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We must face hard truths and stop making excuses


Updated: March 17, 2012 10:18AM

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves.”

Harriet Tubman

The state named him Joseph.

The baby boy lay in the nursery — born enslaved — at a West Side hospital, where as a reporter I accompanied a state child welfare investigator on an Sunday morning 18 years ago.

“A handsome newborn swaddled in a blue and pink striped blanket rests quietly in a crib,” I later wrote. “Barely 34 hours old and 46 centimeters long, he is a drug addict. And despite the pain of withdrawal that grips his 6-pound frame, he has no mother to cradle him. No father.

Not even a name.”

I still have visions of the child’s mother in the maternity ward, cowering beneath wrinkled sheets, craving drugs, and admitting to the investigator that she had used drugs, even while in labor.

I had been following the investigator — and caseworkers — for months in 1994 before receiving the telephone call that Sunday morning.

I was part of my newspaper’s projects team, trying to get at the root of why “the system” was failing so many children. My colleagues had written their stories, though I had not — I hadn’t yet seen enough to really “get” it.

But standing before the infant who tested positive for both cocaine and heroin; before an aching, drug-addicted mother who at 29 had given birth to her seventh child (her sixth son and her third cocaine baby) — a mother who days after giving birth vanished from the hospital without her baby and without naming him — I finally got it.

And what I understood so clearly was this: That we are asking the government to do something it was never intended to do: To parent.

That much is clear as I write these days, often impassioned, sometimes at the risk of offending, but always with love for my people and a sense of urgency over the crisis that confronts us as African Americans. A crisis manifested by grim statistics.

I write despite a recent letter from a local college professor, saying, “. . . Go to Ghana and learn about us before you write about us.”

Us? Am I not one of us?

To you, dear professor, I say, ‘Negro, please . . .’

I’ve been to Ghana. But I don’t need to go to Ghana to write about, see or understand the issues facing African Americans.

I write, despite those who say, “You’re too hard on our people.”

Harder than a parent having to shop for a burial outfit for a murdered child?

Harder than the cold reality of the bodies of murdered black men stacked on steel slabs in the county morgue?

Harder than the reality of a young pregnant mother pleading for her life and still mercilessly pumped with bullets by a young black man?

Harder than the inevitable truth about our collective fate, unless or until we are willing to stop making excuses?

What possibly could be harder than the fact that not even Harriet Tubman could free some of us today because we don’t even realize we’re enslaved — in no way greater than in our own minds?

Hard is the life of a child who before he takes his first breath craves heroin and cocaine.

I remember asking the investigator why she chose the name Joseph. It was after the biblical Hebrew boy sold into slavery by his own brothers, she explained: “He’s going to have much to forgive.”

So in the end, the state named him Joseph because neither his mother — nor his father — would name him at all.

That’s not hard. It’s simply the truth.

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