The story of the “Jena 6” is an American tragedy. Six Black high school teenagers in a small southern town, charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate at Jena High School. Their stories would have ended up like so many tales of “southern justice,” had it not been for the tremendous outpouring from the Black community; including the efforts of radio personality Michael Baisden. In September 2007 more than 20,000 people converged on Jena, Louisiana in support of the accused young men. The charges against the Jena 6 were eventually reduced but the scars have remained.
Now we hear reports from Louisiana that one of the young men, Mychal Bell, may have attempted to end his life with a self inflicted gunshot. Bell was sentenced to 18 months in prison following his guilty plea to juvenile charges, and had spent 10 months behind bars awaiting trial after his arrest in 2006. He reportedly remains hospitalized after injuring himself but, thankfully, his wound is not life threatening. Bell, age 18, was apparently despondent over a recent shoplifting arrest that had his name again splattered across newspaper pages and in television reports. While he may have survived this episode, there is no doubt that this is a troubled young man who is desperately in need of a break. He apparently had wished to resume his once promising football career at his current high school but was deemed ineligible to play. The shoplifting incident may have been the last straw for Bell; an act of desperation for a teenager who apparently felt overwhelmed by the circumstances of his life.
It should come as no surprise that some people will simply toss Bell aside as another Black young man who has simply lost his way, wasted his life. After all, that’s how most young Black men who run afoul of the law are typecast in our nation. And while some of our youth do engage in self destructive behavior, the overwhelming masses who find themselves painted as outcasts have spent most of their young lives desperately seeking a way in. I believe Bell may fall into the latter category. It is one of the reasons why attending to the needs of Black youth must become one of the priorities of our community. Too many are being left to fend for themselves in the hostile environment of their community or school.
Many of our young people are living dangerously close to the edge; sometimes by their own choosing but often times driven by forces far greater than their self-determination. A slight that an adult might pass off as a minor annoyance, becomes an insult to a youth who feels disrespected on a daily basis. So, the use of a firearm becomes less irrational to a young person who sees force as the great equalizer. A society that attaches significance to material possessions is a challenge for young people who have little and are judged on what little they have. We have not fully recognized the tremendous pain many of our youth experience as they attempt to find meaning in a nation that diminishes their humanity.
Let’s pray that Mychal Bell gets the help he needs. For one, he may need professional counseling to come to terms with his imprisonment and the negative attention that has followed. It would also be helpful if some men in his community took it upon themselves to counsel Bell and provide some guidance. From what we have heard, his grades are sufficient and he is on track to graduate in the spring. So, maybe, with the right support, he could be college bound by September 2009.
Bell’s story like so many others need not end in tragedy. The bullet he intended to end his life may have missed its mark but there is still a target on his life. It will take more than his own self-determination to free himself from his past. This is where the true meaning of “community” is tested. Can we save Mychal Bell, and so many like him, or are we destined to watch our young people perish?