The Crusader Newspaper Group

The Challenge: Remembering and Rebuilding Community

“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. …This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We cringed. At the sight of somebody’s mama—purse slung over one shoulder, with the fire of God in her eyes and tired hurting feet—suddenly appearing at the school classroom door on a not-so-secret mission. On straight business, her brown eyes unflinching, like an undertaker.

“Who mama is that?” The words would ring out as we kids darted our heads to and fro to see who among us was stricken with fear and shame.

The dead giveaway was the kid who, having spotted his or her mother crossing the threshold of the classroom with the grimace of a prizefighter entering a boxing ring ready to finish the bout with a one-round knockout, suddenly sits with their eyes glued to the schoolwork on their desk—all nonsense suddenly ceased.

“That must be Byron’s mama!” Some kid would shout as Byron’s previous mischievousness, smarting off with the teacher, and unwillingness to comply and do his work, had dissolved like Alka Seltzer in hot water. He sat as quiet as a church mouse.

Sure enough, it was Byron’s mama. Or it was Vanessa’s mama. Or it was my mama. Or somebody else’s.

For mama’s, back then, ran a tight ship. Back, in what I can affectionately call the good ole days, now being decades removed and recovered from a time in which my backside and my ego, were bruised by mama’s words, belt and quick hand, and by family, good teachers and neighbors.

Back then, parents knew exactly where their children were when the public service announcement blared on television at night asking the question. Back then, the street lights suddenly popping on was the sign for so many of us kids to go inside rather than risk the embarrassment of being summoned by mama, bellowing your name at full pitch, telling you it was time to come in. Back then, you didn’t dare sass a teacher, think about cursing in front of an adult, roll your eyes, or even look like you had caught an attitude. Times have changed.

It is more than nostalgia and reminiscence. And my cause for recently venturing back down memory lane was precipitated by recent discussions here—from the coffee shop to the beauty shop to the barbershop—over mobs of Black youths gathering en masse one recent summer-like Saturday evening in downtown Chicago and on the lakefront. Police and the news media reported that the gatherings, spurred by social media posts, led to at least two teenagers being shot, one couple being brutally beaten, cars being smashed, and fights.

Indeed there is enough video footage and eyewitness accounts circulating on social media to corroborate the raucous activity, which set the city on edge and has sparked public outcry and debate over what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future, particularly as summer and warmer temperatures approach.

Fueling the debate was Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s assertion that the “children” were being “demonized,” and that the criminal, miscreant or rowdy behavior of some of the hundreds of Black youths who gathered could be solved by programs and jobs.

While Johnson made clear that he does not condone the youth’s actions, his sentiment about programs rather than saying the violators would be held accountable for their actions, or declaring a crack-down on rowdy and disruptive gatherings that threaten public safety, drew the ire of even good-natured Black folk who support and wish him well as mayor but found themselves scratching their heads and mulling over his words: Demonize youth?

I get Johnson’s point. But those certainly didn’t look like darling little brown angels who were stomping, punching and accosting people, kicking cars, and apparently setting at least one on fire. But the truth is most Black youths in Chicago were not downtown or at the lakefront that day. Not engaged in unruly or criminal activity.

Indeed not even all the youths who gathered there took part in the melee. And the truth is that footage of white kids tearing up a city after a sports championship, flipping over and jumping on cars in their drunken glee don’t play with the same racist and stereotypical optics in mainstream American news media as a so-called mob of Black kids. White kids are not demonized. Neither are the young people among the thousands who might stumble drunken or in a drug-induced stupor through downtown streets each summer during Lollapalooza.

I’m not making excuses. I’m just saying, I see his point.

But here’s mine: What about accountability? What about responsibility? When did poverty and the lack of “programs” become a plausible excuse for, as my mama used to say, not acting like you have some sense? What excuse is there for attacking an innocent person in the street, creating public chaos, or running around like you have no home training?

Is being a public nuisance now somehow acceptable for our children because of the prevalence of systemic racism, poverty and oppression? Somehow justification for Black youths to create public mayhem and threaten the safety of the general public?


In these times, jobs and programs are trumpeted as the answer to what ails a broken community. But there seems to be too little talk about personal and parental responsibility. Indeed a recent viral video of a female teacher body slamming a girl student after that student appears in the video to curse and strike the teacher for not returning her cellphone also spurred discussions about what to do in these times when respect, personal responsibility, and proper decorum, at the very least, seem to have fallen by the wayside. Except the issue isn’t just with our youth.

As a people, we used to know better. As a people, we used to not make excuses for misbehaving. While growing up, we had a sense of community shame, a certain pride, and we were taught at home, church and at school that there was a way in which we were expected to conduct ourselves. We seem to have lost our way.

Police have a role. Politicians and government have their role. Community activists and churches have a role. And preachers have their part to play, although marching downtown as they did last weekend and proselytizing the need for “programs” seemed disingenuous and off the mark. Unless they are talking about opening more of their churches’ doors that are usually padlocked during the week, and using the House of the Lord for mentoring, youth activities, parenting and entrepreneur and job training classes and such.

But parents must play the most critical role—that of being key figures in the process called socialization.

And while many parents these days are ill-equipped—far too many of them babies themselves beset with babies and tasked with the job of raising those babies amid their own myriad social and familial traumas, including poverty, poor public education and limited access to resources—changing the tide is still not the impossible dream.

Here is the way: Rebuilding community, restoring hope and constructing the social, economic and moral structures that can uplift a people by the collective effort of a people to assume responsibility and accountability for our future—in spite of systemic mechanisms designed to destroy us. This is the only way.

Our history tells us this. The lesson of our history: That we are unconquerable. That we survived the soul-wrenching Middle Passage, arose from brutal inhumane slavery, emerged from cruel Jim Crow lynchings, and abominable American hate with our soul and spirit still glistening in the eternal glory of a God who has not failed us. And, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Still I rise.”

We have done so through faith, by believing in something greater than ourselves. By choosing to build “community” and accepting that no one can save us but us. By refusing to believe that we are powerless to right the ship of our own lives and communities through the power and the social and moral compass of our “village.” By good parenting and a whole lot of good mamas.

Way Black When

Written Originally in 2012

Amid our death and mortal demise, I feel this toll that wets my eyes. For I remember a time when only old folks died.

When living in the ghetto, we still had pride. Before “drive-bys” became part of our vocabulary. Before we buried a nation of murdered young Black sons—and daughters—at the cemetery.

Back when the children could still play outside. And little boys didn’t get shot while making mud pies. Back in the days when men in the hood all worked. And we sat safely long after midnight, talking on the porch.

When little old ladies walked to the store without fear. And young men held their words when old folks were near. And there were much worse things than being poor. So long as we had shoes and food galore. When frozen Kool-Aid cups chilled a hot summer’s day. And killing each other was not the way.

Oh, how we rode our bikes, played hide ‘n seek. Cherished our green lawns and the big apple tree. And segregation, in some ways back then, made us so much stronger, less complacent. More self-reliant. Filled with self-determination.

And the ghetto was just a place. Not a state of mind. Our imaginations were a playground. And we had good times.

I remember back when kids didn’t sass. When Black folks didn’t worry about ballin’ and flash. We all went to church on Sunday morn. And preachers preached NOT for fame or glory, or sum. Back when there were way more important things than hair weaves and nails. And it was not a right of passage to go to jail.

I remember way Black when. Before drugs flourished on the corner. Back when church mothers were still prayer warriors and mourners. Before crack and blunts and social collapse. Before we were ensnared by government traps by liberal do-gooder policies that helped dismantle our homes. That deceived us into setting Self-Fulfillment on the throne.

Before TV convinced us the world was passing us by. That led us to forsake the truth for lies. Before rap music and hip hop became our children’s god. Before we despised each other and turned our backs on God. Before chaos and murder and devastation set in. And we longed for the days of old again. Back in the day when only old folks died and little boys grew up to be grown men. We were so much better off then.

And a crystal staircase to heaven was a faraway dream. For we understood that life in the hood was real and sometimes mean. That only what a man sowed might he expect to reap. That nothing on God’s green earth was ours to keep.

So even if you didn’t have a “diamond in the back, a sunroof top,” you learned to be thankful for what you got. And had. Even when times were bad, you were never completely sad. Because in the scheme of things. Happiness was never about stuff or things. But substance. Not bling. About love. Not romance.

And life about the journey. Not the glory of the mountaintop. And music about the rhythm. Not whether the beat don’t stop. Brotherhood about forgiveness and selfless sacrifice. And sisterhood about respect and living right.

Way Black when, we embraced the mahogany color of our skin. When we might never have imagined what we would become back then.

The coincidence of cosmic circumstance? The devolution of the original man? Or a sinister, man-ordained plan imposed by sin-stained hands?

Back in the day when only old folks died. When we lived by truth. Instead of being consumed by lies. And yet, I still believe that we can rise.

Recollections of Mr. and Mrs. Newell and Sweeter Times

Originally Written March 2014

His first name was Mister. His last name was Newell. A dark chocolate, thinly muscular man, he smoked a pipe whose scent of cherry tobacco hung on a summer’s evening breeze.

His real first name was Dewey—something I never knew as a kid. Back then, every adult male had the same first name: Mister. His wife was Bessie. But every woman’s first name back then was Miss or Misses.

4 Block Sign
A STREET SIGN marks the block where John Fountain grew up.

Out of earshot of adults, we kids referred to Mr. Newell as, “Old Man Newell.” We didn’t mean any disrespect. He was the elder statesman of the 1600 block of South Komensky Avenue, the block club captain, and a green thumb.

Mr. Newell was proud owner—and protector—of a sprawling apple tree whose sun-drenched, green and red ornaments each summer became the envy of us boys and sometimes the objects of petty thefts. But at summer’s end, Old Man Newell opened his backyard gate and invited us to climb the tree, shake its limbs and shower the entire neighborhood with apples.

He sometimes seemed obsessed with his emerald lawn, fussing at any kid who dared walk across it.

“Young mannn, get off my grass!” he used to say in that thunderous but silky tenor voice.

The Newells were always kneeling and clipping, digging or tugging, fussing over rose bushes and rainbow-colored beds of flowers. He sauntered from the front yard to the back, sometimes wearing dress trousers and a handsome straw hat as if he were going out on a date.

When all was immaculately done, he sometimes sat on his porch with his sidekick, a black-and-white spotted hound dog “Spot”—his jaw swollen with chewing tobacco, spitting brown juice with a squirting pucker.

Or he sat puffing a mahogany pipe, wearing the same proud look I would later recognize in young men on my block after they had spent the day waxing their cars into a hot shine.

Except, Mr. Newell’s grass always sparkled so much brighter than their chrome wheels.

Later, as an adult, I became friends with Mr. Newell. And I came to better understand him. To appreciate and even admire him as we sat sometimes talking on his porch in the cool of summer evenings.

He even let me borrow his garden tools to dig up the bald yard and plant grass at the apartment building next to their house where I—with my wife and children—had moved in. Mr. Newell would later confess to me that the yard had been barren for so long he wondered whether grass would ever grow again. It did—along with the flowers I planted.

Mr. Newell told me how proud he was of me, not just for my care of the lawn and the building where I lived—but for taking care of my family, for trying to do better, live better, be better. His words were like water to a wilting plant.

I still hold dear the lessons I saw Mr. Newell live out in his garden: Dig, plant and water—it will grow. Care, nurture and protect—it will survive. Take time to breathe in the beauty and fruit of your labor—it will sustain you.

And this lesson most of all: Just because you live in the ghetto doesn’t mean the ghetto has to live in you.

I breathe in these sweet lessons, like the scent of Mr. Newell’s cherry tobacco.

#JusticeForJelaniDay Email: [email protected]

John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain
Professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University | [email protected] | Website | + posts

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”

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