From Other Mothers: Friends, Foes, and the Making of a Pioneer


Joey’s funeral was nine days after he was killed. I sat around the house the night before and thought about all the times over the previous week that schoolmates called to tell me: “I thought you got shot, too.” I was happy that Damon from the basketball team survived with no life-altering effects. But to constantly hear “I thought you got shot, too” fueled an uneasiness that weighed heavily on my psyche. I had never thought about dying until that week. Up to that point, I naively looked at death as something that mostly happened to older people. Sure, stories of young folks dying in the city flooded our local news coverage. And sure, Earl, my classmate from middle school, and several others who attended high school with us, met a violent death. But still, I foolishly viewed those cases as anomalies. Violent and distressing cases to be sure, but anomalies nonetheless.

The thought of dying, however, became my psychological companion throughout the rest of my teenage years and decades into adulthood. I never, ever had a conscious thought about dying before Joey’s passing. It was a foreign concept to me. Yet there I was, a sixteen-year-old eleventh-grader, and the thought consumed every crevice of my mind. I had believed that our youth somehow insulated us from death. The contradictory relationship between reality and my fallacious thoughts, however, forced me to confront the world as it was—that, indeed, young people were as susceptible to death as everybody else; that tragedy had enveloped our childhood and would more than likely continue as we got older; and that we would have to develop a broad and deep understanding of our environment, lest we get engulfed by its unrepentant thirst for young Black males.

All the instances of violence we experienced as teenagers chipped away at our perceived invincibility. We young people were destructible. We were vulnerable. We did succumb to the same threats that afflicted everybody else. We were not a special species immune to the violent turmoil in which we found ourselves. Simply put, we inhabited an atmosphere where life teetered on the brink every day. That had to have taken a psychological toll on us, but to what extent we will never know.

Joey’s death hastened the end of our childhood innocence. It laid waste to our sense of normalcy, and in fact, replaced our normalcy with a perverted reality that transformed our entire thought process, especially during the days and weeks immediately following the incident. I battled through enormous emotional obstacles after he died. We all did. But who am I kidding? We’re still battling through those obstacles all these years later. Certainly to a smaller degree, but the battles continue in earnest, nonetheless.

In the aftermath of Joey’s death, I often asked myself: Am I next? That was the perpetual question many of us in Research Park had following all the tragedies we faced as teenagers. No doubt, experiencing friends getting killed, seriously maimed, or otherwise placed in precarious situations had a unique way of altering our psychological state. Living through those perilous times was scary and frustrating and confusing. Together, those feelings helped shape us emotionally as we grew older.

Our initial ambivalence toward the violence had long since dissipated as the tragedies kept hitting closer and closer to home. Personally, the heartbreaks we experienced had me questioning not only my own mortality, but the mortality of those closest to me. Who around me is next? Will it be me? Those thoughts dominated my mindset. It prevented me from doing things and going places for fear of something tragic happening. It’s taken decades to come close to overcoming that mental hurdle. Truth be told, it remains a battle to this day.

Predictably, Roger felt the same way. All the misfortune around us made it feel like danger was imminent. With each passing year, the thought of impending doom was palpable. Not only did most of us live through Pete’s stabbing, Joey’s murder, and Prentis, Rodney and Willie’s shooting—not to mention my learning of Earl’s death in middle school—but a female classmate at Murray-Wright was killed late in our senior year in 1988. Sabrina was accidentally shot in the abdomen by a friend with an assault rifle near her home and died hours later at the hospital. Another classmate named Clarence allegedly died by suicide after putting a pistol in his mouth only eleven days before Sabrina’s death. A few years before that, in 1984, a Murray-Wright student named Michelle Jackson, a classmate of my brother and no relation to Joey, was raped and murdered as she walked to the bus stop alone on her way to school. Her death caused panic around the city and fueled conversations about the importance of walking in groups.

But the dangers weren’t limited to us youngsters. A female math teacher at Murray-Wright dated a drug dealer. He entered the school one day between classes, walked into her classroom with students still milling about, and backhand slapped her. She crumpled to the floor like a lifeless crash test dummy. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her caveman-style into the hallway where he punched and kicked her. It was a horrifying scene. She squealed and screamed in agony. The teacher never returned after that incident, and we later heard that an assailant killed her boyfriend during a drug deal gone wrong.

What’s more, a few years after graduating from Pelham Middle School, we heard that Mr. Malone, our English teacher who admonished Earl that day at the window, was killed in his apartment after somebody learned that he had won a couple thousand dollars in the lottery. They broke into his unit, beat him with a blunt object, and took his money. Days passed before they found his body.

That’s a lifetime of tragic experiences, but that all happened before most of us graduated from high school.

Roger had a strong premonition that he would get shot. It consumed him. It wasn’t until Roger enrolled in college that his hunch began to subside. He went off to Michigan State University to study engineering. Arriving in East Lansing gave him a huge sense of relief. Finally, he thought, the ever-present expectation that he would get shot was over. No way could anything happen in a harmless college town, right?

Roger attended an outdoor, off-campus party a few weeks into his freshman year on Saturday, September 24, 1988. A fight broke out not long after he arrived. Commotion ensued. Moments later, gunshots rang out. Partygoers scattered every which way. Having been present during other occasions when bullets started flying, Roger knew to stay calm while running like the wind to get out of harm’s way. Sprinting down the street with several fellow freshmen from Murray-Wright, Roger felt a sting in his lower right leg. Wearing a pair of loose-fitting gym shorts, Roger looked down, only to realize that his entire sock was covered in blood. While getting shot in his calf was a traumatic experience—the quarter-sized wound remains visible today—the greater feeling was one of relief. That unrelenting thought that he’d get shot disappeared immediately. Roger felt liberated from the prison of his own mind. He made a full recovery within a couple weeks, grateful that his hunch came true without any life-altering complications.