This is the first short story I’ve written to completion. Warren Johnson is Standing Here is the first of a series of short stories set in St. Louis, Missouri. This story began as an assignment for one of my creative writing classes at Washington University, and soon, took on a life of its own. I’ve had many critiques of this story. I’ll share them with you in just a moment.
Like many major cities in the United States, there is a lot of violence in St. Louis. As the mother of two African-American young men, I live in fear of traffic stops, or any type of run-in they may have with the police, another white person feeling empowered by his gun, or just a guy on the street looking to rob somebody. Even though I live with that fear every day, the fear that African Americans feel is one of the emotions I wanted to convey in this story.
Life is Complicated
One other aspect of this story that was extremely important to me that I humanize the characters. For many people, judging an entire community based on preconceived ideas about the community is what helps to give the city of St. Louis such a bad reputation. I love my adopted hometown, and I admit there is violence here. However, I also think because of the violence, it’s sometimes difficult to see my community as human. That disturbs me. Don’t get me wrong. I hope the violence stops, and I don’t condone it. I also know the people who make the decisions they do have families, have the same human emotions as everyone else. That is what I hoped to convey in this story.
I asked many people to read my story, and critique it. The feedback I received ran the gambit: from people who thought the story was a “good read” to people who thought I was not only writing about something I knew nothing about, but I didn’t have the right to write about the violence in North St. Louis because I never lived in North St. Louis. While it is true that I did live in the heart of North St. Louis (on St. Louis Avenue) for three years when I shared a duplex with my daughter, I don’t pretend to have any sort of “street cred.” However, I don’t believe I need to have experienced violence to write about violence. I don’t need to have experienced all aspects of living while being black in the United States because I am black.
What I do know is there are a lot of good people living in St. Louis, and many of those people have lived in North St. Louis all their lives. What I also know is a lot of what goes on in St. Louis is the direct result of a history of segregation, systemic racism, a failing school system, and a lack of jobs for many men and women who want to work. I also know that until we, as a community, address these issues directly (and we are just beginning to scratch the surface), the violence won’t stop. At the core of all these problems is people, all people, who just want to be acknowledged and live a good life.
Two young men grew up in the same neighborhood. They were raised by the same woman. One got out, but chose to come back. The other never left. A murder on a warm, summer night changes both their lives forever. Are they good men with a conscious, or are both of them monsters? Sometimes there are no clear answers.
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I want to give a shout-out to one of the best graphic artists I know, Ada Ezenwa-Autrey. When I started writing this story, I knew I wanted to work with Ada in creating an original work for the title page, and Ada did not disappoint me. The result of our collaboration is the original artwork at the top of this page. If you like Ada’s work, you can contact her at Ada Ezenwa-Autrey. You can, also, Like or Follow Ada on Facebook. You’ll be seeing a lot more of her work within these pages. Thank you, Ada.