In November of 2015 I wrote a piece called, The Missing Gang Photo. I pointed out a popular gang photograph that was circulating online. It was taken earlier that year during the Baltimore riots. (The violence erupted after a young Black man ended up dead in police custody.) This gang photo showed members of the Nation of Islam posing with rival gang members with a caption that said: Unity.

I said at the end of the year some magazine will feature the Baltimore gang photo and the so-called gang truce in their year in review and promote it as a highlight of 2015. (Mind you, Baltimore didn’t surpass 300 homicides in a year for decades, but 2015 ended with 344. Now, in November 2017, the mayor of Baltimore recently announced crime is out of control and for the third straight year, homicides are over 300.) Then I pointed out, there will be a gang photo missing from every magazine’s 2015 year in review because it doesn’t exist, but that gang photo should have been taken in Chicago after the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee.

That November Tyshawn Lee was lured into an alley and assassinated, shot several times in his head and back. The shooter had a feud with the 9-year-old boy’s biological father. The two men were from rival gangs.

Chicago’s police chief stated that the shooting was “probably the most abhorrent, cowardly, unfathomable, crime” that he witnessed in 35 years of policing. (And the superintendent has seen a lot. In 2014 there were 425 murders and that figure is low. In 2003 the count was 601 and each year going back to 1991 the count remained over 600.)

Then I said the gang photo Chicago residents wanted to see showed young men disassociating from gang culture for good, because Chicago’s mayor said “whoever did this is not human” and neither are those that remain affiliated.

I concluded by stating that gang photo would have made history, but as of right now that gang photo is still missing, but after a 2017 art controversy I realized a historical comparison was missing, too.

In April a White painter’s abstract painting called “Open Casket” was exhibited in New York. It was a painting of Emmett Till. We all know Emmett Till’s mother had an open casket funeral, so the world could see what the White murderers did to her son’s black body. The painter stated she didn’t know what it was like to be Black in America, but she did know what it was like to be a mother and she created the painting to engage with the loss.

The painting was protested.

One Black artist demanded to know, “Does [the painting] help a new audience understand either emotionally or intellectually the complex set of factors under the umbrella of White supremacy, sexism and anti-Blackness that led to this young person’s death?” And other protesters said the painting should be removed and destroyed so a White artist couldn’t profit by exploiting Black suffering. I assumed the protesters were only against the exploitation of historical Black suffering. So I said to myself, what if the White artist painted something contemporary with the same maternal engagement?

Now, imagine if the White artist painted a closed casket and called her painting, Tyshawn: The modern day Emmett Till. And when asked for an explanation of the historical comparison, she said, “The same inhumanity that killed Till murdered Tyshawn.”

(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)


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