I was born in East Cleveland.
My childhood was pillaged by the systemic extensions of poverty. The project buildings near the corner of East 40th and Woodland Avenue were not Case Western Reserve University.
It was not my teenage home of Chagrin Falls. It was this dichotomous place of magic realism; consumed by a subterranean culture of hypermasculinity and gang-based violence, yet softened by a foundation of family.
This is the first home that I’ve ever known. I’ve lived in different areas throughout my life, but the memories of your childhood home are so sentimental. East Cleveland wasn’t a safe place to raise a child, but there’s something indescribable that I’ll always love about it.
My mother directed me to balance academia and the streets. She forced me to learn an instrument and read music, while my father taught me to value literature and world history. I found identity within the craft of poetry, but the force of language did not cloak the day-to-day environment that I was exposed to.
Between the intricacies of organized crime and public displays of addiction, my world was rarely mirrored by the American sociocultural archetype.
This wasn’t the American dream that I had imagined.
By the time I was 12, two of my cousins, Mario and Jermaine, were dead—gunned down over petty trivialities. My aunt was left with diluted remnants of her past self.
My plight is not singular: In 2016 Cleveland made national headlines; it was marked as one of the deadliest years the city had seen in nearly a decade.
These experiences are widespread; the details are locked away behind subcultural codes of secrecy that prohibit direct communication with police officers. We don’t speak about the things we’ve seen or heard out of fear of gang retaliation. You or your family could be killed for providing information about unsolved or pending homicide investigations.
Even if the residents of East Cleveland physically distance themselves from the expansive roots of these ongoing traumas, they are still affected by their happenings. My time at Case has been enshrouded by an isolating sense of self-reflection, and I have been prompted to ask myself: What did I go through as a child in East Cleveland, and how much has it impacted me?
Our campus is only four miles away from documented barrages of bullets and expansive routes of narcotrafficking. Our campus is only three miles away from the same basketball court where my cousin Jermaine was murdered.
This is the closest that I’ve lived near my childhood home since moving away in the late 90s, and it has forced me to examine my way of being. I had once found unbroken loyalty within the foundation of gang violence—the familiarity of brotherhood somehow existed within instances plagued with unjustifiable acts of violence.
Most of my friends from East Cleveland are dead or in jail. The few of us that escaped the city have managed to create the façade of a balanced life: We are lawyers, students, electricians, professors, activists, receptionists, authors and even doctors.
Some of my friends are still entrapped by the lustrous dynamics of gang politics, remaining too blinded by the wealth of instant gratification.
Some of us have assimilated to this position of middle-class normalcy, while witnessing outsiders push East Cleveland further and further away into a Pandora’s box. We almost forget that these crumbling portraits of our own narratives are being denied in this forced exile of social cognizance.
I can’t forget where I came from—no matter how much it pains me.
I can’t forget my sister sobbing over Mario’s death, or the translucent ghost of his mother that glides among the living. I don’t know the solution to gun violence in Cleveland, but I know that my voice has the potential to grant emotional liberation to current and past residents of inner city communities that have endured similar traumas.
I know my voice can provide detailed glimpses into an unseen America.
I know my voice acknowledges the warped faces of the dead, hoping that their names will withstand the howling instantaneity of a bullet.
Christopher Cannon is a third-year student studying English and history.