The killing of Brittany White by her boyfriend Jonathan Bennett last week in Charlotte is, by itself, tragic. Bennett’s death after he ambushed police outside police headquarters is another tragic event. White’s two children have no biological mother, and the infant daughter that Bennett fathered with White and took to a safe place before he ambushed police, has no biological parents. That is tragic. Both White and Bennett were only twenty-three years old. That is tragic.
I did not know Bennett, but he has occupied my mind these recent days because I keep wondering how a twenty-three-year-old could come to the place in his brief life that caused him to kill the mother of his child, then ambush police, and seemingly commit suicide by that action? Why, I think, would such a young man use violent acts by a gun to settle a problem or problems with White? Bennett shot White in front of her children, but cared enough for his daughter to take her to a safe place and did not harm the other child, but left him/her in the house with his/her dead mother. Rage? Of course, but what in Bennett caused him to allow rage or anger or even frustration to settle issues in his life? And, how many Bennett’s live in our society and does our society bear some responsibility for them?
I am a baby boomer which means that I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Where I spent those formative years was a Southern cotton mill town owned by one man—Mr. Cannon. All our lives depended on the mills, in our case of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Plants One and Four. If parents did not, and many did not, work in the plants, their wages were indirectly paid by the wages of those who did. If you were a merchant in downtown Kannapolis, your shop was owned by Mr. Cannon. If you were a high school athlete, you played in the large gymnasium building or on fields that he helped build or built. If you were a good student, you may have attended Wingate College or N.C. State through one of his scholarships. In short, we depended on Mr. Cannon, but he depended on us.
I do not mean to imply that life there and then was perfect. Like any child or adolescent, I suffered through problems of not my doing and some that I caused by poor decisions. My mother, who hemmed washcloths in Plant One, was a single parent of six children, so poverty was a reality of life, but so was hope. Our hunger was fed by that hope, and as a child and teenager, I had several adults in my life who instilled in me that I could do better. My mother was the first and most important adult in my life, but there were others: Jhonsie McKinley, the principal of my first elementary school, was kind to me. Mr. Cowan, the principal of my next elementary school, was firm but just when I hit a girl with my book while we walked home together. Her mother complained, but Mr. Cowan took me aside and explained that that was not the best way to show a girl that I liked her. In the seventh grade, Mr. Brownell was my first male teacher, and a good one who loved me, but worked me, too. Mr. Mast and Mr. Carter in high school encouraged me when I did not deserve their attention. And, I will always value the lessons of academics and life taught by Mr. Boone, Ms. Gray, Mr. Poole, and Coach Mauldin. Outside of school, there were the mothers and fathers of school mates or neighbors who taught by word and deed. Mr. Harris, my paper route manager, taught me about loyalty to a task and money. Bus Goodnight was a kind man who grew kinder as I matured and learned about true kindness; and Frank and Nell McCray were merchants who gave my mother food on credit. Fred Reece would pay me fifty cents to sweep his small barbershop, and at that time, fifty cents was a lot of money. Our neighbor John Gathins, who took me with him to race his cars at red-dirt tracks around Concord, taught me lessons on how to be male. Now, I knew all these people through my eyes as a child or young person, so I think that they had their warts, and other adults I do not mention were known by our town to have theirs. But the adults in my time did not share or display those warts to us children. For instance, I never had or never knew of any teacher who wanted to, tried to, or had sex with a student.
Growing up in that special place and time, I had heroes. All my heroes, but for one, were local. Growing up I wanted to be like one of the high school stars that I heard of or read about. There was James, Wayne, two named Jerry, Ronnie, two named Jimmy, and Bobby. They were stars in football and baseball, the glory sports of that time. There were the fathers that I met while working in Plant One who inspired: Harold, Bernard, and Tommy. Fathers like “Paw”, who lived next door to us on Juniper Street, and Mr. Hilton, who hauled a pack of R.A.’s around town in his pick-up truck to play other R.A. teams, inspired by their loyalty to God and family. And, there was Aunt Susie, Uncle Grant, and Uncle Guy who always had a kind word to share. Perfect? No, but good.
At that time and in that place, I was surrounded by all of these and other adults who knew my mother, my family, and me, and they cared enough about me to make sure that I always did the right thing when in their presence, and if they saw me mis-behave, they would correct me or tell my mother, which was worse. And, remembering all of this brings me back to the tragic deaths of White and Bennett.
Not knowing details of young Bennett’s life, I can’t honestly know what demon or void or lack in his life caused him to act as he did. If any? However, I know, just as many people do, that too many of our young males of all identities see no way to settle issues (or fill voids) in their lives except by the violence of guns, beatings, drugs, or even rampant sex. For many of our young males, the only “heroes” they see are the local drug dealers on the near-by street corner. Sadly, a friend of mine teaching in an inner-city Washington, D. C. school, was told by a student, “Doc, I makes more in a week on the corner, than you do in a month teaching school.” I once read an article about crime in New Orleans and its high murder rate. The article high-lighted Angola inmates from New Orleans who had found a vocation while imprisoned. One young man, serving a life’s sentence for murder, had discovered his talent for making jewelry. Why did it take this young man, a killer, going to Angola to discover his talent? Will my friend’s student discover his talents after he is imprisoned, if he is not killed on “his” corner? Is the only future we can offer many of our youth one of a quick and sudden rise ending in an early flameout?
We are, and have been for years, losing our young people, our future. I know that we can’t go back and give them the type of life that I had. Maybe we should aim higher. However, we can create a culture that teaches them what it means to be male and female. We can teach them that the quick and easy way is a dead end. We can teach them that to love one another is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We can teach them that justice is better than fair. We can value them without abusing them. We can correct them through kindness not meanness.
On this day of celebration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is obvious that we are not doing our best. Since that great man’s assassination, we have lost many of our youth. Let us not lose others. Let us remember the words of Solomon, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and Langston Hughes, “What happens to a Dream Deferred?”
We must find a way to give our children hope so that they, too, may have their dreams.