How Mothers of Murdered, Black Children Help Each Other Heal at Christmas

Can New Orleans stitch lives back together when homicide remains its leading cause of death?

I first met Chanda Burks, in 2011, when she came to my office to discuss establishing a mentoring program for black males through her sorority Delta Sigma Theta.

The following year, multiple gunshots killed her son Jared in front of their home in the hushed neighborhood of Tall Timbers. He died September 15, 2012. He was 18 years old and a senior in high school.

I saw Burks again last month when I attended the Second Annual Helping Mothers Heal Conference sponsored by the Family Center of Hope in New Orleans. Burks was among more than two dozen other mothers in addition to other guests. The conference speaks primarily to women who have gathered together to comfort and support mothers who have lost children to violence.

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Homicide is the leading cause of death in New Orleans so Helping Mothers Heal is not sui generis. Be it formal or informal gatherings, these groups are appearing in places like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and other cities in which murder is the most fatal of diseases.

The conference focused on the question, “Did I See It Coming?” However, hindsight doesn’t provide clarity when it comes to losses of this nature. Even with the clearest of forewarnings, the realization of life moving forward without that person rushes upon us like a cold, strong wind. No matter how much we comprehend what could have been done, the process of dealing with a different Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa without that special person takes our breath away. Still, coming home presents opportunities to develop new relationships, new maps, and new ways of dealing with self.

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Since the death her son, I’ve seen Chanda Burks like a quilt maker help stitch together frayed existences of women whom would otherwise be the ballasts to families living in tumultuous circumstances. This year she along with three other women who formed the group Mother’s Circle, announced a city-sponsored initiative to help other mothers and in the process end violence. The Mother’s Circle will roll out a series of events in 2016.

The quilt maker adapts materials within reach to build a comforter; even, if needed, the material from the clothes she is wearing.

In my own family, Grandma Doris was the quilt maker.

Like Chandra Burks, Grandma Doris lost a child — my father, Floyd Criswell — to violence. He was murdered in Jackson State Prison, about 80 miles west of Detroit. Another inmate killed him when I was eight years old.

Like Burks, Grandma Doris found ways to take all the scattered materials her family presented to form a warm and loving unit that covers those in need of shelter. I belong to a family whose materials range from the rugged wool army blanket, to a luxurious silk blouse, to a tattered cotton handkerchief. Grandma Doris patched us together to form what I believe to be a warm and loving family.

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She recognized that in order to construct a better quilt, she needed to fill the gaps in her own life. The people who witnessed Grandma’s quilt making over time can testify that while she mended a family, she mended herself. Grandma stitched her own life together.

Grandma Doris showed me that change is possible. Again, she kept mending and sewing and making herself stronger. As she mended herself, she mended a family. She was a more loving, forgiving and kinder person as she got closer to death. My family is consequently better than it was in that same period. She left the world in peace knowing that she and her family could grow.

Every time I see people like Chandra Burks doing the real work, I become pensive and reflect upon the personal transformation that she and other women conjure in order get to the root causes of violent crime.

The call to action that comes this holiday season is obvious. Who will become the quilt maker? Who will help take Grandma and Chandra Burks’s gifts to heal themselves and others to scale? All families need a quilt maker. Many cities do also.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).