By Hakim Hasan
Why is crime, gun-related homicide, and domestic violence regularly occurring in poor neighborhoods of the black community in Jersey City?
It may correlate to the outright lack of social and political education in black households or informal social networks that constructively shape the social psychology of adolescents and the black community as a whole.
Deep reading and value placed on intellectual development is lacking in poor black communities in Jersey City — communities that are plagued by gun-related homicide, domestic violence, crime, teenage pregnancies, low graduation rates, and its members falling into what’s referred to as a system of mass incarceration.
When I read regular newspaper accounts of homicides and violence in poor black neighborhoods of Jersey City, I am reminded of my own teenage years during the early 1970s.
My family moved from Downtown Jersey City to East Orange in 1968. We lived at 360 Montgomery St. Saint Bridget’s Church was a few doors down on the corner. I moved back to Jersey City in 1995 to reduce the time it took to commute to my job in New York.
I was fortunate to be raised by parents who valued reading and political discourse. Reading provided me with a window to the larger world, analytical skills, and it also simply compelled me to value my own life.
When I was a high school student at Clifford J. Scott in East Orange, I kept company with guys who read voraciously. Social and political reading in the 1970s reflected the waning social consciousness of the 1960s. The 1970s preceded the almost permanent social collapse of poor black communities in urban areas occurring in the 1980s.
Drugs, familial and social network dissolution, moral degradation, and cultural crack contributed to the social collapse. Cultural crack, retrograde genres of rap music, also promulgated destructive ideas and practices in poor black communities. It destabilized reading as an act of constructive human development and destroyed social consciousness.
My core group of high school buddies talked about sports, girls and clothes. We were normal teenagers trying to discover the world. We also engaged in “cracking atoms.” It was the intellectual equivalent of “the dozens” and the complete opposite of exchanging comedic insults.
Cracking atoms was a long spontaneous conversation about current events and social issues. You had to respond to questions or statements about the writings of world-class historians and writers. To participate in these conversations you had to read widely and study the dictionary; or you were shamed.
We were afraid of ignorance. Intellectual development was taken very seriously.
Music was also central to reading as part of my cultural education. My first exposure to jazz was in Brother Dewey’s barbershop. It was here that I first heard Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father ” and Lee Morgan’s “You Go To Head.”
I spent weekends in my room reading and listening to R&B and jazz preparing for these cracking atoms sessions. My goal was to be an articulate, educated, and dignified black teenager. This occurred during a time when black life, especially among adolescents, mattered within marginalized black communities. Black life doesn’t matter anymore.
Hakim Hasan is a Jersey City resident and an occasional contributor to The Jersey Journal who provides a local perspective on city life.
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