L ike the story of so many Black kids murdered or found dead, whose disappearances are left unanswered, Kenneka Jenkins’ death similarly produces collective panic and pain within Black communities in the U.S., because it hurts to lose our young people. Because it hurts to know some of our children should still be alive, but are not because of the violent deaths they suffered. Because it hurts to know that the sum of care Black youth receive, dead or alive, will always be less than the amount offered up for white kids.
The video snips showing 19-year old Jenkins walking through the Crowne Plaza Chicago O’Hare Hotel, seemingly intoxicated, raises more questions than answers. In one of the clips, Jenkins can be seen, for the last time, moving through a hotel kitchen area until she eventually disappears behind a wall. Her sudden absence ghosts the video. In it, we know that she is still in the kitchen alive before she is unseen and dead. But where did she go? How did she end up in a freezer? Was there someone else involved? Why is she not alive?
No Love for Black Youth
Too often the disappearances and deaths of Black youth are treated casually, as if they are of no real importance, because somewhere in the collective American conscience Black children are thought to be strong enough to fend off attackers or too lawless to be harmed by any hands other than their own. It’s hard not to believe that had Jenkins been white, her mama and sisters would not have had to walk down the halls of the Crowne Plaza knocking on doors in the dark of the early morning in search of their loved one as if they were law enforcement. But, in the U.S., the lack of love for Black youth is not a new phenomenon.
In 1979, for example, 12 Black girls and women were killed and found dead in the Roxbury, Dorchester and South End areas of Boston. One writer reflecting on the murders in a special issue of Radical America at the time recalled:
Initially, the police press handled the situation as if there were no reason for concern. The mother of a 15-year old girl, one of the first two victims, says that when she reported the disappearance of her daughter to the police they hesitated to file a report claiming that the girl had probably gone off with a pimp. Within two weeks, her body was found, to be followed by twelve more in a period of five months.
We have always had to fight for our own.
It’s hard not to believe that had Jenkins been white, her mama and sisters would not have had to walk down the halls of the Crowne Plaza knocking on doors in the dark of the early morning in search of their loved one as if they were law enforcement.
Organizations like the Combahee River Collective in Boston, a Black feminist socialist community-based group, responded to the murder of the 12 Black girls and women by canvassing in the impacted communities. They distributed an estimated 20,000 pamphlets, written in English and Spanish, which offered girls and women tips on self-protection. Black women knew if their people were to be protected they would have to take up the challenge of ensuring as much.
Around the same time, between 1979 and 1981, Black youth went missing and were killed in Atlanta. In that two-year period, during what has been dubbed the “Atlanta Child Murders,” 29 Black youth and adults were kidnapped and murdered. According to the FBI, Wayne Bertram Williams were linked to the 20 of them. The emotional devastation people felt at the time was similar to what many of us are experiencing right now in response to Jenkins’ death.
“From the very beginning, the Atlanta missing- and murdered-children cases of the early 1980s had the sinister ring of a Grimm’s fairy tale. For some reason, especially for African-Americans, the narrative carried more weight than did most of the sordid and pitiful bad news of the day; it resonated with biblical parallels and brought up uncomfortable echoes of the middle passage,” writer Randall Kenan wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “To this day ‘the terror,’ as it was known to many, remains more in the realm of legend than history.”
When Black children are snatched violently from our lives and our communities, the terror that results is horrifying, indeed. Black communities are left puzzled and broken, and must sometimes pursue justice on their own because America still sees no value in Black young people whether they are walking down the aisle graduating from high school or remembered only for being placed in their graves too early.
That is the terror—one which can only be corrected by the love Black folk must daily pour upon our young folk.
I mourn for the Black young people killed in Boston in 1979. I mourn for the dozens more killed in Atlanta between 1979-81. I mourn for a country whose empathy for Black youth is cut short by its enamored love of whiteness. And I mourn because Black abduction, and death, has always appeared as an incessant specter leaving Black youth with no place to run or hide then, and there is no place to hide now.
As we mourn Kenneka, it will again be up to Black people to create the conditions that keep our youth safe and alive.