MAXWELL:  First, lose the illusions

1/26/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


By now, most people in the Tampa Bay area who keep up with the news have heard of Emory Everett Carter, the 17-year-old who set fire to Trinity United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg during a night of race rioting last October.

The church, which Carter had attended, is in an economically depressed area and survived the flames, but Carter nearly died after his gas-soaked clothes caught fire. Bystanders saved him by rolling him on the ground. Carter’s story is big news because Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph Teague, a white man, accompanied the arsonist, who is black, to court and pleaded for leniency in the form of professional help. Prosecutors want Carter imprisoned.

My first thought was that Carter, who has certified mental problems, nearly died that night. But, in truth, this troubled boy may have lost his life years ago, when he was born to a poor black family with no realistic chances of upward mobility, when he became trapped in a dehumanizing street culture, when he entered a public school system that shunted him aside.

What brought me to this conclusion is the contrite letter that Carter wrote to Teague, a letter bearing the soul of a child condemned to hopelessness, ignorance and functional illiteracy.

The letter:

Dear Mr. Paster: This is Emory Carter. this letter is to let you no that it was not your falt what I did the only person to blame is me and I can’t say it in words But if I could I would rebuild the church . . . It’s sad that this world so full of hate But it’s the truth theres an even Biger crime than we notic so many young are going to waste. So many strong young men full of pride But they just Don’t care that there dieing for no resan . . . all I can do is ask for forgivenes and god. and I hope that youl say yes . . . it’s so hard to Believe a young man could holed up so much waight and till it explodes. that’s all I got to say for now All got to say now is that I am truly sorry please forgive me.

Does this letter reflect the academic skills expected of a 17-year-old? What chance does he have to succeed in a world that grows increasingly technological and electronic by the minute, that demands effective oral and written communication?

Is success in his future? For sure, prison will not help this young victim. Neither will merely slapping him on the wrist.

Indeed, St. Petersburg’s riot-torn sector needs jobs, better housing and better schools. But the area also needs something more essential: a spiritual and intellectual transformation, without which nothing good will ever happen there. This transformation will have to flow from adults who, instead of perpetuating an ethos of dependence and anger, should inspire achievement and real self-respect, not the false pride that Carter alludes to in his letter.

Why did Carter try to destroy the church that night? Because he was lost and egged on by a handful of adults who believe that burning, looting and shooting guns will solve problems.

The National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg is one group that has the potential to save youngsters such as Carter. But instead of helping them adopt positive attitudes toward life and develop a love of learning, Uhuru members _ naively believing themselves to be revolutionaries _ are leading black children astray by filling their heads with empty rhetoric and useless ideas from another era.

The Uhurus cannot change St. Petersburg with guns and Molotov cocktails. The real revolution is one of the mind, books, computers, pencils and paper. It is one of education and teaching. But education is not glamorous, and teaching is hard, nitty-gritty work. It does not attract satellite trucks and talking heads from around the globe.

Carter’s letter is a heart-breaking reminder that many black children need the constant, personal touch of caring, mature adults committed to truth and service.

But we adults cannot help as long as we hold onto the old illusions, illusions that society owes us, that others are to blame for our problems, that white people will change for the better if we march on city hall often enough and torch our own neighborhoods.

Our worst enemy is our addiction to illusions. Human communities succeed or fail to the degree that they part with or hold onto their illusions. Listen to commentator Vladimir Pozner of the former Soviet Union, who knows something of illusions:

“Parting with illusions is a painful process, for those illusions are drugs to our thought processes. They change our perception of reality _ sometimes only slightly, like marijuana and cocaine, sometimes profoundly, like heroin and LSD. We become addicted to illusions, for they give pleasure. But when reality forces its way in, we discover that we are no longer capable of dealing with it. Like crack, illusions can kill.

“Parting with illusions is painful because there is no medication, no rehabilitation center. You do it on your own, and you do it cold turkey. And because of the pain involved, some of us never do it. The pain is caused by doubting what seemed undeniable, by questioning what seemed sacred, by contemplating the possibility of being wrong.”

Carter’s letter, a product of long-held illusions, is itself no illusion. It is hard evidence of our dismal failure to care for our children, our refusal to face reality.