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Dante Barksdale’s murder: a terrible blow to Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets Outreach Coordinator, speaks before a community party begins in Baltimore in June 2019. Barksdale, who worked fervently to prevent gun violence in Baltimore, was shot to death Jan. 17th. (Ulysses Muñoz, Baltimore Sun)
Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets Outreach Coordinator, speaks before a community party begins in Baltimore in June 2019. Barksdale, who worked fervently to prevent gun violence in Baltimore, was shot to death Jan. 17th. (Ulysses Muñoz, Baltimore Sun) (Ulysses Muñoz, Baltimore Sun)

I met Dante Barksdale in an Uber in September 2016. He was the driver, I was the passenger, and by the end of the ride we had decided to write his life story together. I was drawn to his warmth, his natural storytelling ability (it was evident in the narration of our drive through Fells Point: “When I was coming up, you could go all the way down Caroline Street to the waterfront. No Whole Foods, no Michael Phelps condos…”) and his surname — familiar to any viewer of “The Wire.” He told me later he trusted me because I wore a Poly ring.

Over the course of the next year, we met nearly every week at his office in the City Health Department, the Safe Streets headquarters on Monument Street, or at a nearby cafe, where he would buy us both mochas. During these sessions, I would turn on my audio recorder and prompt Dante to pick up where he left off — with his first job at the gas station across from Lafayette projects, his beef with the D.C. boys as a teenager in jail, his strategies to mediate conflict on corners across the city. We recorded hours of voice notes, which I would later transcribe and edit into a linear narrative, the arc of his life. The manuscript lived in a shared Google Doc, so Dante could fill in the blanks, sharpen the dialogue, and correct what I got wrong (“No one called it Lafayette Courts, Grace.”)

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What strikes me now, recalling those afternoons, is the expansiveness with which Dante approached the telling of his story. Who was your best friend growing up? I would press, conscious of the ingredients in a bildungsroman. But it wasn’t like that, Dante told me, rattling off a dozen or more names. Everybody hung with everybody. Each time I thought the book was finished, I’d get a text from him — “I just found a picture of Lil Moon from Patuxent, we have to include his story.” More than the scope of his narrative, though, Dante was expansive in his grace. In all the stories he told involving rivalry, from the fistfights of his youth to the shootouts that took his friends, there was never a trace of resentment, never a desire to settle the score.

“That’s his trauma,” he would say, about the person on either side of the gun. “Let me tell you who he was outside that moment.”

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Gun violence formed the background of Dante’s life story, like the white space behind the ink. Some of the people who populated his stories were killed even as we wrote them. One chapter, about Dante pretending to drive in his grandmother’s parked car as a kid, ends with “rest in peace” to every character mentioned.

Still, nothing could have prepared me to hear, last Sunday morning, that Dante himself had been killed. Not Dante, who surprised me with a birthday cake the last time I saw him, who was always working on the next project, who had come so far and had so much more to do. Not the peacekeeper in the bright orange T-shirt.

I once asked Dante which was his favorite passage in the Quran. After converting to Islam, he had spent the subsequent years of his incarceration ascending the ranks of Maryland Correctional Institute’s religious community. By the time he was released, he was performing the khutbah, or sermon, at every other Friday service.

We were at the Daily Grind in Fells Point, in the backroom under a window. Salat al-asr, he told me, the late afternoon prayer.

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“It starts, ‘By that time verily man is at loss.’ And that’s the part that hit me.”

I turned on the audio recorder.

“Between 4 and 6” p.m., he explained, “most people are plotting what they’re gonna do when it gets dark. Everybody’s moving, nobody’s minding God. In my childhood, when it got dark, that’s when we’d go on our robberies, pass out testers, try to sell drugs. It was a real wicked part of the day, you know? The plot begins when nighttime coming.”

“And now that’s when your shift starts,” I said, referring to Safe Streets.

“Exactly,” he said. “I always take a second to think about that when I see the sun go down.”

I asked him if he talked to God.

“To me, God is in social encounters,” he said. “I talk to him all the time.”

By the time we stepped outside, Thames Street basked in orange light. The dirty water in the harbor sparkled deceptively; tourists were beginning to fill the piers. Dante drained the rest of his coffee, preparing for the wakeful hours ahead.

His death is a terrible blow to the city, and I am heartbroken at the loss of my friend. So in the falling darkness, I say a sundown prayer, for him who saw so many through the night.

Grace Kearney (Twitter: @grace_kearney) is co-author, with Dante Barksdale, of “Growing Up Barksdale: A True Baltimore Story.”

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