Wednesday, April 29, 2009

carl joseph walker hoover, jaheem herrera and the unnecessary cycle of hatred

my heart sinks whenever i hear of another story about a child succumbing by his or her own hand... it sinks, largely due to some sort of familiarity through my own experiences of suicide attempts over the years as a teenager; these thoughts are something i still struggle with to this day.

my heart also sinks, due to the still overlying assumption (written in many recent commentaries on this subject) that 'youthful exuberance' will or seemingly, eventually overcome that pesky depression; children overcome and outgrow the words hurled at them, because they are simply words.

as we can see, this is not the case. as someone who grew up in a household where a whole lot of words were thrown about essentially at a daily rate- sometimes several times a day- ('ugly', 'worthless' and the like), i can guarantee you that those words stay with you for life, unless you make more than a conscious effort to unlearn them. and anyone who's grown up in an abusive household or endured any sort of abusive relationship can attest, it's one of the most difficult things to do. most likely, those who grew up in that environment perpetuates the behavior in some other ways- be it vocally, or physically.
i am not insinuating that the students who taunted or threatened both jaheem or carl with violence have lived with violence themselves; however, i find validity in wondering if this is the case. as so many of us have been conditioned with the cliche of education beginning in the home, is it possible that the children who abused the two young boys who are no longer physically here with us, were faced with a barage of comments that shaped their attitudes about sex (the biological account) and gender (the socio-behavioral account)? did one of the girls climb trees, and she was repetedly told that 'girls don't do that'? was one of the boys told that 'only gay boys do theatre'?

were the boys told that girls are 'the weaker sex', and that any effort to not assert yourself vocally or physically results in automatic homosexual tendencies- because of course, girls are not supposed to assert themselves...?

here is where sex (the biology) and sexuality (the behavior) coincide in ways which are ultimately damaging... there is an ease in which to point to 'the youth of today' for being apathetic and materialistic; however, just as we cannot simply blame the last eight years' presidency for the current state of the country; we can't just look at the immoral nature of today's entertainment industry for corrupting our children. it is imperative to look at the previous cycle which got us to the point where we're at now. and there is a long and drawn out history of the sexualization of our children. just as we had michael jackson performing in adult clubs after strippers and singing about the joys and troubles of sex before the age of nine (and his sister janet performed as mae west as a baby herself); just as we shrieked in shock and anger at the murder of jon benet ramsey; and just as, in the age of youtube, we see five year old girls shaking their rumps to beyonce's 'single ladies' song... children have always been sexualized, whether in poetry, painting, dance or song.

let's face it- we can discuss the fact that 'gay' is a euphemism for 'bad' (and that ain't good); but the true question is: would all these children (and adults) who use the word 'gay' as an insult (or opine that something is 'gay') find necessity in using it, if the purpose was not to feminize or diminish a person or thing?

i used to volunteer with a group of predominately black and brown high school students, and i used to have to check some of these kids for using the use of 'gay' (and of course, the infamous 'n-word').

and let's face another thing: despite the fact that the term 'gay' has been, at this point, used by people of various ethnicities, its popularity in musical genres like hip hop cannot be denied. 'white' popular culture, for all intents and purposes, has defined itself by its variety; the 'hair metal' and 'new wave' bands of the 1980s could wear caked on make-up and teased hair, wear tight clothing and high heels and prance around flamboyantly, and STILL claim heterosexuality. artists like little richard and esquerita were embraced by black people- to a point- due to the gospel roots of their sound, but ultimately, white audiences supported them more, as well as rock and roll in general. artists like sylvester crossed over to both gay and straight audiences, but remained forever locked in a gay subculture.

in hip hop culture (which still remains overwhelmingly seen as 'black') we are confronted with debates about who is a gay rapper and which rapper owes how much money on child support. these attitudes about how many children you sire or how many women you bed dominates north american male culture on all sides; but the focus (from a media perspective) tends to be on black men. there is also the language of 'no homo' (and its successor 'pause') which permeates the culture so much that parodies of the phrase have mushroomed. still, it is 'gay' to compliment another man on his looks, even if there is no sexual connotation, so you must use a 'no homo' prologue... of course, it is permissable for women to compliment each other. is this because women do not ultimately count in the scheme of things? that's not easy to say, because that requires the assumption that women are not important, and i refuse to say that.

once again, the children who taunted jaheem and carl may have considered the lack of importance of women or girls, and equated their speech, body language or demeanor as being 'not male'- therefore 'gay'.

even though children who are taunted in this way are of varying ethnicities, the fact that these two children are of african descent hold some significance. apparently, jaheem, who was from the virgin islands, was reminded of this fact by constantly being told that he was 'a virgin' (once again, returning to the sexualization issue... i mean, hello? the kid was 11 YEARS OLD!!! i remember being told when i was 12 years old that i was gay, because i didn't like boys in the way that all the other girls liked the boys...)

the significance of sexual orientation carries weight in communities of african descent, because it's been commonly perceived for the longest time that being gay was not something that 'we' did. aside from the spiritual/religious bearing on sexual codes, respectfully; homosexuality (or anything other than heterosexuality) in the black community, in a cultural sense, represented a sign of weakness, and white influence. once again, i am talking about men here. because, even though it's frowned upon as a whole, 'two women' is culturally more accepted. does that mean women do not count? see the statement on that question above...

even though jaheem and carl did not identify as gay (and may not have even processed their sexuality without social pressures); however, whether or not they did identify as gay should not even matter- hatred is hatred, regardless of where it comes from. the constant abuse from students, the silence and complacency of the administrations of the schools they attended, and (most likely) the thought that they could never blossom to be the people they truly wanted to be without being harassed or stifled, tormented them so much that they felt they could no longer exist on this plane.

and that is a testiment to how much healing we need.

my heart goes out to their families in this time... i know they are in a much better place now, where they can be the people they always wanted to be.

i found this blog, discussing the issues surrounding jaheem's suicide. from this, i took some quotes i found quite interesting.

"My son has been victimized all year. We kept logs, called meetings with staff and administration, begged for them to do something, anything. Just make it stop and let him have a normal day. A room full of teachers and administrators claimed they “just never see it”. Then they turned the conversation to, and I wish I was kidding but I’m not, “we need to figure out what your son is doing to attract this sort of interaction” and “boys will be boys”. The ignorance was astonishing.

My son dealt with name calling, including “faggot” and other sexual terms. My son has not identified one way or the other, and didn’t even know what the term faggot meant. When I pointed out to the administrators and teachers that this is a form of sexual harrassment, and that the students who use these terms should receive some sort of sensitivity training or SOMETHING, they just said, “oh yea, that’s a popular word here in middle school.”

My son happens to have a disability, and instead of that being a red flag to his teachers that he might need more vigilance than other kids because he is more likely to be victimized, it actually serves as an excuse, “oh, well, he has autism and kids with autism get bullied.”

After the meeting, he was attacked not once but twice, both times resulting in injuries requiring that I pick him up early from school and have him examined by a doctor.

At that point, HE was disciplined because in the process of pushing an attacker off of him, the “laid hands” on another student (you know, in the pushing the attacking person off of him sort of way). He served a detention, and is now considered a “disciplinary problem”.

What did he learn? To keep his mouth shut and just take it. Going to the administration only meant that he’d get in trouble on top of getting attacked.

I got good and riled up and spoke at the Board of Education meeting. I even spoke one-on-one to my Board representative, who happens to also be a teacher (in another district) and he told me, seriously, “once your son was attacked, it was inevitable that he was punished.” He didn’t say this to me with one bit of irony. It is absolutely the case.

Unfortunately, I don’t think our case is unusual. I sit in these meetings with these teachers and administrators and feel like I am dealing with people who live in a bubble, who have a very skewed idea of what appropriate behavior is, and how to encourage positive behavior.

I’ve also been labeled as a “vocal” parent.

My mother was a teacher. She would be appalled by the way her grandson is treated."


"Parents should know that gender-based bullying, based on child’s failure to conform to stereotypical gender expectations in a school is a violation of Title IX if school officials ignore it — i.e. if they are deliberately indifferent to it. Courts add attorneys fees on top of damages verdicts. Litigating every such case would get the attention of school districts and their insurance companies."


"Just because there’s a neurological component to childhood mental illness doesn’t mean it doesn’t come at least in part from circumstance–childhood abuse, for instance, has been shown to have a marked effect on brain chemistry and development. Torment, harassment, and abuse are among the causes of mental illness, alongside the genetic and other causes, and heavily exacerbate what tendencies are there."


"Suicide is rarely something that occurs in a vacuum. That is, if anything, even more true of children. Kids try to kill themselves for the same reasons adults do, and the biggest reason there is a lack of hope. A view that things are so bad that oblivion would be preferable to another day. Children tend not to commit suicide because they often lack the means and generally face lesser stresses than adults with more social support. When that is not the case, suicide becomes a serious risk."

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