2004 ended harsh and left me with a heavy heart.
We lost another young man to violence. And when I say we, I mean Riverwest. Harambee. Milwaukee.
I checked my email as soon as I got back in town from a holiday escape to the North Woods and learned from an RNA email announcement that the young man killed on December 22 on Booth Street was James Skinner.
My first reaction was disbelief and then anger. I wanted to immediately let folks know that this wasn’t “just another black kid up to no good.” I tried to imagine the thoughts going through people’s heads. There were no email conversations back and forth about him. I wanted to fire out my own emails. “Don’t you know him? He probably raked your neighbor’s yard. He probably knocked on your door and offered his yard work services. You must have seen him gardening at Ms. Vessas’ house on Burleigh every spring. He and his brother Justin won an award at the first Summer of Peace Youth Rally. Don’t you know him?”
Every summer for the last four years at least, James was a welcome regular on my block.
In a day and age when politeness from teens is a rare treasure, James always greeted me with a smile and quiet “Hi.” James hung out with the teen girls next door.
I often saw him parked on his bike in front of my house, kicking it with his friends.
I’m a nosy neighbor, always trying to find out what’s in the mix. I never worried when James was out there. If his peers were cursing or talking foul when my girls were outside, he would tell them to stop. I saw him fixing the raggedy bikes of little kids in the neighborhood. Ms. Vessas helped him with his employment seeking skills. He was looking forward to attending MATC and working this year. My teen neighbor Erica says he was so excited about his future.
Of course he wasn’t perfect. Perfection is evil. James was a good young man navigating life in Milwaukee’s inner city better than many.
After my initial attack of anxiety and anger at people, I was hit with the bitter truth.
This is my own loss in a certain way. Just as for James’ family, the loss cuts in a deeper and different way.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t affect everyone on the same level and I have to accept that my community will never share the impact of the loss of young black life the same way I feel it. As a black woman, mother and youth worker serving Milwaukee’s inner city residents, each death feels like a failure on my part. My friend and I shared how we pray at the beginning of every news report of crime…those silent “I hope he wasn’t black. Don’t let it be a black kid.” That’s the condition you fall into when every time you turn around you’re hearing about the big black boogiemen of the hood. We know how the value of black life diminishes each time another story of black crime is told.
I was desperate to find the correct way to let people know the person James was.
He wasn’t someone you had to fear jumping you or breaking into your car on Center Street as you left the tavern. Forgive me if you were never thinking that.
So you might recall a short email on the RNA network from me. It took a couple days to write it despite the fact that it was hardly three sentences. It was short and simple. “I knew James Skinner…we will all miss him.”
I really wanted to shout and scream. “Somebody care like I do!!! Riverwesters, shoot emails back and forth demanding change like you do about that irritating noise coming from Keefe Avenue. You know, the one that depletes your quality of life. Like the constant deaths of young black and brown children depletes mine.”
But that would have been just my condition talking.
I just wanted people to know that James was a positive part of our neighborhood.
James Skinner December 21, 1986-December 22, 2004
James’ life was taken by the gun of a peer while he was trying to be a peacemaker.
Peace & Blessings to the Skinner Family and Friends.
Riverwest Currents online edition - January, 2005