News & Views » The N word

Reflecting on support for Jena Six's Mychal Bell



When I read that Jena Six's Mychal Bell had shot himself, my heart sank. Not another young black man trying to take himself out. When I read the next line of the article, which said that it was after he had gotten arrested for shoplifting, my heart sank even more. In one of my all-time favorite films, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, there is a line in which a character tells Dan Freeman, played brilliantly by the late Lawrence Cook, that the revolution popped off over a junkie.

I thought the same as I read that news story. The entire black community rallied around this young man, then 16 years old, when he was wrongfully charged as an adult and convicted of a crime. Naysayers talked about his prior bad deeds, which in my mind had nothing to do with the Jena Six case, although I understood where they were coming from. As I learned more about him, I thought to myself and wrote about the fact that this young man was not angelic, so we needed to stop portraying him as such. The judge was able to help destroy his life because of the bad decisions that Bell made prior to this incident, including breaking the law numerous times. Even though he was a child, he too had played a role in his predicament.

Let me be clear. I do not condone hate crimes in any way, shape or form. Using nooses to intimidate people is absolutely unacceptable. Although I do not agree with the use of violence to solve problems, I do understand how that situation got out of hand, particularly when there was little to no guidance and just plain bad advice from school officials, parents and other adults. I do not agree with how these boys were treated by the justice system, especially since the white kids who hung the nooses and fought with the boys were not charged at all in the incident.

Nonetheless, there was a reason that the judge was able to go after Mychal Bell so harshly: He had broken the law previously and been told that if he did it again, there would be dire consequences. He knew what could possibly be in store for him, even if he was "defending himself." Unfortunately, many adults often err on the side of bad judgment when facing such a predicament, so to think that a 16-year-old, whether black or white, was going to make the right decision in the Jena Six incident may have been expecting too much.

The black community and eventually the world community got involved in the case to highlight the injustice that occurred and to stand up for these young boys, who were facing 20 years in prison for a fight at school, while the tormenters and instigators were walking around free. Although it was made clear that Bell had a criminal past, the black community rallied around him and his co-defendants and marched in their defense.

This young man literally had the entire black community behind him. In spite of that, he was picked up for shoplifting again. When caught, he tried to take his life. How can you have the support of the entire community behind you and still choose to do the wrong thing? What is going on with our youth and those of us who are raising them when this can happen? With so much community support behind him, why would Bell want to take his life instead of change it?

The obvious answer is that there is something else going on with him. My heart is heavy because a young man is suffering, but it is also troubled because the black community insists on supporting any and all members of the black community, despite their misdeeds and actions. I understand how a history of not having civil rights plays into this, but sometimes it is what it is -- someone who just can't get it together. Sometimes the proverbial "man" isn't out to get us -- sometimes, it is just us out to get us.

While we are marching on behalf of folks whom we often know little about, it would be wonderful to see such activism around other issues or young men and women of all shades who are doing the right thing and truly are being railroaded by the system.

Bell's arrest and attempted suicide highlight the fact that we need to take the time to find out more about the people we get behind. He shot himself because he didn't want to face the media, or the music for that matter. Now, the black community must face the music and the media by truly asking ourselves why we continue to put our support behind folks who don't seem to give a damn about the black community or themselves.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Add a comment