Child Watch® Column: "The Unthinkable Lives of So Many Black Boys: Where Are the Caring Adults?!"

Release Date: August 14, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

What’s on the minds of many high school students these days—the start of a new school year, getting a driver’s license, worrying whether they’ll make the team, perhaps daydreaming about college and sweating over SAT exams? But that’s not what three Black male high school students told a Children’s Defense Fund audience this summer they’re thinking and worrying about. 

Aijalon “AJ” Morris is beginning his senior year at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee. “I have no friends that I grew up with. I have lost five this year and I have lost three to prison . . . I was in fifth grade and I lost my [first] friend. He got killed. Seventh grade, my friend killed somebody, and he’s in jail for life . . . From my freshman year to now, I have been to 12 to 13 funerals. And I grew up with everybody that I went to those funerals with, and now they’re gone. It’s hard to cope with it. It’s hard to—sometimes I cry all night, you know, and I ask God why.”  

Column 150x200.jpg
L to R: E’Darrius Smith, Jermaine
Simmons, Aijalon “AJ” Morris

In middle school AJ was a star athlete. By eighth grade he was already receiving offers to play football in college but after he was sidelined by injuries his sophomore year everything changed. “I lost hope. I stopped going to school. And during those times I was going through a lot with my family. I was homeless. I didn’t have anything to wear, didn’t have anything to wear to school, you know, nothing like that. I didn’t even know where I was going to get my next meal. And everything was gone.” No one seemed to care. “I remember a whole month—a whole month we ate bread. We ate toast for a whole month.”   

E’Darrius Smith, a budding and talented artist, is also a rising senior at Pearl-Cohn. “I had a good friend that I grew up with . . . He ended up dying because he was robbed and he tried to fight back and they ended up shooting him in the chest. So they ended up killing him. And when I found this out, you know, I almost cried, but at the same time [you’ve] seen so many classmates and so many people …you just sort of say, ‘Man, I sort of knew that was going to happen.’” 

Jermaine Simmons is a junior at Pearl-Cohn. “We live in the worst conditions where nobody helps you. And we live in a condition where you’ve got to watch your back every 30 seconds. You know, you don’t know when you’re going to get robbed, you don’t know [when] you’re going to get shot, you don’t know [when] you’re going to get stabbed . . . For some of us that is our reality.” 

The daily violence, poverty, despair, and isolation that saturate the lives of these youths are morally unconscionable. Where are the adults who should be providing safe harbors for children? E’Darrius talked about some of the missing adults in his life: “Most of the men in my family, they were either locked up or dead, so I didn’t have a lot of attention at home. So when I got to school it was all about rep. It was all about making a name for yourself.” But then when students got into trouble he said school discipline polices hurt more than they helped: “When we act up and that zero tolerance policy hits us, instead of actually sitting us down and asking us, you know, ‘what’s wrong? Why are you doing this?’ . . .  the only thing they do is they send us to ISS [in-school suspension] or they detain us and they deny us…the education instead of actually trying to teach it to us.” 

Everywhere children and youths like AJ, E’Darrius, and Jermaine are crying out for help—cries that often fall on deaf rather than discerning ears. Where are the adults? Where is the church when parents are in prison or AWOL on drugs and children are left to cope alone often struggling to care for younger siblings and to find food for long periods without a soul to turn to? Where are the neighbors? Where are the schools and community organizations? Who reaches out to see what the problem is? Does anyone see this child/youth desperately in need of help and hope? Who listens or offers a helping hand amidst the violence and despair they face daily?

These three teens are very lucky that they have a mentor in Reverend Damien Durr, a gifted teacher-preacher they can rely on. Damien is a member of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Nashville organizing team but also is a social and emotional counselor at Pearl-Cohn High with a special focus on helping Black male students stay out of the cradle-to-prison pipeline who is available 24/7. Every school should be like Pearl-Cohn and find ways to offer the additional support these struggling children need. AJ now dreams of becoming a kinesiologist, Jermaine — a social studies teacher, and E’Darrius — a freelance artist, one of whose fine paintings I look at every day when I step out of CDF’s national headquarters elevator.

Damien and the school’s innovative program are helping fill a deep void for these Black male teens struggling to survive and grow up at the treacherous intersection of race and poverty. But he is a drop in the bucket of need for these drowning children. Where are the other neighborhood, community, school, and faith congregation mentors and role models? And where are those calling for common sense gun laws so that walking down the streets or to school is not like a showdown at the OK Corral? Where are the outreach workers from community agencies to knock on doors from time to time and see who’s there and what children’s needs might be? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools had a Damien or two in them for their high needs children?  

All children need adults who will listen and care, AJ says: “Especially dealing with young troubled Black youth, because we go through so much . . . and people don’t take the time out to see it or to think about what we have gone through, trying to come to school and learn and go home and deal with the problems that we have to deal with.” He had special advice for teachers: “I may not want to do this lesson today.  I might need some motivation. I might be feeling down. I might have just lost a friend last night or this morning and I don’t want to do any work. And people take that—never asking—as an act of defiance, and you get sent to ISS or you get kicked out of class or you get expelled, when all you needed to do was just, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’” 

AJ seemed to speak for them all when he said it would be good if every adult made the effort to really understand Black boys. “If you walked down the street, you wouldn’t know that I have been through what I have been through. You know what I’m saying? . . . I’m not trying to be racist or anything, but that’s what most White people think: Oh, he’s just another Negro. You know what I’m saying? And they don’t take the time out to get to know us, and I feel like people should.”

Yes we should — adults of every color, those who work with children of any color in our schools and other community institutions, and those responsible for keeping them safe in the war zones of their daily lives. The violence, poverty, and trauma these young people face would be unthinkable for anybody—and yet we leave countless children to cope with death and fear daily and often all alone. What are our responsibilities to our children and youths to offer them respect and hope and education and jobs and open up rather than close doors to a positive future?

E’Darrius said Damien Durr has been an invaluable mentor because he taught him he can’t wallow in self-pity about the circumstances he comes from—he must rise up. But countless other youths need but lack a Damien in their lives to help them overcome the overwhelming odds threatening to drag them down. They need parents and grandparents. They need caring teachers and principals and social workers and health care workers. They need faith communities whose doors are open to compete with the drug and gun dealers. They need positive alternatives to the streets and the gangs and sadly too often to the police and law enforcement agencies entrusted to protect them. They need positive role models who have experienced many of their struggles and show them that they can overcome them with perseverance. They need people who will simply speak to them and say hello and good morning and see their strengths and give them a sense of being seen and heard. They need community and political leaders willing to fight for fair opportunities against the grinding structural poverty, racism, and relentless violence that envelope them and choke their lives and dreams. They need people who care and help rather than judge or ignore them.    

Where are you and the adults you know and the organizations you belong to who could extend a hand and voice to these invisible poor children and youths who need hope?

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by CA at: September 3, 2015
The issues can appear overwhelming. However everyone can affiliate with an organization that has the advocacy for these young men as it's purpose. My fraternity Sigma Pi Phi has started "See Your Potential" mentoring program at Watts Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club. We are mentoring 11-13 year African American boys from Watts neighborhood. We have 25 professional African American male professionals committed to these boys,

Submitted by Marzo at: August 31, 2015
Link with me please! I am working on an international project right now because I have noted that boys, particularly, of African heritage, are going through a major identity crisis. The only thing they are learning about their African heritage is related to the slave trade, and Western domination.

Submitted by To Anonymous 8-17 at: August 21, 2015
It starts with the parents. No one said that the parents are without fought but the issue is when the parents fail where is the community to pick up the pieces for these innocent children. Should they have to suffer for the mistakes of their parents? No. The idea is that those who are able should be more than willing to reach out and assist others in need and stop worrying about whose fought it is or is not. The focus should rest on doing what needs to be done in order to see a brighter future for the innocent.

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 18, 2015
Wish I were brave enough to reach out to the youths in the neighborhoods through which I walk for Ceasefire every Friday night.

Submitted by Lytex at: August 18, 2015
It's very easy to dismiss the tragedy that's happening to young black men as their fault--their failure to take personal responsibility. It's the classic conservative solution. If you've actually worked in the "hood," you come away with a different perspective. You see how difficult it is to break the chains of poverty and despair. Mrs. Edelman asks a valid question about the failure of churches to get involved. I think it's because Christianity today is a feel good religion about Jesus, not a religion of Jesus. Our Lord would be in the "hood." Our refusal to help this nation's children, to ensure the basics for their survival, let alone to put in place the means for them to thrive, is nothing less than moral and spiritual failure.

Submitted by YASIIN O. S. at: August 17, 2015
The honorable Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "What impacts one directly impacts all indirectly. I cannot be the person I ought to be if you are not the person you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality" Until WE ALL understand that and start living our lives accordingly.... "The greatest country in the world" ?!?!? By what standards STOP INVESTING TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN KILLING AND START INVESTING IN ELEVATING THE DIGNITY OF MANKIND.... "Whomsoever helps an evil cause shares in its burden. Whomsoever intercede in a good cause, becomes a partner therein"

Submitted by Casey Wilson at: August 17, 2015
Damien is such a wonderful man. I feel it is an honor and privilege for me to call him a friend. So many children are left to figure out life on their own and it is a sad reality. We need so many more people in schools and in the community making sure no child slips thru the cracks because they do not have a mentor or anyone that lets them know they are special because believe it or not every child is special!

Submitted by ADVOCATE at: August 17, 2015
Mrs.Edelman, Your article reflects a profound cry out of young people specifically our black males nationwide. We have an inherited responsibility to seek and assist our children by any means necessary to show them the way. They are not victims of their experiences nor communities.I have followed the paths of those who challenged their souls to make a difference in the lives our children. Therefor, I will continue to fight and advocate until we make that change. Together we can destroy this cancer that's destroying our young boys from becoming ... KINGSMEN!

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 17, 2015
I "get" your plea for communities and agencies to step in and pull up the kids stuck in the cycle of poverty. I don't "get" why the parents of these kids are never charged with not fulfilling the responsibility of parenthood. Somehow, it is always societies' fault that generation after generation continue to be trapped in the continuing cycle. I am not speaking from a privileged background. My dad came from poverty and had parents who worked hard just to feed their 8 children. He figured out early in his life that if he wanted to change the cycle, he had to make the choice to get out of his comfort zone and leave. He joined the AF when it was first being integrated and toughed it out. He learned skills and language that allowed him to compete with everyone else. Ultimately, society has to deal with this subculture in order to "love others as God loves us". But God also talks a lot about the responsibilities of parents. They are key to a child's stability and character. Let's go after them with as much vigor as the rest of us; individual parental mentoring, communities charging the parents with dereliction of duty and some consequences for what their children do/don't do. If you can procreate, then let there be consequences for it, like caring and nurturing the child. Poverty doesn't hinder that.

Submitted by Tisa at: August 16, 2015
Amazing, I'm outraged, angry, hurt! I'm ashamed for all my insecurities, fears, judgements I have on society, culture, race. I'm ignorant of what they might be going through. It's much easier to judge when you don't walk in their shoes. Now saying all that, how can I change it. Without the fears, resentments, or lack of my own personal growth & success to teach them anything to inspire them to become successful men? I am someone who has many skelletons, failure in her own life. How do I or people with my attitudes, behaviors help? How can we trust the young men & not get betrayed? How do we make them trust us? Show them we want to help but learn their stugglesn& feel their pain at the same time? Lord pray for these children. Help them fight harder to survive, give them mentors, loved ones to teach them the strenghts they need to be on a successful path to follow. Break the links in the chains. God Bless the mentors, & students who want to fight for their lives.

Submitted by Patty at: August 15, 2015
You made me cry. At 89 and unable to walk, there is nothing I can do. I taught in a relatively opulent farming area, only a couple of black kids, comfortably off with both parents. But a few miles away was Stockton, with the conditions you describe - wish I had taught here.

Submitted by Gman at: August 15, 2015
Very revealing and informative article. What do we do to change all this. I wish we could encoursge more Black males to become elementary/middle school teachers. Much like we encouraged females to be lawyers, doctors, etc.

Submitted by Conjure Woman at: August 15, 2015
That's why we support SON OF A SAINT in New Orleans, funded by Bivian Lee III. It's critical we stand up for these young men - when they need it, not visit them in jail, or go to their funerals when it's too late. Everyone has the ability to help, to mentor..whatever it takes to see our young men get on the track, and stay there!

Submitted by Ann at: August 15, 2015
My heart was touch by the pain, suffering and daily worries and concerns these youth have to encounter on a day to day basis. My goals and plans when I complete my bachelor degree is teach out to youth in my community to offer these same services requested by the youth in this article.

Submitted by Star at: August 15, 2015
Very sad story. When l get home l will hug my teen son and tell him how much l love him.

Submitted by Alana at: August 14, 2015
Those who have school-aged children can advocate for restorative justice programs in their kids' schools. These programs, or restorative circles, function as an alternative venue at the school to suspension or involvement by police that actually gives the kids the attention they deserve and a place to build skills they need to overcome impulsive acts.

Submitted by Jo at: August 14, 2015
We need more mentors and supporters but I want to celebrate all those individuals who are working with young people I want them to know they are wonderful and gifts to the young people. May God bless you

Submitted by Geezerray at: August 14, 2015
The "terror" that these boys are going through should be our focus, not on ISIS and other overseas problems. This was a wonderful/informative column. I would like to see these problems become a part of the political debates.

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 14, 2015
Marian, your article touched my heart. I'm an 87 year old honkie with a 55 year old son and two grandsons. I fear for them and I know they share with the black kids some similar problems but those black boys you speak of so eloquently have a life of terror unknown to we more fortunate ones. I recently wrote a comment on this subject and my sentiments then were that the unfortunate black fathers who were raised under the same circumstances, they, the fathers, became clones of their own fathers and also left their families to fend for themselves. I know many men have a similar problem not just the black guys but add-in the social problems of jobs, poverty and racial issues, it's worse by far for the black guys. You know this, I suspect it, but none of these thoughts are gonna help today's kids. Their problem started with their grandpa's probably. So what can be done. I'm old and broke so I can't help much. My heart aches reading your tales. Don't know why I'm taking your time to read a letter professing helplessness. Sorry I had to say something. Ron Grauer

Submitted by Billie at: August 14, 2015
It should be read by every thinking adult in this country. E very caring person in this country should feel angry and outraged that our children are still having to fight for the right to be children, cared for, loved and guided by caring adults.