Gary Younge is one of the few fearless journalists who regularly cut against the grain in the mainstream media. He has recently returned to Britain, the country of his birth, after living and writing for The Guardian in the United States for over a decade. Another Day in the Death of America is his parting response to this experience.
Younge’s starting point is the shocking fact that seven American children are shot dead every day. Firearms are the leading cause of death among black children aged under 19. Shootings happen more frequently at weekends when people are out on the streets. Younge chooses a random Saturday, 23 November 2013. He then sets out to discover how many deaths by shooting occurred on that date and relays the events that led to each victim’s demise. The book’s ten chapters are named after those whose deaths he reports and it is dedicated to them “for who they were and who they might have been”.
This was clearly a difficult book for Younge to write. The frequency of these events dictates that they are barely regarded as newsworthy. Consequently he struggled to find snippets of information and once he had, he was frequently met with suspicion and resistance by understandably traumatised relatives and friends of the deceased. His difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that being “small, tubby” and “dishevelled” he “cuts an unlikely figure in most professional circumstances”.
In addition he has quite a posh English accent. Trust me, this is not what one expects to hear emanating from the mouth of a black man. One woman he spoke to in Dallas smiled politely then informed him that she had not understood a single word he had said. We should be thankful that he persevered. This is a brilliant book, compassionate but brimming with anger.
Younge does not attempt to portray these victims as sweet little angels in whose mouths butter wouldn’t melt. Their backgrounds and behaviour are variable. Some clearly put themselves in the line of fire and were almost certainly culpable for the deaths of others not featured in these pages.
A couple of boys were seemingly killed accidentally by friends in tragically foolish circumstances. Nine year old Jaiden Dixon was cut down by his mother’s enraged ex-partner. Gary Anderson was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes.
What of these boys’ parents, could they have done more to discipline or protect them? Again, Younge does not completely exonerate them. Some are completely absent or lost in a stupor of drugs. Others who are present were, perhaps, not as engaged as they might be.
Gustin Hinnant’s father was a member of a gang himself in his time. He subsequently moved and worked shifts at Walmart to keep a roof over their heads but couldn’t quite remember how many kids he had. Not surprisingly he didn’t always remember Gustin’s birthday.
Recognition of personal responsibility notwithstanding, the brilliance of Younge’s writing lies in his wider assessment of American society.
He acknowledges the fact that young people take risks. That is part of the physical, emotional and intellectual transition from childhood to adulthood. The plain truth is, however, that your options are much more limited if you’re poor, working class and especially if you’re both of those and black.
Those with money and a stake in the system can hire expensive lawyers to settle their differences. Ghetto disputes do not lend themselves so readily to such resolutions. Guns are however easily available not least because of the cynical and sinister activities of the National Rifle Association. Meanwhile rich kids like George W Bush can afford to be “young and irresponsible” and still become president. Not so for poor blacks in inner cities.
Younge explodes the myth that black parents are not engaged in their children’s lives. He rails against respectable commentators and “role models” such as Bill Cosby. In an infamous 2004 lecture, this now rightly disgraced hypocrite condemned the “lower economic and lower middle economic people who [post-civil rights reforms] are not holding their end in this deal.” In a similar vein he continued to upbraid his supposedly feckless brethren in a 2007 book moralistically titled Come On People.
In actual fact Younge shows that black parents are more likely to be engaged but, because of the inequality and exclusion they experience, have to factor in the ever present possibility of their children falling victim to violence.
The specific deaths featured in this book are those of young people but there is another which is implicit in the book’s title.
Most of the shootings occurred in towns or cities that have been laid to waste by economic decline. Decent jobs, hope and prosperity have long since departed. Desperation and desolation, fertile breeding grounds for drugs, gangs, guns and violence have replaced them. Instead of living the dream, many millions simply “hope to live”.
In an afterword Younge suggests that researching and writing the book made him want to scream. I did too, but more than that we have to organise and fight for something better.