Meet King. He's a playful 3 year old who lives with his mom and grandma.
Behind the camera, behind me, a sign stands across the street among scattered rocks and a beaten down front walkway. A sign, I hadn't seen until I got in the car to leave and remarked that it was the same sign that invited itself to our first interview of a recent high school graduate who planned on going to Ranken and then to school in California in order to escape the violence in his community.
The same sign stood across the street and stared blank face at a young girl while she remarked that she wanted to go to college so that she could be successful.
This sign has reappeared hundreds of times during my summer excursions into low-income communities in Saint Louis. Some of them proudly stand front and center, while others duck and hide behind overgrown bushes and forgotten shrubs. Most signs I passed and snapped photos of lingered dangerously close to walkways and front stoops where children played and elders sat watching dutifully.
Nonetheless, each sign has repeatedly stung me and even teased me, daring me to do something about their existence. They mock me too. Laugh at my amateur documentary and pamphlets on college. Aren't there more serious issues you could be attending to? Actual change you could be creating? And I drop my head. Nod yes in defeat and continue to drive down streets such as MLK and page, counting how many soldiers they have in their army.
In the past I critiqued such signs. Begging that we look at the picture differently. Asserting that it's not right to tell people in disenfranchised communities to stop killing each other as a political statement because such statements walked too closely to the problematic arguments racist white people spouted in Facebook comment sections about "Black on Black crime" in the face of police brutality. It refused to address the structural issues that perpetuated and assisted in increased criminal behavior in low-income communities of color and never begged to question exactly who and what we were asking to stop killing us.
After spotting 20 plus signs in two days alone and interviewing beautiful brown children who played in the dirt across the street from them, such philosophical arguments no longer plague me, rather I am mainly concerned with the children who grow up across the streets from such signs. I am concerned about the kids who wake reciting Sesame street ABC's only to walk outside and read "We must stop killing each other."
We should all be well aware that disenfranchised black youth's shot at childhood innocence dwindles with each piece of territory the signs claim. This isn't news, however, we all know impoverished youth grow up before their prime. Forced to greet the boogeyman way before they have time to run away from him. Without seeing violence and lack of opportunity they are aware it is there. They know invisible monsters lurk in the dark long before they learn about them in scary movies. They learn that grandmas insistence on them never going outside at night and never straying past the state street across from the school are simply spells cast to keep the monsters at bay.
And this makes me wonder at what age do they realize they can walk across Delmar and find only one sign that looks remotely similar and even then it will read "We must start loving each other." What will they think? Will they shake their head in anger, dismay or tilt their head and say "well what did I expect?" or will they say they'd prefer to live in such a peaceful neighborhood exclaiming "I wish WE had THAT sign." Although tragic in comparison, I support such a sign staking its claim in well maintained and well hydrated grass of affluent white peoples houses. Mainly because it supports the stance that white people generally do not have enough love for black people, their hearts and dollars very rarely stretch far enough.
So when I look at King and the little girl who insists she goes to college, I want to know at what age will they realize their lives are undervalued. When will they realize, that life, for them, is less than unfair it's inequitable, discriminatory, prejudiced and violent. Do they realize it when they see the absence of such signs in Ladue and Clayton, are they well aware the first time they read "We must stop killing each other," for the first time.
How do we allow such signs to claim territory behind beautiful brown smiles and young dreams?
Can you imagine, your four year old asking "Who is killing who?" Why are they killing?" "Will they kill me?"