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.