I hadn’t planned to write again so soon, but news that a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer had shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back started making its way into my Twitter feed last night. Horrific, all-too-familiar details emerged this morning.
Kenosha has a really special place in my heart. My first teaching job was there, in the religion department at Carthage College, where I taught a course on African American religious traditions. Our son Will was born there, and both of our children were baptized in Kenosha’s downtown United Methodist church. We had friends who treated us like family, inviting us to every cookout, every birthday party, every Super Bowl, even though we somehow weren’t Bears or Packers fans.
So it was particularly jarring to wake up to the news that Kenosha is now just the latest center of Black agony and the struggle for racial justice.
It brought back a flood of memories. Mostly, I remember just how hard life in Kenosha felt. It’s such a beautiful place, right on Lake Michigan, between Chicago and Milwaukee. But its best days seem behind it; like so many midwestern cities, the height of its manufacturing prowess was decades ago, and it has been forced to flex its muscle in new ways. At the college, leadership made it clear that the school’s twenty-first-century destiny was tied to its corporate relations, while I had no assurance of a long-term position. (Sure enough, this summer Carthage made national headlines for a draconian proposal to gut its faculty and curriculum.)
I remember the way Kenosha’s massive coal-fired power plant insinuated itself into our lives, its never-ending stream of toxic particulates taking up residence in our lungs and bloodstreams. And I remember our carpeted apartment’s ineradicable chemical odor of scented candle wax, courtesy of a previous resident’s job as a tester for SC Johnson, the multinational chemical behemoth that never loses a chance to remind you that it’s “a family company.” Add a chain-smoking upstairs neighbor into the mix, and the result was that our little ones were sick all the time.
When the kids tried to scream it all out, I’d take them out to the car, just to give my wife and our neighbors a break. I’d sit with them in the front seat and let them play with all the buttons, switches, levers, and lights. When their operatic, squirming play had finally run its course, we’d head back in to the apartment that we could afford but were so desperate to leave.
On multiple occasions, we heard a surprising but gentle late-night knock at the door. Every time, it was our favorite neighbor, not the chainsmoker (who was nice enough) but the one we called “Big Will.” (He was well over six feet tall, and the comical contrast in size between him and our newborn Will delighted us all.) Big Will tended to come home from work pretty late at night, and the reason he’d stop by every so often was to tell us that we had left our dome light on inside the car. He didn’t want us to wake up to a dead battery and an unplanned major expense.
The way Will, who’s Black, looked out for us when we were struggling is something I’ve never forgotten. I hate thinking that he might still be in Kenosha, having to be careful about his every move. I hate that Jacob Blake is fighting for his life. I hate that his kids will bear this trauma and these scars forever. I pray that Kenosha’s leaders — that we all — will do whatever it takes to do better, that we will do whatever it takes to end racist violence.
For resources on Black Lives Matter and the quest for racial justice, visit blacklivesmatter.com and eji.org, the website for the Equal Justice Initiative.