods, our mothers called their mothers. Under our grandmothers' guidance, our backs, elbows, knees, necks and thighs were destroyed. We now knew that the worst whupping you could get was the playing-fart-games-in-Catholic-church whupping. We figured it was our mothers' way of keeping us out of black gangs, black prisons, black clinics, black cemeteries. We knew it was their way of proving to our grandmothers that they were responsible.

The licks, during my whupping at least, were in sync with every syllable out of Mama's mouth.

At least 25 solid syllables. At least 25 stinging licks.

Near the second half of the whupping, Mama, who was usually reckless with her belt, channeled the precision of Grandma and dropped 10 licks to the words, "don't … you … know … white … folks … don't … care … if … you … die …"

Even as a juvenile delinquent, though I didn't fully understand what responsibility meant, I understood that when Mama said and meant "white folks," she should have said and meant the worst of white folks. I knew literally because there were so many different types of white folks on television, and the only white folks I personally knew at the time -- Ms. Bockman, Ms. Jacoby, Ms. Raphael and Lori Bakutis -- were complicated, caring white folks who didn't want me dead. The truth was that you didn't have to know white folks personally to understand what the worst of white folks nudged your family to feel and do.

The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn't some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful "it" that took pride in captaining America's team, captivating America's rivals and acting as the world's referee. It conveniently forgot that it came to this country on a boat, then reacted violently when anything or anyone suggested it share. The worst of white folks wanted our mamas and grandmas to work themselves sick for a tiny sliver of an American pie it needed to believe it made from scratch. It was all at once crazy-making and quick to discipline us for acting crazy. The worst of white folks had an insatiable appetite for virtuoso black performance and routine black suffering. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would make sure it never wholly defined them.

I didn't know a lot as a seventh grader in Mississippi, and I had far fewer words to describe what I actually knew, but the worst of white folks, I knew far too well. David Rozier and I both did.

It passed through blood.


Up in Maywood, Ill., which is about 10 miles west of downtown Chicago, my first cousin Eugene was equally familiar with the worst of white folks as we were in Jackson. Though the winters were colder, the vowel sounds shorter, the buildings taller and the yards a lot smaller, the Chicago I visited as a child always felt like an orange piece of Mississippi that had broken off and floated away … with one major exception.

Whereas the mid-20th century saw millions of black Americans leave Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi for Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Gary and Detroit, by the mid-1980s, we were in the midst of a much less concentrated reverse migration. Chicago's Vice Lords and Folks had made their way into Jackson and Memphis.

When David and I started the seventh grade, we heard rumors that rocking your hat tilted to the left or right, doing twisted things with your fingers and wearing the wrong colors were grounds for a beatdown. But by the end of seventh grade, the rumors became full-fledged law in Jackson. As much as this law immediately altered the way David, Lerthon, Henry Wallace and I moved through space near the end of seventh grade, this law sadly governed Eugene's entire life in Chicago.

[+] EnlargeKiese Laymon
Courtesy Kiese LaymonWrites Kiese Laymon: "There is a price to pay for ducking responsibility, for clinging to the worst of us and clinging to warped innocence."

My father took me to visit Aunt Daisy, Eugene and his siblings the summer I turned 14. We didn't stay long, but the whole time I was there, I kept hoping that Eugene would come back to stay with me in Jackson. I figured that girls like Marsha Middleton, who wouldn't give me much rhythm, would have to pay attention if they knew I was cool enough to have a cousin like Eugene.

Eugene carried himself like the quarterback Coach Stanley wanted Henry Wallace to become. It's crazy to say that you knew any boy or girl would grow to become a leader of men and women, but one only had to watch how Eugene patiently observed you with those clear, slow-blinking eyes to know that one day, he would be followed. We both walked the earth with clenched fists, but Eugene's fist seemed more likely to open and offer you whatever you needed to get by.

Less than 10 years after I visited my cousin in Chicago, Eugene's little sister, Chavon, was murdered. Months later, Eugene, a leader of one of the biggest gangs in Chicago, was incarcerated for manslaughter.

A little over a year ago, Eugene got off probation, which meant he could finally leave Illinois. After exchanging a few texts about how sure he was Derrick Rose wouldn't let his Bulls fall to LeBron "KANG" James, Eugene texted me, "Cuzzo I just want to be somewhere where I have some healthy choices. Can you help?" I texted him back, stating that I'd do whatever it took to get him and his little girls to New York so they all could breathe a different kind of air. I meant every word I texted, too.

Eugene never asked me when he could come to New York. Instead, he sent periodic text messages praising his team, the Bulls, and questioning the bench production of my team, the Heat. "Win or go home, cuzzo" was his favorite text message. I'd get this text whenever his team played a great half or when Rose bended laws of physics. Eugene and I found joy in knowing black boys who had come from places like Jackson and Chicago were using their athletic genius to obliterate our expectations of the body and mind, while providing financial mobility for themselves and their families.

About the same time, it became familiar for Chicago to be characterized as some rogue team leading our league in homicides on the 24-hour news channels.

That was more than a year ago.

Eugene is still in Illinois, piecing together work here and there, and I literally wake up every morning to a job sprinkled with rolling hills, manicured meadows, pot-bellied squirrels, aged gnomes and a make-out spot called Sunset Lake. Not only have I not sent for Eugene and his family to join me, I haven't even asked him to come up for a weekend.

The worst of me, I understood after interacting irresponsibly with my cousin Eugene, had less power than the worst of white folks but morally was really no better. The worst of me wanted credit for wanting to do right by my cousin, and had no intentions of disrupting my life for the needs of a cousin I always looked up to. I was no more equipped to use or understand the language and work of American responsibility as a 36-year-old man than I was as a seventh-grader in the halls of Holy Family Catholic School.


A few years after David Rozier indirectly tried to show me the language and work of American responsibility, he and another classmate, Henry Wallace, were dead. The truth is that half the boys in the seventh-grade class at Holy Family died before reaching 35 years of age. I used to spend hours day-dreaming about David, Henry, Roy Bennett, Tim Brown, Kareem Hill and Eugene playing behind Lerthon's house. When your friends die and kill young, your dreams seldom catch up.

As our nation has shamefully flirted with Chicago's murder rate this summer, folding complicated human lives into convenient numbers that are shared, liked, discussed and neglected all around the country, I've spent more time talking to Catherine Coleman, my grandmother.

I told her two weeks ago that I might attend the PEACE tournament in Chicago organized by Father Michael Pfleger and Isiah Thomas and asked her what she thought of my inviting Eugene to come with me.

Grandma was quiet for a while, then asked me whether the Chicago mothers and grandmothers of kids living and dead would be attending the game.

"I don't know," I told her. "Probably some will."

[+] EnlargeTaj Gibson
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comChicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson coaches one of his players during the PEACE Tournament at the St. Sabina Gymnasium in Chicago on Saturday.

"Tell those folks at ESPN it would help to get the mamas and grandmamas there," she said. "And tell everybody watching them boys play ball that they need to listen to what the mamas and grandmamas have to say."

It made too much sense.

No one I know in Chicago, in Jackson, has seen as much death and destruction as Grandma, Catherine Coleman. I ended up not going to the PEACE game, but spent much of last week asking Grandma over and over, "How did you willfully bear so much responsibility, in the face of death and destruction, for a nation that refused to be responsible to you?"

Though my grandmother worked from the time she was 7 years old, our nation forbade her from registering to vote until she was deep into her 30s. Our nation told her she would enter the chicken plant as a line worker and retire as a line worker, no matter how well she worked. Our nation limited the amount of formal education she could attain and patted her on the back when she earned enough to buy her daughters and son a set of encyclopedias. Our nation watched her raise four black children and two grandchildren for lives as teachers, all the while responsibly arming herself and her community against the worst of white folks and the destructive tendencies of neighbors.

Last month, after burying her brother, Rudy, Grandma bended her knees and reckoned with burying her son, her sisters, her mother, her grandmother, her father and all four of her best friends. She asked her God to spare her the responsibility of burying any more of her children or grandchildren. A few weeks later, an irresponsible American aspiring to be the leader of our nation called my Grandma a "victim" who feels entitled to health care, food and housing.

Catherine Coleman, along with Chavon and Eugene's Grandma Pudding, and David Rozier's grandmother, have never been allowed to just be victims. They're rarely even allowed to be Americans. They don't get invited to panel discussions. They aren't talked to by the DNC or RNC. No one asks them what to do about national violence, debt or defense. They are not American super women, but they are the best of Americans. They have remained responsible in the face of servitude, sexual assault, pernicious segregation, poverty and psychological violence. They have done the hard, messy work of foregrounding the best of Americans, so we might live responsibly tomorrow.

When David Rozier came back to school the day after we were kicked out, he started playing this game where he would fart every time Henry mispronounced "strong" like "skrong," and "straight" like "skraight." I put my head down on my desk so I wouldn't get kicked out of school again and laughed into my forearm until I cried.

At recess, I asked David, "What happened to all that responsibility you was talking about?"

"Oh," he said and took off running a post pattern in the school yard. "That was yesterday!"

There is a price to pay for ducking responsibility, for clinging to the worst of us and harboring a warped innocence. There is an even greater price to pay for ignoring and demeaning those Americans who have unfairly borne the weight of American responsibility for so long. Tomorrow is here, and it's time to pay up. Our team is losing. Our team is lost. Our team …

Kiese Laymon is the author of the forthcoming novel, "Long Division," and a book of essays called, "On Parole: An Autobiographical Antidote to Post-Blackness." He is an associate professor of English at Vassar College and blogs at colddrank.com.

St. Sabina GymnasiumRoss Dettman for ESPN.comBasketball stars and gang members came together Saturday at St. Sabina Gymnasium in Chicago.