LEWIS PLACE – “I am somebody.”
Those are the last words of an African creed that 5th-grade shooting victim Eddie Hill IV led students in reciting every morning at school.
“He was loud and proud,” said Eddie’s teacher, Rashida Chatman of Pamoja Preparatory Academy. “He didn’t have any shame in speaking for things he greatly believed. He didn’t have any shyness about sharing what he thought was important with other people.”
The instilling of that pride in formative youths is reminiscent of traditional and now largely lost African rites of passage in which elders would school adolescents in the moral edification and responsibilities of adulthood.
That’s the type of schooling that Eddie, 10, a model student, was receiving at the African-centered school. The school aims to mold its students into character- and principle-rich youths. It’s the kind of schooling that most black boys could now use against their being environmentally bred into “killers.”
One day, like Eddie, they’re little boys playing and running up and down the block. But by perhaps age 15, those same boys may be toting guns and be hardened enough to take a life.
“They learn that they have to kill someone or they are going to be killed themselves,” said Sultan Ali Muhammad, a former gang member turned youth violence prevention specialist.
“They won’t stop killing one another until they are taught against that particular subculture,” Muhammad said.
In the United States, firearms are the No. 1 cause of death for black children and teens, according to EverytownResearch.org, a gun violence research organization. They are also 14 times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by gun violence.
In St. Louis this year, 89 of the 97 males killed were black, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Of those killed, the department listed 33 known black male suspects. A total of 10 youths and 11 females were murdered.
Those staggering statistics underscore a need for tailored social curriculum and rites-of-passage-style learning such as Eddie received from his African-centered school. The school’s mission is to equip all students with a strong sense of African identity, purpose and direction.
“They deserve to be loved, they deserve proper and quality education,” Chatman said last Thursday.
She was attending a vigil for Eddie at his home in the 4700 block of Page Boulevard. He was killed July 19 in a drive-by shooting as he stood on his family’s porch with his father, Eddie Hill III, and other family members.
About 100 people showed up to honor the slain 10-year-old. Many, through speech, T-shirts and signs, referred to him by his nickname, Whogi. They were family, friends and neighbors. They were schoolmates, teachers, clergy, civic leaders, gun violence fighters and others.
“I don’t want to see any of y’all go through this pain,” his father said.
Eddie’s schoolmates are going through that pain.
“I can’t focus necessarily on academics,” Chatman said, fighting tears. “I’ve got to focus on grief counseling and therapy, because our kids aren’t allowed that in society, so we’re going to have to provide that.”
James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, acknowledged cultural customs, teachings and the absence of structured socially corrective learning for susceptible black youths.
Clark said: “We understand why it is. It’s not our fault that the conditions that we live under created this mentality, brothers and sisters; but guess what, it’s our responsibility to change it.
“We want to be able to turn the page, close the chapter on the violence in our community.”
Also at the vigil, standing together, were two former gunslingers, now senior citizens. They used to be arch rivals, drawing guns, blood and sorrow upon one another. The two – Dennis Haymon and Lorenzo Petty – were among the most notorious St. Louis bad boys in the ’70s.
They have put their differences behind them and put their reconciliation on stage, on the porch, at the vigil. They stood together in solidarity as a lesson to youngsters at risk of becoming gun violence perpetrators.
“I tried to take his life,” Haymon said. “He tried to take my life, and lives were lost in the ’70s, but now I love this man and this man loves me,” he said, Petty nodding in agreement.
“Now, we do things together, we move together, and it’s possible for St. Louis to mimic, to model the same thing,” Haymon suggested. He said he and Petty answered calls from black males needing help to de-escalate feuds that may lead to shootings.
That’s a lesson Eddie’s teacher can appreciate. Her school is named for the Swahili phrase “tuko pamoja,” meaning “we are together.” The phrase implies a shared sense of purpose, with deep understanding, passion and kindness.
“We as the African family have to do better to protect our children,” Chatman said. “We cannot allow this type of stuff to happen and be okay. We need to be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to our children.”
Because, after all, whether green, yellow, white or black like Eddie, they are somebody. And they don’t deserve to be killed or to become the killers.
They are Whogi. They are somebody.