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Third Eye

Here's Looking at You

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 5/19/2004

When I arrived in Baltimore three years ago to take a job with this venerable rag, I had no doubts about making my way in this city. In some ways, it instantly felt like home, like my native Detroit with its large minority population, its glorious cultural and economic past, and its struggles to thrive yet again. And Baltimore's grim crime statistics and assorted social ills didn't faze me. I'd grown up understanding life thus.

For instance, I played dodge ball with Butch Jones, the boy next door who later founded one of Detroit's most notorious and militaristic drug gangs, Young Boys Inc. I dodged junkies on the way to school, refusing their pleas for my lunch money. And every week, often at my house, I witnessed fights that ended in bloodshed, police reports, and lines at liquor stores so adults on the block could ruminate over the day's events.

As an adult working in journalism, I came to Baltimore believing I had a firsthand handle on issues like generational poverty and low educational attainment; that I'd made the intellectual switch in knowing how epic battles today against drug addiction and HIV infection have their roots in yesteryear's reign of psychedelics (like LSD) and syphilis. But while my mind has its way of making assessments, I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.

You've gathered from the above that "peaceful" isn't a term I'd apply to much of my life. In my case, my background is one reason why I chose a line of work that, if you're any good at it, requires a fighting spirit. Journalists get bashed for being dogged and even cagey, but to me the more worthwhile point is that the best of us don't give up. We pursue insight and information and truth. At the end of the day, most of us like to think we've done a public service, and maybe even helped to better those harsh realities we write about.

On a smaller scale, and in a less hectic environment, I'd seen it done before. While (un)covering news in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina, I remember doing and reading stories that prompted new laws and even changed ingrained attitudes. I'll never forget receiving a letter from a reader who, responding to a feature I wrote in the late '90s about a class-action lawsuit filed by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that while she'd been accusing blacks of griping as usual about their woes, the story helped her "finally understand what happened," to cause the demise of black-owned farms.

But the "peace" I felt from doing stories like that one hasn't replicated itself here--maybe because for every one story I and many other good journalists in this region complete, I've always felt the invisible weight of hundreds more waiting to be told, only to fall on deaf ears. Yeah, I've watched people do what they can--organize rallies, implement phone trees, protest outside school headquarters. But I've rarely seen those heartfelt actions stir the hearts of lawmaking politicians or many racially polarized citizens.

The naked eye catches glimmers of hope and humanity: like when Mayor Martin O'Malley cried real tears over the Dawson deaths, when city schools chief Bonnie Copeland took undeserved bullets for that sorry school board's mistakes, or when anybody who could swim tried to help victims of that tragic water taxi accident downtown. But most days, unless the Orioles or Ravens are on a winning streak, Baltimore's atmosphere seems filled with an uneasy anticipation of the next bad thing waiting to occur.

This is how Detroit used to make me feel, which is why I moved down South in the first place. For months and months, I've been telling myself to buck up and focus on the positive: the food, festivals, down-to-earth people. But then things happen, like one night last week when I sat outside a restaurant on St. Paul Street, waiting to pick up my kid from work. "Pop-pop!" two gunshots rang out--real close by. The sound made me and everyone else nearby go stiff for an instant; I noticed how seconds later, when nobody ran out of a building bleeding, we all went back to doing whatever we were doing, danger having apparently passed us all by.

The incident was another of a long line of wake-up calls I've had not just about the reality of life in the city, but also the quality of it. Mind you, my quixotic heart knows that Nirvana exists only in the realm of Disney movies, and lasts two hours if that. But it also knows that change is a necessary and good thing, which is why, after much deliberation, I'm out. My fondest wish is that all of you will find your own ways to take it light, like a woodpecker with a headache.

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More from Afefe Tyehimba

Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

Living Dangerously (4/28/2004)
The recent death of Johns HopThe recent death of Johns Hopkins University student Christopher Elser cast a lingering pall over Charles Village kins University student Christopher Elser cast a lingering pall over Charles Village residents, myself included.

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