What Can One Person Do?
Edited by Miles Harvey with an Introduction by Alex Kotlowitz
Big Shoulders Books, DePaul University 2013
Reviewed by Seana Graham
First, a little background. On September 24, 2009, a shooting in the Roseland area of Chicago’s Far South Side led to factional fighting between two groups of high school students. In the midst of this, 16-year-old Derrion Albert was beaten to death. Crucially in this instance, a member of the crowd filmed this murder, laughing as he did so. The film went viral, reaching eyes beyond this community and causing national outrage. The author Miles Harvey, who teaches at Chicago’s DePaul University, admits in the forward that before the video emerged he had pretty much written off youth violence as “someone else’s problem”, but now began to question his complicity in the violence taking place within his own city. But the question was, what could “one, white, middle-aged creative writing professor” do?
As is often the case with that kind of question, it turned out that the answer was: plenty. At least with a little help. A chance conversation with friend Hallie Gordon, the artistic director for the theatre company Steppenwolf for Young Adults, revealed that she too had been galvanized, and had a dream of doing a documentary theatre piece on youth violence, using the real stories of real people. But she lacked the means to get the interviews needed. Harvey had the key: a classroom full of his own students. You could say that the rest is history. But actually the rest is a lot of damn hard work by many people. The premiere of “How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence” took place on February 26, 2013, but there were many more stories that cried out to be documented and preserved. Hence, this book.
Harvey and his students were scrupulous in their efforts to witness to people’s stories, to give them the opportunity to speak, rather than merely using their voices. The introduction delineates the methodology. What emerges is not a master narrative, but a mosaic of voices—the youth who perpetrated the violence and those who were affected by it, and also the experiences of a gamut of people who’ve had to deal with the consequences of the situation—families, but also the police, the emergency room nurse, the funeral director. In the tradition of their great Chicago predecessor, Studs Terkel, the student interviewers found that each of these stories had its own dignity and inherent interest.
Although the book at many points calls out for a larger, communal intervention, there is another slightly paradoxical need that the narrative speaks to as well. As you read through the individual stories, it’s quite striking how often the presence or absence of one person made all the difference in the choices the young people had made. One person. It’s a great reminder not to put all our faith in collective solutions when there might be some small thing we can do ourselves.
Chicago had 900 murders in the period spanning 2010 and 2011. As with other war torn areas, such as Belfast or Israel/Palestine, it can be easier for outsiders to put the blame entirely on the people involved in the conflict rather than identifying more closely with them. Readers of this book will find it harder to do that. The cumulative effect is to remind us of our common humanity with people cast into the maelstrom.
This book is published under the auspices of Big Shoulder Books and DePaul University. It is a free book. They are happy to give you one if you write them (I suppose while supplies last) if you tell them what you intend to do to work against violence as a result, perhaps donating to one of the many organizations involved in this project as listed at the back. They’d also like you to pass the book on.
I will. And I shall.