Death, destruction and ‘joie de vivre,’ in the Christmas season

Sometimes the Christmas season can feel like the 6 o’clock news, full of death and disaster.

Just as I was leaving Baltimore for Georgia on Thursday, Donte Crawford, a troubled young man who’d been featured in this newspaper’s series on the impact of violence on the city’s children, became one of the latest shooting victims.

Then came news that Erica Garner, a 27-year-old woman compelled into activism after the senseless death of her father Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police, had suffered a heart attack and was near death.

Once I arrived in Conyers, Ga., I was hit with news of the suspicious death, and possible suicide, of a child who’d been bullied in one of the local middle schools. A longtime mortician as well as a longtime teacher had also just died. Even now some of my relatives are gathered at a nursing home as their matriarch makes her transition.

Not all death brings unrelenting sadness, of course.

On Christmas Eve came word that someone I knew had died a few days before: Don Hogan Charles, the first black photographer at the New York Times, where I spent the first 13 years of my career. One couldn’t help admire those who, like Mr. Charles, had endured prevailing attitudes of so-called enlightened folks who could write about blacks — when they did at all — as if they were some exotic primitive species of humanity documented by the anthropologist Margaret Mead. A 1966 article about Harlem was typical: “A curtain of fear, about as forbidding as a wall of brick, has made the black ghetto almost psychologically impenetrable to the white man — at a time when many in the ghetto sense that it needs the white man to help it save itself from a kind of psychological secession from a white society.” The fact that many of his photographs went unappreciated until rediscovered in the newspaper’s photo archives a few years ago and published in a series called “Unpublished Black History” is testament to what he created and what he suffered in a 40-year career at the Times.

His death followed by days that of Simeon Booker and provided a chance for journalists like me who are now “old timers” to reflect upon the pioneers who helped push open doors that made careers like mine possible. Mr. Booker was the first black reporter at the Washington Post. As significant as that was, his greater mark on the profession came from his reporting for Jet and Ebony, once the premier magazines published by and for blacks. Mr. Booker’s greatest story was perhaps the kidnapping and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. The teenager from Chicago had been visiting relatives down South. Jet’s publication of photos of his mutilated body influenced a generation of blacks to enter fields like law and social work and, yes, journalism.

In these deaths and near deaths are reminders of challenges that lie ahead for us, the living. Baltimore must address the problems that doom too many of its children to live like Donte Crawford and send far too many to early deaths. As of 7 p.m. Christmas Eve, the homicide toll was 339 and 78 percent of those slain have been black males. Eight of them were under the age of 18; 176 were between the ages 18 and 34.

Both Simeon Booker and Don Hogan Charles dedicated their lives to chronicling a part of American life that mainstream media was ignoring or mischaracterizing. In 1968, the Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the “civil disorders” that had swept the nation’s urban areas n 1967, lashed “a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”

Nearly 50 years later, neither legacy media nor new media companies have cured that persistent ailment.

But as we wrap our brains around workable solutions to the ills of our world, the holiday season inevitably brings moments of sheer unfettered joy like that experienced by one of my 5-year-old cousins early Monday morning. Her barely-contained excitement at discovering what Santa had somehow mysteriously left her overnight was palpable for even the most jaded or just exhausted among us.

Joie de vivre like hers can help propel us forward as we meet all that awaits us in the new year.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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