Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives
by Gary Younge
Nation Books, 2016, 304 pp.
In the center of Kerry James Marshall’s imposing painting “The Lost Boys” (1993)—it’s more than eight feet tall and ten feet wide—are two young black boys, one of them holding a toy gun, the other riding a mechanical toy car. Before them sits a small shrine, complete with plastic cherub. To their left is a tree labeled “Life,” trunk wrapped in police crime scene tape, bullets hanging from the leaves. Written delicately near each boy is the date he was gunned down. With its Biblical allusions and subtle visual nods to Renaissance art, and in its sheer, monumental size, Marshall’s piece employs the tropes and form of classical Western painting to commemorate not mythical heroes, but real victims of gun violence in Marshall’s adopted home of Chicago.
With no less powerful effect, Gary Younge’s heartbreaking Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives presents child victims of gun violence in prose, combining biographical sketches with accounts of how they died. The organizing principle of the book is ingeniously straightforward: it is a tally of all the children and teenagers shot dead on a single, typical day. Younge narrates their lives through family interviews, autopsy reports, 911 transcripts, testimonies of grieving friends, sociological data, and more. As a British national who has reported for the Guardian and the Nation, Younge brings an outsider’s perspective to his travels; as a black man who has lived at length in the United States and raised two children of his own in this country, he grapples with stakes that are also deeply personal. Yet Younge’s prose remains restrained and matter-of-fact throughout, his tone never preachy or maudlin. The result is quietly devastating.
The day Younge chooses is November 23, 2013, when ten children and teenagers were shot dead. None of these killings involved the large-scale mass shootings that often make national headlines. “Like the weather that day,” Younge writes, “None of them would make big news beyond their immediate locale, because, like the weather, their deaths did not intrude on the accepted order of things but conformed to it . . . Far from being considered newsworthy, these everyday fatalities are simply a banal fact of death.” An average of seven children are shot dead each day in the United States, including suicides. On that November day, a nine-year-old in Ohio is killed by his mother’s estranged former partner; a nineteen-year-old in Indiana is killed while out driving with his friends; a seventeen-year-old in North Carolina is killed after an altercation in a gas station parking lot; an eighteen-year-old in California is killed in a drive-by; an eleven-year-old in Michigan is killed while visiting a friend in an unsupervised home full of unsecured firearms; a sixteen-year-old in Houston is killed by a friend while playing with a gun; a sixteen-year-old in Dallas is shot while walking down the street; an eighteen-year-old is murdered in gang-related violence in Chicago; an eighteen-year-old in Newark is shot outside a McDonald’s; and another eighteen-year-old in North Carolina is shot dead while driving a vintage Cadillac recently gifted to him by his father. These deaths paint a stark picture of who is most affected by gun violence: all are boys; seven are black, two are Hispanic, and one is white. Almost all lived and died in places ravaged by chronic poverty, racial segregation, and frequent gang violence.
Younge paints moving portraits of individual loss against a backdrop of public indifference. Through interviews with bereaved relatives and friends, he reconstructs who these young people were while alive—their relationships, their foibles, their ambitions. His use of social media archives is particularly powerful. Trawling through Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, Younge captures snapshots of these children as they grow, experiment with new identities, and try to navigate the world around them. In several cases, this sheds light on the “psychic load” many of these young people carried from living in close proximity to quotidian violence. Remembrances of murdered friends alternate with poetry and rap lyrics about loss and resignation; and when they themselves die, their walls fill with yet more remembrances, this time, by their friends, writing about them.
When contacting families proves difficult for Younge, or when official archival material is not forthcoming, he is frank about it. Younge also refuses to shy away from confronting the more difficult dimensions of their stories, but emphasizes their context. As he writes:
This book is the story of young people most of whom made bad decisions—some were killed, others did the killing. Some did nothing worse than make a poor choice in friends. One needn’t excuse a single thing they have done to understand that what distinguishes them from other, more fortunate youth isn’t an innate pathology but a brutalizing, unforgiving environment.
This attention to context is the hallmark of Younge’s book. In addition to the portraits of victims, each chapter touches on a broader topic: the fate of public health research on gun violence; killings by abusive men run amok; the cultural politics of the National Rifle Association; and more. Throughout, Younge pushes back against attempts to minimize, victim-blame, or otherwise explain away the realities of American gun violence. He picks apart right-wing arguments about so-called “black-on-black crime,” noting that almost all violent crime in America is defined by geographical proximity first and foremost, and that, despite widely circulated claims to the contrary, there is abundant activism within black communities against such violence. He also takes aim at the common refrain that violence in ravaged communities is due to bad parenting. This claim, Younge trenchantly argues, reveals profound ignorance of the realities of everyday dangers, failed institutions, and limited resources that parents in such circumstances must navigate as best they can. Younge continues:
These faulty assumptions matter because they feed into the notion that it is deficiencies in black culture in general and black parenting in particular that are responsible for the shootings, that on some level the shootings reflect the collective death wish of a community incapable of and unwilling to care for its young. So pervasive and ingrained are these views that the truth ceases to matter—they become scripts that many Americans repeat reflexively, and often uncritically, with all the confidence endowed by fact. The scripts are so ingrained that the very people denigrated by them recite them as if by rote.
Dismantling such scripts is one of Younge’s preoccupations. The urgency of such work is powerfully illustrated in his critique of political rhetoric about childhood innocence. Younge writes:
In law, as in life, children comprise a special category: the most vulnerable and the most in need of protection, both by and from their parents and the state. The fact that they are children means they have had no say in how the world they live in has been constructed or what the ground rules are. There is pathos in their pain and thus more intense outrage at those who would torment or harm them. To raise this in an argument does not exploit an issue but contextualizes it. But dwelling on children can be calculated. In not only emphasizing their vulnerability but also declaring their inherent innocence and insisting upon their angelic nature, one moves them from a “protected” to an elevated category: it shifts the emphasis from the availability of guns to the moral purity of those they might be used to kill.
In debates over gun violence, Younge argues, such well-intentioned but misguided purity rhetoric is damaging. It can translate into erasing the moral claims of precisely the kind of victims whose deaths his book narrates: “The argument’s center of gravity shifts from ‘This shouldn’t happen to anyone’ to ‘This shouldn’t happen to people like this,’ suggesting that there are people out there who might deserve it.” Visiting a gun-control advocacy event in Indiana, Younge notes the event’s marked whiteness, and the lack of local community representation even in a city plagued by shootings that claim the lives of so many black youth. Without diminishing the dramatic horror of the shootings that capture national attention, Younge highlights a serious flaw in much gun control advocacy: “But those who concentrate on protecting ‘babes’ and ‘angels’ from felons and gangsters stand little chance of finding roots in the very communities where the problems are most acute.” For this insight alone—which strikes at the heart of so much of contemporary liberal political organizing, on guns and more—Younge’s book is worth reading.
Younge stresses that Another Day in the Death of America is not “about gun control.” He also stipulates that the book is not about race. Writing a rigorous account about either gun control or race as such would, Younge states, make for a different book. This tight focus does not prevent him from engaging with both topics—repeatedly, and with considerable nuance—but it can occasionally feel strained, particularly when the issues intersect. The role of race in public responses to the Sandy Hook killings is invoked only obliquely, although it is almost impossible to overstate how much the image of specifically white victims galvanized public outrage and grief. Likewise, when profiling a teacher-turned-anti-violence activist in North Carolina, Younge expresses a kind of bewilderment that his work does not extend to explicit advocacy for gun control: “Even for those living with and combating the consequences of gun violence . . . challenging this element of the status quo is scarcely understood as a priority.” What remains either unspoken or unacknowledged here are the ugly consequences, both personal and strategic, that black activists would immediately face by arguing for policies that could be construed as tantamount to disarming militant whites.
Since November 23, 2013, several thousand more American children and teenagers have had their lives cut short by bullets. What, the reader is left asking, might realistically be done to save yet more youth from joining that grim tally? Younge stresses that new gun-control legislation would be no panacea on its own. American society’s particularly vicious synergy of poverty and structural racism demands a battery of interventions: “Better education, youth services, jobs that pay a living wage, mental health services, trauma counseling, a fair criminal justice system—in short, more opportunity, less despair—would contribute to the climate where such deaths were less likely.” Younge does not see acknowledging “the conditions of alienation, anomie, and ambivalence in which a gun might be used and some gun deaths ignored” as mutually exclusive with demanding accountability from individuals who commit acts of gun violence. But he also stresses that “societies have to take collective responsibility for what they do and live with the consequences”: in other words, all Americans, and not just the ones who pull the trigger, are complicit—or at least morally implicated—in gun violence.
What would this collective taking of responsibility look like? Part of the answer would mean doing what Younge’s admirable book accomplishes: expanding our understanding and moral outrage about whom gun violence touches beyond the most photogenic and innocent (read: white) victims. Such an exercise, we might hope, would also expand our capacities for compassion, coalition building, and political mobilization—and not just on guns. Younge intimates that enacting “commonsense” gun laws would be appropriate; many such small-scale gun-control interventions (like expanding background checks) do indeed enjoy wide support, and performed quite well on a state level at the ballot box this past November.
And yet an attentive reader detects, throughout Younge’s book, a palpable yearning for a dramatic sea change in American consciousness and political mobilization regarding guns. “None of the family members I spoke to raised the Second Amendment one way or the other,” Younge writes. “Almost all believed guns were too readily available; none believed there was anything that could be done about it.” Their grief, like the “learned hopelessness” of children who grow up in communities surrounded by gun violence, suggestively parallels a broader sense of political resignation vis-à-vis the intractability of guns as such on the national level: “It’s as though imagining a world without guns on this scale, like imagining a world without poverty or segregation, is the kind of utopian indulgence that serves no obvious purpose.”
One must wonder, though, if the saturating presence of guns is by now as intractably baked into American life as poverty or segregation. The election of Donald Trump and Republican dominance of the House and Senate means that any sweeping gun-control initiatives are a non-starter, and the scenarios for a successful Trump Supreme Court appointee, whether it be NRA-endorsed Neil Gorsuch or otherwise, suggest that continued liberalization of gun laws will continue. Meanwhile, Americans continue to buy a record-breaking number of guns.
Patrick Blanchfield is the Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU.