Tomorrow, CNN is running a special report about The Atlanta Child Murders, the formative event of my childhood and the subject of my first novel, Leaving Atlanta. Over a two year period, at least thirty black children were murdered in Atlanta. Two were students at my elementary school. I expect that CNN is focusing on the whodunnit aspect of the case, and I understand that this is what makes for good TV. I try to avoid that angle when I do Q&A because it feels like we’re turning my childhood into an episode of Law and Order. One thing I really respect about the vision of filmmakers Althea Spann and Karon Vereen, who are behind the Leaving Atlanta movie, is that they understand that this is a community story, not a story about law enforcement.
But still, I sometimes who was responsible for so many deaths. About five years ago, the cases were temporarily reopened. Below is an essay I wrote supporting further investigation.
The toxic silence
Child murders opened a wound that never healed; it’s time to talk about it
By TAYARI JONES
Published on: 05/22/05
In 1988, I was a student at Spelman College earning extra money by tutoring Jemmie, a jug-eared fourth-grader. On Thursdays, I’d meet him at the bus stop and we would go and sort out the complexities of multiplication. One Thursday, I was a little late to the bus stop and Jemmie wasn’t there.
My body registered that this was an emergency before my mind was able to process the information. I called his name, asking passersby whether they had seen a little black boy carrying a blue book bag with a green stripe. Then I doubled over, clutching my stomach, and vomited on the corner of Ashby and Fair.
With my heart splashing in my chest, I ran back to Spelman, calling for someone to help me find Jemmie. Most of my dorm-mates, busy with homework or nail polish, were not concerned that the little boy was just a few minutes late. “He’s probably at Mrs. Winner’s getting something to eat.” But other friends put down their textbooks and unplugged their curling irons. “Call the police,” they said.
It wasn’t until we found Jemmie, safe and sound at Mrs. Winner’s, that I realized that all of us who panicked shared a common terror: We had all grown up in Atlanta. We all knew that a little boy unaccounted for constituted an emergency. It was then that I knew that if I ever became a writer, I would write a novel about those of us who were children in Atlanta. I would put on paper this memory that we never spoke aloud but carried with us in our bones.
Fear, resentment, anger, guilt
The Atlanta child murders began just before I started fifth grade, when someone killed two African-American boys, Edward Hope Smith and Alfred Evans, and left their bodies in a vacant lot. The brutal end of their childhoods became the formative event of mine.
For almost two years, the “city too busy to hate” was held hostage by a toxic combination of fear, resentment, anger and guilt. This was true for all the city’s residents, even those of us who were not quite 10 years old.
Three years ago, the summer of my 30th year, I published a novel, “Leaving Atlanta,” a novel based on my experiences growing up in Atlanta during this terrible moment in the city’s history. At book signings, I was often asked to speculate about the cause of the silence surrounding these murders. We are, after all, obsessed with serial killings. People are still talking about Jack The Ripper more than 100 years later.
But at the book signings, I knew what answer people were looking for: The world has forgotten these murders because the victims were black and mostly poor. And I believe that on many levels this simple explanation is sadly accurate. But it cannot explain away the silence in my own community, the hush in southwest Atlanta, the home of many of the murdered children, the area of the city where many of those whose lives were directly touched still reside. The question still eats at me.
Years marked by fear
During the two years that Atlanta was under siege, I was at a peculiar stage in my personal development, caught between childhood and adolescence. These years are significant for all kids, no matter where they grow up and under what circumstances. But in my life, they were marked indelibly by the fear of sudden disappearance and random murder, and the lessons I learned then haunt me still.
It’s difficult to choose a starting point for describing the ways in which I was changed. I apologize before I start because I know whatever I write here will be incomplete, a mere outline.
Fifth grade was the year that boys and girls became aware of each other in a new way. Brave girls experimented with strawberry lip gloss and the boys brushed their hair until it waved. Picture us, a class of fifth-graders at Oglethorpe Elementary, a school southwest of downtown, in a sector of city that would become ground zero for the child murders. Try to imagine, if you can, how the lines between “boy” and “girl” changed for us that year, once it became clear that almost all of the children who would be killed would be male.
I have an older brother, three years my senior, who is named for Patrice Lumumba, my father’s idol. My brother’s picture hung in our basement den between portraits of Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois. As a young girl, I envied my brother his hero’s name and his place on the wall. But when the murders began, being a boy meant something different. It meant that someone might want to kill you.
There was another layer of meaning for me, a little black girl, the sister of a black boy. On the one hand, I felt a rush of relief not to be a marked child — relief mixed with stinging guilt. On the other, there was an irrational sense of resentment. According to street wisdom, the boys were targeted because they posed some sort of threat to the white power structure. There were theories that their bodies were magical, containing a mysterious chemical, interferon, which could be harvested only upon their death and sold on the black market. The kids in my class were transfixed by these hypotheses and believed them all. I listened, too — female, invisible, safe.
I couldn’t discuss these feelings with my parents. I didn’t have the nerve, nor the language, despite the fact that my lexicon was constantly growing with the frightening terms Monica Kaufman pronounced each night on the evening news: asphyxia, decomposition, ligature. And there were other words learned at home, like lynching. During this time, my father spent a lot of time in the basement studying a tattered paperback called ”100 Years of Lynchings,” a collection of newspaper accounts of mob murders of African-American men and women. He read that book so frequently that the binding disintegrated and he was forced to turn the pages in the same way that a person would flip through a deck of cards.
My capable, sensible mother was preoccupied with the safety of her own children, and of the other kids in our school. Another word, supervised, was often heard in our household. Hard-won party invitations had to be declined if my mother deemed there was not adequate supervision. She organized a Halloween carnival at Oglethorpe Elementary in 1980, raising money and urging her former Clark College students to donate prizes, so we kids, who were no longer allowed to trick or treat, could still have a good time.
I wonder whether this period was harder on my parents than on my brother and me. Lumumba and I were kids, finding comfort in talismans. We believed our old dog, Missy, could rise to the occasion, if necessary, becoming a ferocious attack-mutt. Once my father pointed out that the ornamental bars on our windows would prevent my abduction in my sleep, I was able to rest easily. But I doubt that he ever did.
Just before Wayne Williams was arrested, my father returned home from a simple errand about an hour late. He was shaken, clearly upset. My parents weren’t the sort who would discuss important matters before the children, so we were sent away. But I hung back, where I could listen.
My father explained that he had become lost while finding his way home. He’d driven around on the back roads, looking for a familiar street sign. “What would have happened if the police had pulled me over? I’d been gone for almost an hour. I couldn’t say where I had been. There was no one to vouch for me.” I backed away from my secret eavesdropping space, having already heard more than was good for me.
A few days later, Wayne Williams was arrested after being found at the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to account for his whereabouts. Over the dinner table, I looked at my father’s ashen face. In that moment, my father and I had exchanged places.
For so many months, my brother and I had sat mute in front of the television, understanding our vulnerability as black children as another victim’s face was shown, another name announced. Now, I looked at my own father as he processed his vulnerability as a black man, and I learned what it was to experience vicarious agony.
As I write these words, I can understand those who would argue that reopening this case is “opening old wounds.” But for many Atlantans, the memory of the child murders cannot be likened to an old wound, carefully sutured and healed.
For us, it is more like a bone poorly set — painful, crooked and gimpy. The events of 1979-81 so ravaged our community that we have been unable to speak of them in the years since. The arrest and conviction of Williams for the murders of two adults, and the subsequent closing of the children’s cases, was neither balm nor tincture. Rather, it was just a plaster cast, ensuring that the fractured bones of our community would never properly mend.
Re-examining this case will cause great pain to Atlanta, the city of my birth, the place where my family still lives. I don’t anticipate that this will be easy. Tempers will flare, as will old rivalries and grudges. But as we know, the only way to repair a bone badly set is to break it again, and then set it right.