Losing the sacred space of the front porch
South Side shooting takes away yet another piece of home and family
Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. The Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers: A summer of horrific gun violence that continues daily from Orlando, Florida, to Milwaukee is prompting athletes and activists across the country to ask themselves what can be done. This week, The Undefeated looks at some of the issues involved and holds a town hall discussion in Chicago, the site of some of the nation’s worst gun violence.
A little over a week ago, Arshell Dennis III, always and forever “Trey,” a Chicago police officer’s son about to return for his junior year in college, was killed while sitting on his porch on the city’s South Side.
He was visiting his ailing mother hours before he was to head back to St. John’s University in New York, where he wrote poetry, studied journalism and dreamed — as someone who imagined he’d escaped his hometown’s violence — of adding his voice to the cause of uplift. “It’ll take two lifetimes to change the world, but I do think I’ll be able to influence the way a lot of people think,” he said on a YouTube video posted by his roommate last year. “If you don’t know me, you’re gonna know me.”
“They were watching a movie together and he popped popcorn for her, and he hugged her and said, ‘I love you, mom,’ ” his sister, Rachel Woods, recounted a few days ago to WGN-TV in Chicago. “He said, ‘I’ll be on the porch. If you need me, just call me.’ ” It was just after midnight when a gunman approached Dennis, 19, and a 20-year-old friend and started shooting. The 20-year-old was shot in the arm and chest and was hospitalized. Dennis was shot in the chest and died. On Thursday, neighbors went door to door passing out fliers, and a reward for information was increased to $10,000.
Year after year, murder after murder, wailing mother after gunfire, I thought stories of violence from the city where I was born had wrung me numb. But the murder of Dennis claimed another casualty. Gone are all my porch-sitting ways. It is an existential loss. A shift in the order of the universe I knew.
These places are the stoop, the lookout, our perches on the world. They’re a spot for snapping butter beans and braiding hair. They are open-air conference rooms whose capacity includes all of our friends from around the way. They are the sets for reality shows starring our grandmother’s watchful eyes. They are the first extension of family offered to the neighborhood in varying increments of concrete.
The front porches of literature, history and collective memory are the link between public and private. Their origins stretch back to ancient Greece and Rome, but they are intimately tied to images of Southern culture and the space making, particularly, of African-Americans, who brought their notions of mutuality with them during the Great Migration.
Here’s Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer in his 1923 book Cane: “If you walked up the Dixie Pike most any time of day, you’d be most likely to see her resting listless-like on the railing of her porch, back propped against the post, head tilted a little forward because there was a nail in the porch post just where her head came which for some reason or other she never took the trouble to pull out.”
“We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch,” stated Women With A Vision, a 25-year-old black feminist collective in New Orleans, upon the opening of its new headquarters last year after its previous building and its expansive front porch had been destroyed by arson.
I thought porches sacred. But apparently they are no more so than churches or schools. The safe spaces of our nation are gone. Some among us have felt this for a while, but I’m late to the knowing. It is perhaps a measure of my relative privilege. Or maybe the mark of a mind coming to terms with the grinding erosions and tertiary horrors of American gun culture.
I invited friends to talk about porches on Facebook, where they shared memories and elegies. Many of these recollections came from the South Side, where I lived my first 10 years. “When the streetlights came on, all the kids in the neighborhood use to go into a full sprint to make it to that porch where moms and pops used to sit after they came home from work,” said Lemmie Mays, a manager for AT&T in Chicago. “My parents would have conversations with other neighbors across the street without leaving that porch.”
“The homies and I spent a lot of time on the porch,” said Wendell Young, a Chicago financial services consultant. “Mornings, we signified, recapped the outcomes of the previous day’s sporting events,” and played board games. “Afternoons, if you were with your girl, you sat on the porch, chilled, talked,” he said. “Evenings, everybody hung out together … braiding hair, munching on snacks, making plans for the next day.”
Porch-sitters from myriad other geographies chimed in as well.
In Philadelphia, “grown folks” sat on the porch while kids sat on the steps, one friend said. After kids had taken their baths in Camden, New Jersey, “we were then deposited on the porch to wait for our fathers to come home,” said another.
“In Jacksonville, Florida, older ladies sat on their front porches and watched us kids,” wrote Pittsburgh writer Deeshaw Philyaw. “Try to do some dirt. Your mama would know before you got home because somebody called and told on you. And Miz Maybelle would sit on her porch, dip snuff and yell at us girls, ‘Don’t let the boys fool ya!’ ”
Young said he’d just talked about those memories after Dennis was killed. “The porch was never thought to be a place where one’s life would end, the result of senseless gun violence, unless, of course, you reside in Chicago,” he said. I took his point. Dennis was murdered at the end of a weekend that saw more than 60 people shot, 28 of them killed, in a year where nearly 450 people have already have been murdered.
But for me, the murder of Dennis was a proxy for something else. Something both national, and devastatingly personal. I feel my powers of discernment starting to fail me. I no longer have a radar for what is safe and what is not. The instruments of our social contract are broken. And in some ways, what we are left with feels like the luck of the draw. That is not only, or even primarily, with street violence. It’s in all our lands and institutions, in our most benign of experiences.
Last week, my husband and I rented a van and drove eight kids — our six children, my nephew, and my stepson’s best friend — to Orlando, Florida, for a vacation. The hours of highway driving were punctuated with my ever present fear that we might be pulled over by the police. If that happened, chances are good we’d have just gotten a ticket. Alternately, we could have gotten an officer who thought he saw shadows or spooks or guns made from money clips.
It is the two-year spate of police-involved shootings caught on video that has me scared, combined with generations of black people’s anecdotes of disrespect and stories of brutality, such that we have a ritual talk with our kids, as a culture, to warn them of the dangers of police stops. Most police interactions are routine, experts say. But with black people, there are fewer degrees of separation between the routine and the tragic. My father, a Chicago police officer, killed someone and it haunted him. When he was young, my ex-husband knew a kid who was killed by police, as was the brother of a dear friend.
When it comes to police stops, it’s the luck of the draw. Just like it is with all the ones who get a gun, and fancy themselves a watchman.
On vacation one night, I fell asleep early and woke up close to midnight, only to learn that the four teenage boys were outside playing Pokemon Go in the neighborhood of vacation townhouses in a gated community. My son, the youngest of the boys, who ranged in ages from 14 to 18, and from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2, was wearing a blue bandanna around his head. I rushed out of the door to call out to them and told my daughter to send a text message calling them home. I had watched World War Z earlier that evening, and in some ways, it’s as if we’re living a version of the movies where humans suddenly turn on one another. In the American version, we don’t know where these zombies who are out to get us will show up, just that everyone is potentially a carrier of the gun virus. Potentially strapped. And usually, the freaks come out at night.
We were just playing Pokemon, the boys protested. My son was just wearing a bandanna around his head because his sister had twisted his hair, he said. As if any of that makes a difference. At 32, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte can chalk up his destruction of property and lying about an encounter with Rio de Janeiro police to his “immature behavior.” Tamir Rice, who was killed by police seconds after they rolled up on him playing with a toy pellet gun, didn’t have the luxury of being immature at 12.
Dennis wasn’t being immature. Just getting in a few minutes of community before heading off to his future.
“When I go home, if I want to connect with the neighborhood, I sit on the porch and all the memories of the past tend to show up in my present,” Duane Morton from Valencia, California, who grew up in Chicago, wrote in a social media post.
I have a bone memory of growing up on the South Side, of learning its cadences and folkways, and knowing exactly of what he speaks. But this summer, I understand that our nostalgia for connection is in danger of passing away, and not just in Chicago. Perhaps soon, in a neighborhood near you. It’s a loss from which no amount of good judgment, discernment or acting right can save you. Employ them all, heed your intuitions, but understand what the seers among us have always known. Safety in America is the luck of the draw.
And thinking otherwise can get you killed on your front porch.
Senior researcher Martenzie Johnson contributed to this report.