Black parents' grieving is all too frequent

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The photo of Marvin Washington on the cover of the Post-Gazette's local news section Thursday was one of the most excruciating pictures of grief the paper has published recently. It was a picture of a man in the midst of a tragedy of incalculable magnitude.

Wearing a white undershirt, Mr. Washington looks as if he's been intercepted by loved ones in the middle of sleepwalking. His sister, cousin and an unidentified man hold him up as he sways, not quite believing what he's experiencing.

But instead of the passive face of someone sleeping, Mr. Washington's agony is on full display. Though his eyes are shut, tears pool as he desperately attempts to shut out what has become an all-too-familiar nightmare for too many parents in the region. Mr. Washington's moans are audible, even through newsprint.

Minutes before the photograph was taken, Mr. Washington had discovered the body of his missing 17-year-old son, Elijah Washington, near the railroad tracks just below the Larimer Avenue Bridge.

Mr. Washington and another son, Jaymein, 22, had been searching for Elijah for hours. Elijah didn't show up for classes at Oliver High School on Wednesday, prompting a frantic search of the neighborhood by his father and brother. They feared the worst after getting a call the night before.

The unidentified caller said someone had opened fire on Elijah and some of his friends, but it was unclear if they had gotten away. Mr. Washington held on to a remote possibility that his son had somehow made it to school despite dodging gunfire the night before.

Police officers didn't meet Mr. Washington on his front steps to tell him that Elijah had been fatally shot. That news was not delivered by a third party well practiced in telling soon-to-be-grieving parents that their child was dead.

Mr. Washington didn't have the luxury of second-guessing the faces of detectives bearing the bad news. He probably would've treasured a few more seconds of denial in the moments before reality was displaced by a living nightmare.

Instead, with Jaymein by his side, Marvin Washington discovered the body of his younger son in the bushes along the railroad tracks. Their intuition of where he might be had borne terrible fruit. They found Elijah's body, but he was already many hours gone. There would be shouting and screaming under that bridge in Lincoln-Lemington, but none of it could bring Elijah back.

It is impossible for a parent to look at the photograph of Marvin Washington without suppressing a shudder. We sympathize with him whether or not we've experienced a similar loss, because that's what humans do. We are horrified and indignant about the lack of value attached to human life, especially black lives in the inner city. Without knowing who Elijah Washington's killer is, we can make at least one assumption that will probably be vindicated once the shooter is caught and convicted -- he's probably another young black man.

Is it racist to make such an assumption? Of course not. The morgues of major American cities testify to the depressingly brutal routine playing itself out in our streets every night. It would be worse than racist not to acknowledge this reality out of some misplaced sense of racial embarrassment.

Like so many young men who resort to murder as a shortcut to manhood and respect, Elijah's killer was most likely never taught that someone who looks like him has value in the world, too. I doubt that he even loves himself all that much.

At this stage of his stunted emotional development, Elijah's killer probably doesn't have the capacity to be moved by Marvin Washington's tears. Empathy requires nurturing from a young age and constant exercise in one's youth.

Elijah Washington's killer probably armed himself with as many rationales for shooting Elijah as he had bullets in his possession that night. There's nothing easier than shooting someone when you're short on conscience.

The tragedy is that Elijah Washington's death doesn't carry the same weight in the public imagination as, say, Trayvon Martin's, though it is just as appalling, if not more so, because it is so common.

Months from now when Marvin Washington's grief allows him to think about other things, he'll see a newspaper photo of another parent weeping over the loss of a child. While the photo will resonate for him personally, the rest of us will swallow hard before eventually looking away. It only pays to be empathetic to a point.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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