Last weekend I chaperoned a group of young people on a youth retreat in Mississippi. Our lodgings consisted of three cabins divided among girls and boys. I’d volunteered to chaperone the high school girls’ cabin. After settling in for the night, I got a phone call from one of the boys.
“Ms. Thena, something strange is going on in our cabin.”
When I arrived at their cabin, there were many concerns. There was the broken window that no one had an explanation for. The porch lights were mysteriously flickering on and off. Someone reported seeing car lights in the middle of the night and heard sounds of a car outside. There were no curtains in the cabin to shield everyone from someone peering inside. And the historical artifacts on the cabin walls were disturbing — iron shackles and chains along with portraits of scary looking white people from the 1800s. Above all, there were fears about being housed in a cabin in the middle of the dark woods of Mississippi.
“This isn’t a place for black kids to be,” said one young person.
I was struck by how Mississippi’s legacy of racism and violence was alive and real for these kids, some as young as 11 years-old. But how could it not be? Certainly Mississippi’s reputation for white terrorism was well-earned. I knew the history, too, but had somehow found a way to convince myself that this was a threat that we no longer needed to worry about. And it felt unfair to single out one state, especially since racism was an American problem — not unique to Mississippi. In college, I was always amused by the New Yorkers and northerners who refused to travel to places like Mississippi. I’d tease them, “Do you think the KKK will be greeting you at the state line?”
Maybe I dismissed these fears because I’m from the south, myself. Born in Richmond, Virginia and raised in a small Texas town. But of course, as soon as I get cocky about my so-called southern survival skills, those Mississippi anxieties resurface in the headlines. Indeed, it was only last month that Mississippi ratified the 13th amendment that outlawed slavery. Mississippi, Goddam, for sure.
That night, in the cabin, I tried to convince our young retreaters that they had nothing to fear out there in the peaceful, serene, Mississippi woods. But their fears forced me to confront my own biases. For one thing, I’d made inappropriate assumptions about “courage” because they were boys. This was unfair. And I also learned a little something about fear. It never crossed my mind that these boys would feel unsafe in Mississippi. They were from New Orleans, after all. Guns, poverty, and racism were all forms of violence that these young people were experiencing on a daily basis.
But what’s the difference between the fear of a white Klansman racing through the woods to kill black kids and the fear of gun violence on the streets of New Orleans? Fear is fear. And all of it is bred from the same sickness. I asked them, “What will it take for you to feel safe tonight?”
As we went around the circle to hear from everyone, there were no easy answers. Many of the kids just wanted to express why they felt afraid. Eight young black boys, in the dark woods with nothing but Mississippi’s tragic past running through their minds like an infomercial. How could I not understand their fear? But for the pressure that comes along with being a grown up and in-charge — perhaps I would have been under the covers myself.
I thought about what it would have taken for my 12 year-old self to feel safe.
“Let’s cover all the windows,” I suggested. “We’ll use sheets and blankets to block out that darkness. No one looks in, and no one looks out.”
“Let’s turn on the television, get a card game going. Does anyone know how to play spades?”
“I’ll sleep in the cabin with you all tonight. I’ll bring my air mattress right here in the open living room.”
Over the next hour, the high school girls and I shuffled out into the dark, Mississippi night and moved our belongings to the boys’ cabin. We turned on the television and a few more lights. We brought all of the mattresses into the living room. Within an hour or so, they were laughing, playing cards, and flipping television channels.
By 3:00am, everyone had fallen asleep.
Violence in New Orleans is real. Most of our young retreaters live in neighborhoods exposed to crime. The sounds of gunshots are a familiar reality. Many have been personally affected by the loss of classmates, relatives, and neighbors. Our city and our schools are not equipped with the resources to address the trauma that comes with this fear and pain. Mental and behavioral health services for poor children are often the first programs to be eliminated from state budgets.
It is tragic that violence and terror are realities that black children have been forced to confront throughout history. Even in that serene and calm Mississippi cabin, with no real threat in sight — our kids did not feel safe. But the same fear was just as real in our beloved New Orleans. If only sheets over windows, card games, and television laugh tracks were enough to ease the fear of every black child forced to make sense of violence and death so early in life. How do you soothe that kind of fear?