Ironically, I first heard the term “Chi-raq” when I wasn’t there. I was on a trip from Chicago back to Virginia for summer school. While waiting at a Greyhound in Richmond, I saw the term used on a special on violence in Chicago that CNN did. Later on when fall semester started, some of my friends would call Chicago “Chi-raq” around me, kind of as a passing joke.
At first, it gave me a misplaced shred of street cred/pride, in that “yeah……I’m from the hood” type of way (in this world where black people feel compelled to posture/salvage their self-identity, “Blackness”, and for black men, their masculinity, even if it be through with detrimental appropriations like “hood-ness”). I had to catch myself like wait……….that’s horrible.
There’s this troubling disconnect between people who use the word and the actual reality of so many young kids constantly getting killed. People are actually dying. Dying. So it isn’t something any of us need to attempt to get street cred by saying, out of respect for the families who have lost loved ones. Then I started to see Chi-raq all over the internet. On blogs, on pictures, on memes, in Facebook statuses, on shirts sold online and in-stores. This infuriated me to the point where I now loathe whenever anyone refers to Chicago in that way.
Some would ask though, why I would welcome that epithet for my home for even one second in the first place? Well, it’s because of where I’m from. And at one time, I thought stuff like that was cool.
In my last year in college, I became a member of the first intercollegiate undergraduate African-American fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. I joined the organization for a number of reasons (all of which I won’t explain here), but one big reason I did was because it satisfied the want of a brotherhood in my life. When I first went to college, being both an out-of-state student from Chicago made me feel isolated. I knew absolutely nothing about fraternities, except for the fact that my best friend’s father was a Que. The only relation I had to the idea of fraternity in general were indirectly tied to the pervasive gang culture I grew up in on the south and west sides of Chicago.
The majority of my adolescent life, I had friends who were in gangs on each side of the star rivalry (quick gang history: in Chicago, the major gangs identify themselves through many symbols, the main of which are designated by either the five-point star and the color red, or six-point star and the color blue. Certain gangs ran under the five, others the six. If you are in a gang that runs under the five, people under the six are in almost all cases your enemy, and vice versa).
Having friends in gangs made me feel peer pressure to at most join one, but at least affilate myself with one. It was appealing to me because I just wanted to be included into the brotherhood aspects that I saw. It was “cool” to me to wear the colors of the certain gang, turning my hat a certain way, to do the handshakes, etc. It made me feel like I was a part of something.
But when I was honest with myself, I knew that I couldn’t get all the benefits without receiving the detriments of gang life. I never got passed merely being affiliated, because I just couldn’t fake it. I was the introverted, artsy, smart kid, who only came out of his shell on the basketball court. I liked to draw, write raps and poetry, to make beats, to read novels, watch anime, and play video games. The closest I ever got to being a real thug was listening to Tupac and Bone Thugs all the time.
The idea that I would have to get into fights with (lead alone kill) someone I don’t even know because they are wearing a different color than me just didn’t make sense. I didn’t see the benefit in engaging in any legal activity either. I’ve never smoked weed, so I wouldn’t even begin to know how to sell it (and selling crack would only be an option for me the day I saw a flying pig help a frog do a fraction). I extremely disliked thieves so I would never do that as well.
Then one year, one of my “friends” who was in the gang I hanged around robbed my house. I knew who did it, but never once thought about telling the police. But I was upset that none of my other friends (who undoubtedly knew who did it) stood up for me and my family. That incident washed away all desired I had once had to become a member. It became (for lack of a better term) “uncool” for me. A year later when my best friend Edward Lucas got ran over by a drunk off duty police officer, I got a whole new perspective on life, and joining a gang was deleted from my mind for good.
I also started to realize that most of the guys I knew in gangs were far from the stereotypes that the world says gang members should fit in. Most of these dudes didn’t come from some no money, no food, sleeping on the floor type of destitution. Yeah none of them were rich, but the weren’t going to sleep hungry, and at school they had on the latest Jordans. And it seemed that out of all the gang members I knew, the overwhelming majority only acted a certain way when they were in a group. The majority of them were not the thug, rowdy brute type of people you would expect them to be. Some of these guys were very bright and intelligence, could have went to college, but downplayed their aptitude to fit in into the rigid “hood-ness” being in a gang requires. They seem to have no reason to gangbang, so why do they do it? How did my story have a different ending them? Why didn’t I end up going down that path?
Yes there are certainly a lot more nuanced, but predictable reasons why I turned out differently (stable family, education/income/values/spirituality of my parents, mental health, school environment, etc). However, one thing I can say is that the difference between me and them was that for some kids, Chicago gang culture has become so engrained in their childhood experience that it is harder for them to practically identify more constructive things do with their lives. I truly believe that for many young men like myself, a lifestyle they saw as cool and a yearning for inclusion dragged them into a life that they never fully wanted part of.
It’s like that song at the party that everyone likes but you are indifferent to. After a while, you fake like you like it so you wont be the party-pooper. Slowly, those head-nods start to be less and less counterfeit, and the track you once thought was garbage is now your jam. Years later you look back and realize why you hated the song in the first place. This analogy seems to fit in with the epidemic of violence that has crippled the lives of so many who call Chicago their home. Some kids are born into an environment where they hear and see the same song and dance, either explicitly in front of them or perpetually playing in the background. At first they fake it to fit in. But eventually, they aren’t faking anymore. They are ensnared in a vicious cycle that not only affects themselves, but a whole city as well.
I know this because I have seen it for years now. I know this because instead of news of kids going to college, I constantly see kids going to caskets. I know this because on the first relatively warm day of the spring in Chicago this year, a flurry of news reports of shootings saturated the local news.
Sadly, like me, many of Chicagoans found these developments to be far from surprising, seeing that Chicago has for too long been the national hot-bed for youth violence, a vicious epidemic the exponentially peaks in the summer (the bitter irony of why many of us actually welcome the cold).
Tonight, I went on Facebook, and one of the first stories I saw while scrolling down my timeline was the story of nineteen year old Kevin Ambrose. Ambrose, an artistic student attending Columbia College, was shot in a drive-by on 47th and Prairie, and later died in the hospital. He had been walking to meet his friend who was getting off the train.
My first thought was I probably know someone who knows him, since many of the students I encounter and work with at Young Chicago Authors go to or know people who go to Columbia College. Then I thought about the address: 47th and Prairie. That’s right around where Dwayne Wade used to live as a child. Made me think of how this was yet another tale of a life stripped of its potential. This kid could have been someone special and influential, following his dream to become an actor, just liked D-Wade followed his to become a professional basketball player. But regardless of what he would have been, at least he would have been.
The constant news of violence in Chicago has become draining on all of our souls. If you live in or in proximity to areas that are affected by the violence, you surely have developed an underlying numbness to it. You know people who have lost friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, sons, and daughters to the violence. You’ve seen their tears. Or maybe you’ve cried some of your own.
And the saddest part of it all is that the summer hasn’t even come yet…..
What are we going to do to stop all this violence? This is somewhat of a paradoxical question, because even though I would love for us to devise some definite method on how we could go about relinquishing our streets of this culture of violence, asking that question out loud seems completely rhetorical. Most of us have no definite answer. We know we have to something, but what?
Doesn’t seem like the city government isn’t doing much to stop it except for putting more police in neighborhoods, which helps to a certain extent, but subsequently makes the rest of us (the vast majority of the population who isn’t engaging in crime) feel like we are being caged in. My girlfriend lives around 79th and Ashland, and I see anywhere between 4-8 cops cars every time I drive to visit her. The walking on egg shells paranoia of feeling policed is an added tension for a community.
Although more patrolling of certain neighborhoods is warranted and can be beneficial, all of this seems for nought when we have a mayor who wants to close over 50 Chicago Public Schools, raise the public transportation fare, and is closing the south end of Chicago’s Red Line metro train line (the line that black commuters proportionately take the most) for renovations. How does boxing in the areas most affected by violent crime help the community? How does kicking students out of their schools, forcing them to go to different neighborhoods, but making access to those neighborhoods harder for both themselves and their parents help? Seems like all this does is make the most segregated city in America that much more divided, and fuel the distrust from people who feel that city officials are more interested in making the nicer parts of the city more tourist attractive than helping to solve the problems.
Though I do think that city officials need to take on more accountability, there is plenty of blame to go around. What are we doing in our own communities to stop this madness? What type of alternatives are we providing these kids that will prevent them from engaging in gang-banging? Has it become so frequent and us so numb to the chaos that we choose the deal with it rather than take a stand?
Maybe we accept it, to a certain extent. Or at least if we don’t accept it, we block it out. But we shouldn’t.
The killings are the reason why Chicago has become the case study for the epidemic of urban violence in America. It’s the progenitor of our intense love-hate ambivalence towards this city; to be simultaneously proud and disgusted at the place we call home. It’s why people not from here immediately have a bevy of preconceived notions if you tell them that you’re from Chicago (especially if you are a minority). It’s the reason why people in my city get surprisingly emotional when we talk about homegrown heroes like Derrick Rose. For many people in my generation and younger, he is the ultimate example of someone who not only survived here, but thrived through adversity. A rose grown in the bitter cold.
The killing is the reason that some of us hate drill music. But in some twisted logic from the depths of our psyche, it is the exact reason why others of us love it. We can’t blame a rapper like Chief Keef for the type of violent content that he puts out. All he is doing is talking about his life. He lived it. We lived it. The killing is the reason why a song like Murder For Excellence takes on a different echelon of significance for us. The killing is why people come back to stay, to fight and make a difference in their community. The killing is also the reason why some choose to leave Chicago and never look back.
And above all, violence is taking away young lives from us. It needs to stop. Now.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just talking. Maybe all an article like this can do is start a conversation. But we need to do something. We need to uproot this culture of violence that has infected too many inner-city communities within Chicago. From the southside to the
Willis Sears Tower and beyond, we need to take back our city.
And keep in mind that change could start with small things. When your friend posts up a picture on Facebook of him holding a gun, persuade him to take it down. Stop liking “Fuck new niggas. We hittas/drillas” type statuses. Boycott the use and commercialization of the word Chi-raq. Help unemployed people you know find a job. Check on kids on your neighborhood to see if they are going to school. Cast your votes against artists who only talk about negative things by not spending your dollar on them. Protest and demand for more funding to after school programs. Get involved with your local Cease Fire group in your neighborhood. Tell the young people in your life that you love them. Do what you can in any way that you can.
I don’t want to even pretend as if I have the answer of how we can fix the most pressing problem with our city. But we need to do something. Because for a lack of a better phrase, this sh*t is not cool.
“I know that people wouldn’t usually rap this
but I got the facts to back this
just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets
man, killing’s some wack shit
oh, I forgot, ‘cept for when niggas is rappin’
do you know what it feel like when people is passin’?
he got changed over his chains, a block off Ashland
I need to talk to somebody, pastor“- Kanye West
RIP to all the lives lost from senseless violence in Chicago. God Bless.
We Out Here,
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