My son was 5 years old when he made the disturbing announcement that “Cornbread” had been shot.
He told me a detailed account of Cornbread dribbling a basketball in the rain when “they” shot him — shot him in the back! Panicked at the thought that my son might have somehow witnessed a murder, I interrogated him: Who is Cornbread? Who is “they”? Where did you see Cornbread? When did you see Cornbread?
It was then he clarified that he saw Cornbread on TV during a recent visit with relatives.
From there, I figured out he was recounting the plot of the 1975 film, Cornbread, Earl and Me. Here, Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton has earned a full scholarship to a California university. Weeks before the 18-year-old, the darling of his Chicago block, described as “a concentration camp without barbed wire,” is set to head to school, he is shot down in the street leaving the neighborhood store by two cops — one black, one white — in a case of mistaken identity.
Wilford and Earl, youngsters from Cornbread’s building, are among those who witness his death. A police cover-up ensues. Wilford, played by a 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne, is the only soul brave enough to come forward as an eyewitness.
In my son’s kindergarten-age view of the world, this was no movie. Cornbread was real.
The story of Cornbread reads as if it were ripped from today’s headlines nearly 50 years after Ronald Fair published his somewhat-obscure novel, “The Hog Butcher,” on which the movie is loosely based. Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Adolph Grimes III. Oscar Grant. Wendell Allen.
Every 28 hours a black person is killed by police officers, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes, according to the 2012 study, “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards, and Vigilantes” by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
One Saturday night this past summer, I re-watched Cornbread, Earl and Me with my son, and my nephew, who had never seen it. Watching with two young black boys, on the cusp of their teenage years, Cornbread became real all over again.
Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. There are too many more to name.
A few weeks later, Ferguson, MO. happened. While watching the coverage of the murder of Michael Brown — an unarmed 18-year-old shot days before his freshman semester in college was to begin by police officer Darren Wilson — Cornbread came to mind again.
Brown’s uncovered body lay in the street of his neighborhood for hours — same as Cornbread’s — an act of police terror; life imitating art. Protests followed in Ferguson and nearby St. Louis, same as in Cornbread’s community. Months after Brown’s shooting, the protests and killings continue. Police in Ferguson have killed at least two other young black men (Vonderrit Myers and the mentally-unwell Kajieme Powell) since Brown.
Brown has been vilified as a thug, up to no good, as a way to justify his death. The same happened in the case of Cornbread, art imitating life.
On October 21, 2014, George D. Carter III, 15, was shot and murdered in his Desire neighborhood on the way to school. Although George’s death wasn’t a police shooting (as of this writing there is no motive or suspect), the story of Cornbread rings true here, too.
George wasn’t from someplace else or some character in a screenplay. He was a New Orleans boy, one of my son’s peers. They met two years ago through Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, a local youth leadership development organization that has garnered national acclaim for teaching young people how to improve their environments through research and organizing. George had been a youth organizer with the group since the age of 7. In his short life, he worked to make New Orleans schools better and fought to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
Losing your peers to violence should not be a childhood rite of passage, but in our state it seems to be. Louisiana has the highest rate of gun violence in the U.S. with black male teens facing an alarmingly high risk.
George is one of about a dozen juvenile homicides in our city this year: Deion Robair, 16; Corey Martin, 15; Miquial Jackson, 14; Jasmine Anderson, 16; Skye Johnson, 15; Tremaine Robertson, 15; Johan Kenner, 17.
Unfortunately, most of their deaths have been at the hands of other young people.
Cornbread is a metaphor for the loss of young black promise. Cornbread represents the meeting of boundless potential and right action, the beautiful possibility. The Cornbreads — and Georges — of the world are supposed to be tragedy proof. It is not that their lives matter more than those who stumble, but it is that they give us desperately needed hope. It is these beloveds, growing up in cities mad with crime, violence, and poverty, who we root for, who we desperately need to succeed.
And when they don’t, a bit of the promise goes too.
jewel bush is an award-winning journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune and The (Houma) Courier. She has won numerous awards including distinctions from the Louisiana Press Association and the New York Times Regional Media Group. Her short story, “Red Polish” appears in “Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.” Her newest piece, Related Somehow to Africa: Black Palestinians and the Search for Shared Identity, appears in issue 115 of the Harvard journal, Transition.
Just a quick reminder to our commenters: The primary reason we publish opinion columns at Uptown Messenger is to share other perspectives on current events, and we allow comments with the hope of promoting intelligent discussion of these ideas. Sadly, the comments on some of jewel’s recent articles seem to miss that point entirely, and have become increasingly focused on attacking her personally (this happens periodically with all our columnists, it seems, but lately jewel has borne the brunt of it). This is personally unacceptable to me as the publisher of Uptown Messenger — and as jewel’s colleague and friend.
If you disagree with the substance of what she has written and can express your thoughts respectfully, your comments are welcomed and encouraged. But remarks that are beneath the standards of common civility — particularly ad hominem arguments that attack the writer or her appearance or anything other than the subject matter itself, subtly or otherwise — won’t be approved.
Our columnists are real people who live in our community, and they ought not be subject to insult simply as punishment for sharing their opinion — especially by others who need the cloak of anonymity in order to do so. In this case in particular, the author is a woman in our city whose son has just lost a friend. Frankly, anyone who cannot respect their loss probably does not have an opinion on the issue worth sharing anyway.
She does offer first person accounts, and it is hard to not reply in a personal manner
Fair enough, but as long as you argue about the ideas expressed vis-a-vis the anecdotes rather than launching personal attacks, you’re in good territory. The problem Robert is addressing is how some commenters simply launch insults or otherwise attack writers themselves as opposed to their arguments (indeed, usually bypassing their arguments almost entirely).
Prohibiting ad hominem attacks is a good policy. I still wince when I think of how I was repeatedly attacked for being a “white male” when I wrote my column on the new Planned Parenthood clinic. How dare I be of a certain demographic and have the temerity to express a viewpoint on certain issues. It was disturbing how many “up” votes those comments received.
Perhaps Uptown Messenger should abolish the cloak of invisibility and require posters to use their real name and neighborhood in which they live, since many of us are only just when they fear retribution.
I think everyone can agree that the loss of life to violence, especially a young life, is a tragedy. And a too common at that. Where I think the author loses some of her audience is when she refers to other events in a way that prejudges what happened and thereby tends to reveal a prejudice (e.g., “While watching the coverage of the murder of Michael Brown…”).
Since George was not a police shooting, why the need to use a fictional “metaphor” of a police shooting, to make whatever point you are trying to make as a result of your loss?
Try reading the last few paragraphs since you succeeded in missing the point.
Thank you for writing this. Beautiful writing about an ugly, ugly part of life in our city. I wish I knew how we could help solve the violence that has taken over the lives of young African-American boys and men in our city. What can those of us who love our city and the people who live in it do to help? I volunteer already, but it doesn’t feel like it is really helping.
Also, I’m just embarrassed that Jewel has gotten so much trolling on her articles that this one (in particular!) would require a “reminder” for people to stop being complete asses. Jewel, you’re my favorite writer on UM and I always look forward to your well-written and thought-provoking stories. Keep up the good fight and know that there are plenty of us who support you, love your writing, and appreciate your willingness to make people confront uncomfortable but incredibly important issues.
Thank you, jewel, for your eloquent writing. I’m so sad that there is cause for these particular words, that these tragedies persist, that Cornbread, Earl and Me is still relevant, in Ferguson and in New Orleans, anywhere. I’m sad, too, that the publisher’s comment is necessary, to deter ignorant people who might attack you for what I see as brave action – using personal experience to discuss a broader situation – though I applaud him for taking this stance to defend the writers of Uptown Messenger.
Somebody help me. What does the forty year old story of the accidental shooting of Cornbread have to do with the murder of George?
Those with a heart of stone can’t be helped.
I think that the point she is making, Deux, is that for a very long time, the life of a Black man or boy has been regarded as less valuable, less worthy, disposable, if you will; and something to fear and suspect. This attitude pervades all levels of society, from those in authority charged to protect all of us, to those of their own race and stage of life. They aren’t regarded as individuals much of the time, even when they are persons of accomplishment and character. Think Henry Louis Gates who was arrested for “Misplacing His Keys While Black”.
It is a tragedy that Blacks are the primary group for which, “the life of a Black man or boy has been regarded as less valuable, less worthy, disposable,…” But the fact remains the police had nothing to do with this recent case of Black on Black violence, even if the writer feels compelled to try to make “Cornbread” her metaphor.
Hi Jewel, I’m a first time reader and your piece is excellent! While the killings continue, with no one being brought to justice, I’m grateful for the “reminder” that we have to be ever vigilant and demand justice for the “Blue Wall” members who profess to “protect and serve”, are not protecting or serving us! We pay taxes like everyone else, yet these “thugs” in Blue, virtually get away with murder. A sort of “planned genocide”. Your piece should awaken those who sit back and do nothing. Every Black male I know, dread being pulled over because they don’t know if they’ll live through it! Bring on the body cams!
Again, you’re just what your name implies; a Jewel!