Author and Chicago State University Associate Professor Quraysh Ali Lansana is raising four sons in gun-addled Chicago. All four of them, one in high school, one in eighth grade and two in elementary school, attend Chicago Public Schools.
"In raising my sons," Lansana says, "I continually teach them to watch their surroundings to be aware of who's around them, keep their valuable items concealed when they're on the train or walking about the city. I’m teaching them how to read a potentially dangerous situation.”
Lansana was the Director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing from 2002-2011; he's the author of five books of poetry, three textbooks, a children's book, editor of eight anthologies, and coauthor of a book of pedagogy—Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy & Social Justice in Classroom & Community, a 2012 NAACP Image Award nominee. He has lived in Chicago for 22 years, taught in the Chicago Public Schools for a decade and been on the faculty at Chicago State for eleven years.
"I don't own a gun," Lansana says. "My sons and I have had some conversations about guns. I don't believe in them or support them and my sons know that. I don't allow my sons to play the video games that involve guns. I don't know what they do at their friends' homes but in my house they've never in their lives played with video games that involve shooting things. So they know me and my wife's stance on guns and at this point to my knowledge that's the way they live.
Lansana says he doesn't think there are any quick fixes to the staggering, debilitating number of murders in Chicago the last five years, but he does not believe most are gang-related.
"I think the majority of the shootings are business and territory related. And I think they are related to the underworld or black market economy. The gangs are secondary to that."
He believes the root of the problem is a lack of hope and a lack of opportunity for young people in the city.
"It's about jobs," he says. "It's about productive outlets for young people after school. It's about hope. It's simple desperation. I'm not saying that gang culture isn't vibrant and alive in the city– it very much is. What I am saying is that I believe that the majority of the shootings and murders that have happened in the city are connected to entrepreneurship, the underground economy. I see it as a historic perpetuation of the entrenched savage inequities that continue to exist between black folks and the dominant culture and that hasn't changed very much."
Lansana says a lot of young people see the professions as unattainable, even with an African American president.
"We want to look at what Barack Obama achieved," he says "and hang on to that. We're proud of Oprah and we're proud of the president, but in truth, most of us aren't living anywhere close to that."
He says young people are often looking for the easy way out of the financial difficulties they face.
"i think it's much easier for a young man,” he says, “who grows up in the south side of Chicago and walks outside and sees June Bug on the corner with a wad of money and the freshest gear who is giving out dollar bills to kids so they can buy candy, or paying for the promising hoop stars’ gym shoes–giving them $100 so they can get a new pair of gym shoes—a young person who sees June Bug doing that sees that it's easier to access that kind of lifestyle and be a hero to a hood. They don't see being a professor, or an attorney as something they can achieve.
"[Writer and educator] Jawanza Kunjufu says that if we don't get them before 6th grade, they're gone. I say if they don't know how to read by 3rd grade, then everything is going to be difficult from there on out. And then it becomes a question of how much they're going to apply themselves to work through the difficulty or not.
Lansana says the students he teaches at Chicago State are struggling to make it out of their dire financial straits through education. The median age at Chicago State is 26; over 80 percent of the student population is African American, and 70 percent of the student population is single mothers.
"At CSU," Lansana continues "when we ask: ‘Raise your hand if you're the first person to attend college in your family’, generally 75-80 percent of the hands go up, if not more. And a large segment of our student body has been affected by some sort of gun violence. It has everything to do with where the college is located and the overwhelming majority of our students are graduates of Chicago Public Schools.
Lansana describes one class of his at CSU the weekend after the Trayvon Martin story became national news. There were a series of shootings in Chicago over that weekend including the murder of a 2 year old girl. In class that Monday, Lansana had a conversation with his largely African American composition class. He asked why thousands of people marched in Sanford Florida, but no one was marching in Chicago about the 2 year old getting killed.
"And my students told me because the Trayvon Martin shooting had to do with race. And I said: So the shootings over the weekend in Chicago didn't have to do with race?" Lansana contends that the black on black violence in Chicago is related to racial inequalities as well.
His students said: 'In Chicago, if it doesn't involve me or mine it doesn't matter because it happens every day,' —a mentality that resonates in a poem Lansana offers from his latest book, mystic turf (Willow Books 2013)
heat on the southside
last night, police cordoned the four square
blocks surrounding my house in pursuit of a thug
who unloaded on the shell of a gangsta
in the funeral parlor filled with formaldehyde
and lead. black folks scattered, staining
complicated streets. i settle in for summer:
the maze to the front door, running teens
from my stoop smelling of weed and tragedy
reminding my sons they are not sources
of admiration, praying that might change. not yet
june heat rises like the murder rate, gleam
and pop already midnight’s bitter tune
fifteen years ago, tyehimba jess
told me about a funeral home
with a drive through window.
you pull up, push a call button
through bulletproof glass a friendly
somber attendant takes your request.
moments later, casket open
your order appears for review.
at the time i thought it inhumane.
now i think about the abstraction
of friendship while counting bullets.
is there an extra dead?
what is the term for dying again
when already? killing chi?
and what of the corpses that walk
my block in the anonymity
of black skin and white tees
filled with fluid?
Makkada B. Selah is a journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.