Out of the 'Hood—A Derrion Albert Parable

My parents made a choice to keep us away from black neighborhoods. Now I realize it may have been a choice between living and dying.

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I won’t watch the video. Reading the reports and other people’s reactions is more than enough. The story is devastating, heartbreaking, maddening and enough to send you into a rage. The one thing the story isn’t, however, is new.

That’s because the Derrion Albert video told the world something that we already knew, but rarely spoke aloud: Too many black Americans aren’t safe in their own neighborhoods.

When I think about Derrion Albert, the 16-year-old who was beaten to death outside his Chicago high school on Sept. 24, I think about the very things my dad was working to protect us from when my siblings and I were growing up in the early ’90s. Our home was in Beechview, at the time a quiet, mostly white, working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It made us the butt of jokes from a lot of our black friends, who lived on the east side of town. “No one can find your house!” they’d say. “Y’all live waaaaaaaay over there! Y’all live with the white folks!”

But living with the black folks—in Homewood, Wilkinsburg, East Liberty or on the Hill—was not an option in my parents’ eyes. Yeah, our people lived there—but so did the local news.

Gang violence, drug wars, fights and assaults at schools—all of it showed up on our television screen every night at 11 and every morning at 6. Or we heard about it through firsthand accounts. “Someone got shot across the street last night,” our childhood friends would tell us. “My neighbor’s brother got stabbed last week.” Drives through the neighborhoods, for the occasional visits to see our acquaintances, showed us dilapidated houses, broken windows and groups of men huddled on the corners. Our church sat right across from a rundown housing project, and we were never allowed to venture beyond a one-block radius from the giant cross—because that would put us in gang-ridden Larimer.

But even the sanctity of the church grounds couldn’t fully protect us from what was going on in the neighborhood. I remember being 8 years old and going to the lawn to play it-tag with my friends from the youth choir after a weeknight rehearsal. We were running, giggling, laughing and trying to tackle each other with a glee that you hear only from little kids in the summertime. Then the gunshots. They came from across the street. Now we were really running full speed into the church, into the safety of our parents’ arms. Seeing a group of little ones run into the sanctuary, crying hysterically, was enough to send our parents into hysterics themselves.

It became the norm for my family to venture to the other side of town only when necessary, to go to church and visit friends. We wouldn’t go over there if it got too late. And as for us kids? Well, there was no way we were going over there by ourselves. If our little friends wanted to see us, Dad would say, they were more than welcome to come to our house.

My parents knew back then what we know now about Derrion Albert—that in some neighborhoods, you don’t have to be gang member to get caught up in gang violence and that being a good student, a good kid, can work against you almost as much as it works for you.

Dad didn’t mind being the occasional butt of jokes for living among the “others”—because at least in our home, we didn’t have to try to sleep amid sirens and gunshots. And he didn’t have to worry about whether his children would make it home. In his eyes, the best way to stay alive was to stay out.

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