Arthur Taylor was only 11 when his next-door neighbor, James “Jack Jack” Moore, was fatally shot in front of Arthur’s Englewood home on the South Side of Chicago. He was inside playing video games with his mother’s boyfriend, Earl, while his mother, Marcy Frierson, was cooking in the kitchen. His 16-year-old sister Shauntana – Arthur calls her “Sunshine” – was elsewhere in the home minding her own business. Gunfire erupted outside, and in a flurry of sound and disarray, he and his family hit the floor. When Marcy thought she heard the name “Jack Jack” called out, she quickly ran outside. There she saw her 24-year-old neighbor bleeding from an open wound in his head, blood seeping onto their front stoop. Marcy grabbed some towels and wrapped up Jack Jack’s head to stop the bleeding. She held his head in her lap, desperately seeking any source of life, but the young man was already dead. Arthur and Sunshine witnessed the scene unfold from inside the front door.
Now 26, Arthur recalls the moment vividly. “I wasn’t that scared or shook up, but I couldn’t tell you why; I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Sitting in stillness on the back patio of his now-Hollywood, CA apartment, the contrast between Arthur’s past and present is striking. A man of dark complexion, Arthur reveals a sheepish smile as he thinks back on what he’s seen. He wears a white tank top and a black bandana across his forehead, with silver headphones in his ears and a thin silver chain draping his neck. When he raises his hand to speak, you can see the colorful beaded bracelet wrapped around his left wrist. The sun kisses his face as he speaks on the past that for so long he silenced.
Jack Jack Moore’s murder marked the violent origin of a long and tumultuous history of trauma for Arthur and his family, compounded by damaging mental health. Marcy Frierson would spiral into depression, worsened by the death of her boyfriend one year later. Arthur’s self-discovery as a Black man would be riddled with pain and confusion, aggravated by the subsequent killing of his cousin, the suicide of a high school peer and the passing of both father and grandmother. Sunshine – whose very name is a subversive plea for light – would be present to witness it all.
Arthur’s past is a cultural reality for many Black Americans today, particularly youth. Not everyone in the Black community endures such traumas, and those who do may not process it in the same way. But mental health issues can be exacerbated for people who suffer social or physical trauma such as poverty or violence. Furthermore, the pressure of Blackness – from small daily incidents of oppression to high saturation of videotaped police shootings – can be equally devastating.
“We have so wrongly failed the generations still to come,” says Ameena Matthews, the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders and co-founder and former head of the Black P. Stone Nation. “Mental health is a matter of human rights, and we’ve politicized and commercialized it.”
Once headed to follow in the footsteps of her father, Matthews is now a progressive Chicago activist most noted for her influence as a forebear of a radical violence-prevention model started by Cure Violence, which received national recognition in a 2011 Emmy Award-winning documentary called The Interrupters.
On the state of mental health in Chicago’s South Side and West Side neighborhoods, Matthews says, “If we look behind the mask, medical professionals have seen that many of the kids dying on the streets have complained about not feeling well.”
Matthews reveals the stories of many youth she’s worked with whose pain and sickness is too often mistaken for violence and anger. Many young people, unable to find access to appropriate medications or services, resort to finding remedies in the streets – often marijuana and alcohol, and sometimes drugs more harmful.
“People just see our youth as Black and angry. They’re not considering their illnesses,” Matthews says. “The system has failed our young people, as well as our community – period – by stopping their resources and access to mental health services. These kids are trapped in a cycle.”
The Cook County Hospital in Chicago, which treats 2,000 patients a year for gunshots, stabbings and other violent injuries, conducted a 2014 hospital study on the rates of PTSD in inner-city communities grappling with violence and trauma. It was found that 43% of all examined patients from communities with high rates of trauma – and greater than 43% of victims with gunshot wounds – showed clear signs of PTSD.
“The rates of PTSD we see are as high or higher than Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam veterans,” Dr. Kerry Ressler, the project’s lead investigator, told ProPublica. “The rates appear to be much higher in [poor] communities – largely African-American populations in Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where high rates of violent crimes have persisted despite a national decline.”
Understanding PTSD as a ramification of violence in our local communities is a burgeoning topic, and a field of study historically underrepresented. Mental health professionals and clinicians are identifying, perhaps for the first time, a need to rethink how we view and articulate mental health.
“Why did we never think of that? Why do we just call them violent thugs?” asks Carl J. Evans, Director of Operations and Programs at Hope for the Day, a suicide-prevention and mental health-focused nonprofit in Chicago founded in 2013.
“It’s an unspoken thing that the reason we’re not talking about this form of PTSD is because the faces [of those who are suffering] are darker – they’re African-American, they’re Latino, they’re Asian. That’s tied directly to the bigger social dialogue on how we treat one group of people (at any age level) in this society, and how we treat a whole other group. How a 12- and 17-year-old Caucasian individual can be called a kid, and (yet) 12-year-old Tamir Rice is called a man.”
Tamir Rice was shot to death by a police officer within seconds of contact in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014 simply for playing in a park with a toy gun. “The difference in those responses is not an accident,” continues Evans. “There are economic tie-ins beyond the racial, but it’s impossible to bifurcate the racial and the economic.”
Dr. Mark Heyrman, who for 40 years has been a clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, notes that adult Latinos and African Americans are less likely to have received mental health treatment. He explains that health services are typically less present in poor neighborhoods. Furthermore, Black Americans (and other people of color) live in disproportionately high rates of poverty and violence, which are aggressive triggers of mental distress.
According to the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (2016), “Adult African-Americans are 20% more likely to report severe psychological distress than adult whites,” and “more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness.”
Arthur Taylor’s mother, Marcy Frierson, was one of many who have suffered this way. After Jack Jack was killed, Marcy felt the violence had come too close. She made the decision to leave their Englewood home at 57th and Carpenter, taking her son further east along Lake Michigan to a neighborhood that had a reputation for being safer. Arthur’s sister would stay with her grandma on the South Side. But a year later, Marcy’s boyfriend, Earl “ET” Taylor, would also be killed by street violence. ET’s cousin had been killed a month prior, and in anger and confusion, he searched aggressively for answers. His questioning got him in trouble, leading to his early death. In the aftermath of this fresh tragedy, Marcy moved her family once more, this time to South Minneapolis, joining relatives who’d also left Chicago due to violence.
As a remedy for the pain, Marcy began to drink, increasingly abusing alcohol.
“It was her anti-depressant.” Arthur says. “When my mom was depressed, I would sit on her bed, rub her back, and tell her everything was going to be okay.” He pauses, recalling that difficult time. “It was me and her against the world,” he says with a heavy smile.
Arthur’s mom taught him the value of adulthood and independence in a world where youth and dependency got you killed.
“Never be a what?” she would often ask.
“A follower,” he’d respond.
“Be your own what?” she asked again.
“Be my own man.”
Minneapolis would bring rapid change. Arthur’s Chicago accents, habits and mannerisms quickly faded. He was unlearning his old ways and creating the space for a lighter, simpler life.
Finding normalcy would become about mimicking the little things his peers did: celebrating traditional Christmases, pronouncing the ‘er’ at the end of his words and eating a sauce known as ‘pesto.’
Arthur thought the way many Black kids do who don’t yet know the weight of their being. He assumed that as long as he acted like his peers, their reality would become his. But as he grew into consciousness, he came to see this reality as a false narrative. He became keenly aware of the privileges around him, a carelessness and a peace of mind he never understood, rooted in a passive, Minnesota culture.
Following graduation from high school and a quick stint at the local Minneapolis public college, Arthur moved back to Chicago, closing the door on a city he’d grown to resent.
In Chicago, he’d counsel inner-city youth, working as the Sophomore Dean at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, a high school in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
“I encountered mental health issues daily. It was tough knowing there’s little I could do for my students going through depression. We’re not given the tools to help them for more than the day. I could speak to them in my office and support them for a few hours, but what happens when Mr. Taylor is gone? It’s the psychological toll we take for constantly wanting to be better, but never seeing better.”
One day, homeward bound on the Pink Line train, Arthur received a call from his sister and learned that his cousin, 22-year-old Terrance Terrell Franklin, was killed in Minneapolis, shot by the police following a 90-minute chase that started with a 911 burglary report against Franklin. Though the full story is still unclear, the ten fatal bullets that killed Terrance were mostly to the head and neck. It was May 10, 2013.
“I was mad for so long. I couldn’t even process being sad.” Arthur says. Like his mother, he began drinking to numb the pain. “It was one of the darkest places of my life,” he recalls. It was family, and only family, that would get him through. He later branded himself with a tattoo on his right bicep that states “In Loving Memory: Terrance J. Franklin.” Each day, as he wakes up, Arthur kisses his arm, honoring the memory of his beloved cousin. And these days, when Terrance’s name comes up, he smiles.
Trauma, by nature, is intrusive, and it strikes without regard for convenience or condition. On August 30, 2015, two years following Terrance’s death, Arthur heard that a friend from high school took his own life. Andrew Thomas, a seemingly happy soul beloved by many, committed suicide at the age of 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth 15-21 years old, and second among young people between 22 and 34 (Emory).
Andrew had often said that he believed the reason he was put on this earth was “to laugh.” For those who knew that about him, his sudden death was all the more surprising and upsetting.
“A visual came into my head about what it looked like, and it messed me up.” Arthur says, holding back tears. “It became clear to me that I’d seen too many dead bodies.”
An overwhelming sense of hopelessness grabbed hold of Arthur. The weight of Andrew’s death was too heavy, he explained.
Carl Evans says the simplest distillation for taking care of our mental health is thinking about it as a bottle of soda. “It shakes up, and it explodes. Your experiences are shaking that bottle. The trick is figuring out the appropriate valves to help diffuse the pressure before the bottle explodes or self-destructs.
“No matter how hard we try as Black men to be strong, the world is not set up for us.” Arthur says,“If it’s not the cops, it’s depression; if it’s not depression, it’s racism. It’s always something. We don’t have the privilege to be free.”
To this day, part of the definition of mental health in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is “the absence of mental illness.” Such lack of nuance might explain the precedent we’ve set for the apprehensive way in which we discuss mental health, and its absence in public discourse.
“There’s no magic wand for mental health,” says Evans. “It’s going to take treatment and recovery. But we can get people to a level of awareness and recognition and understanding about themselves and their peers and community so that they can address these issues in a healthy way.”
In July of 2016, Arthur moved to Los Angeles to start fresh once again. At 26, he is now older than Jack Jack was when he was slain in front of Arthur’s childhood home some 15 years ago. His father and grandmother passed in the week of his move, and both deaths left a dark imprint. But Arthur is resilient. He’s looking for a new job in education – a place where he can continue to teach and inspire Black youth. And he’s still searching for peace.