‘Nobody ever chose him’: Dreams deferred for Jackson youth caught in violence cycle

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It was unusually warm and sunny on Dec. 9, 2020, as Oren D’Lonte Anderson drove his white Lexus, produced in 1998 in the same year of his birth, around his neighborhood in South Jackson. Oren had turned 22 years old just five months prior on July 26 and had spent at least 15 years of his life in and around Sloane Street behind Wingfield High School, his alma mater. 

On this same day in early December, two impalpable and seemingly invisible storms were looming. 

Mississippi was seeing a record number of COVID-19 cases. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 2,746 cases on Dec. 9, 2020. This number was approximately 1,000 cases higher than the previous day and 500 higher than the day after. Additionally, the COVID death toll that day was 24 – lower than the 56 and 42, respectively, of the adjacent days, but it brought the total of COVID deaths in Hinds County  since the pandemic started  to approximately 207. 

Also in Hinds County, in the capital city of Jackson, an epidemic with an identical proportion of concern to the coronavirus pandemic would reach an all-time high. On Dec. 9, 2020, the murder rate in Jackson would climb. By the end of the year, that murder rate escalated to a total 129 deaths for the year 2020, up from the 82 homicides of 2019. 

Oren was the city’s 123rd murder victim of 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 crisis. 

What happens to 

a dream deferred? 

Langston Hughes wrote his consummate poem, “Harlem,” in 1951 when the Black community of upper Manhattan was recovering from the tragedies of World War II. The 15th National Guard Regiment – also known as the 369th Infantry Regiment or the Harlem Hellfighters – sustained 1,500 casualties, making it the regiment with the most losses during the war, no matter the race or color. 

Additionally, Black men returned to the United States after fighting to uphold the rights of its citizens only to be turned away from receiving those same rights, treated as nothing more than second-class citizens. The Brown vs Board of Education court decision to end segregation would occur just shy of 10 years after WWII. The Voting Rights Act of 1964, which solidified the right to vote for African Americans, wouldn’t come until almost 20 years after the war ended. 

World War II may have been won for the country, but African Americans came home to a disheartening reality – the American Dream in the face of racism, police brutality, unemployment, unlivable wages and the lack of affordable housing was still unattainable for many people of color. 

Seventy  years later, that 1951 reality is symmetric to the 2020/2021 reality of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd and the highest unemployment rate in U.S. history (14.80), among other systemic issues. Tack that on to Jackson’s ever-dwindling tax base and job opportunities for youth and the ever-mounting infrastructure woes, and it’s a recipe for the explosion Hughes alludes to in the end of his poem. 

Does it dry up like a 

raisin in the sun? 

Hughes’ introduction to this existential question resounded with Lorraine Hansbury, a playwright who wrote, “A Raisin in the Sun”, in 1959.  Her fictional examination into the lives of a singular Black family created a sentient pictorial of what it is to be Black in America trying to achieve the American Dream. Providing for one’s family in all aspects of life for Black people is a road filled with obstacles, roadblocks, and, for Jacksonians, lots of potholes. 

Shannon Anderson, Oren’s mother, lived in Christian Brotherhood Homes Apartments  with her four kids – 3 boys and a girl* – from 2001 until 2007. 

In a 1979 classified ad in the Clarion Ledger, Christian Brotherhood Homes Apartments, located at 3930 Skyview Drive off of Sunset and Northside drives in Northwest Jackson, was advertised as a place for low-income families on federal assistance – a by-product of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, respectively. Two religious organizations formed the CBA as a nonprofit corporation for the express purpose of providing housing for low-income families. 

Ten years later on March 29, 1989, 21-year-old Stephen Avery Wilson was shot to death in the apartment complex; he was the fourth murder victim in less than 10 hours in the capital city that day. A year later, a man was arrested for domestic violence in the same complex. A few months later, 34-year-old Don. L. Good, who resided in the complex, was shot and killed off Pearl Street. 

In 1991, 18 kids from Brinkley Middle School got in a fight at school. Many of them lived in Christian Brotherhood Apartments and Sunset Plaza Apartments. This trend continued. In 1997, 19-year-old Robert Brown, a Bentonia native who had moved to the complex, was shot twice in the chest after two men fired into three cars and a few apartments.  

In 2001, a man was arrested with 2 kilos of cocaine in his possession. On Feb. 4, 2003, a man named Troy Younger (the irony of his last name is not lost on the writer) shot multiple times and killed 30-year-old Lucius Davis. Davis’ mother, Bernice, sued the apartment complex for wrongful death, citing that Southland Management had “knowledge of an atmosphere of violence on the premises of CBA …, a lack of security measures at CBA constituted a breach of the duty Christian Brotherhood owed to Lucius, and … the lack of security at CBA was the proximate cause of Lucius’s death.”

By the time Shannon and her family moved there,  CBA was a dilapidated and crime-infested area. But Shannon never stopped striving for a better life for her and her children. While using federal assistance, they were able to move to Horizon – a newly developed, 4-year-old apartment complex in South Jackson. 

Her eldest son was a star student, but her second son, Oren, was what Shannon Anderson describes as “a child only a mother could love.” She paid closer attention to Oren, and through much testing, she was told that Oren was emotionally disabled, or EMD. He began attending Jackson Public Schools’ Capital City Alternative School, but the behavioral problems persisted. Oren exhibited restlessness in and out of the classroom, beginning with the start of his day as he waited to catch the bus to school.

Oren would miss the bus that stopped outside Horizon that forced Shannon to have to take him to school. It became tiresome for her because she would miss work in order to make sure Oren arrived at school on time; that’s when she reached out to the Jackson Advocate for help.

Jackson Advocate Publisher Emerita Alice Tisdale-Perkins – my mother – met Oren when he was 10 years old and remembers Oren as a playful kid. “He was a cutie pie,” she said. “He was always loving to his mom, his younger sister and brother and looked up to his older brother. I was so fond to just see the gleam in his eye, knowing that he wanted the chance at life.”

Tisdale-Perkins contacted Jackson Public Schools, who she says was very cooperative, and they allowed her to watch and wait for Oren to catch the bus in the mornings. 

“Sometimes the bus was up to an hour late, and so Oren would get fidgety and walk around the apartment complex. Of course, when the bus came, he was nowhere to be found, and the bus would proceed to leave.” Tisdale-Perkins suggested that the bus drive into the apartment complex, figuring that he wouldn’t miss it because he’d see it. Oren never missed the bus again. 

Or fester like a sore – 

and then run? 

Though one problem was solved, Oren still struggled inside the classroom. When other children achieved honor roll, Oren lashed out. He kicked chairs and tables and occasionally even teachers and the principal. The literal Methylphenidate Transdermal, or Ritalin, patch Oren wore on his shoulder every day seemed to translate into a figurative chip.

“Mental health played a role in his life. He was always at a disadvantage,” Tisdale-Perkins said. “He was always trying to come up out of the current and never really stood a chance. But we know that there are some who do, and we have to continue to try.”  

During the instance where Oren kicked the principal, the principal called Tisdale-Perkins. “She was in a panic. They had security at the school, but somehow they just could not manage him, so they called me to come in,” she recalled. “I just took one look at him, and he knew he had to do better. He knew I was disappointed in his behavior.” 

Or crust and sugar over – 

like a syrupy sweet? 

I also met Oren when he was 10 years old. While going through old Facebook Messenger text chains from 2013, I stumbled across one from Oren: 

Oren: hey how r u doin there

DeAnna: hey Oren!! How are you sweetie?

Oren: great im in high school were r u

DeAnna: what high school are you attending? I live in Boston, Massachusetts now.

Oren: wingfield

Oren: it ok school

DeAnna: That’s cool! Do you like your teachers?

Oren: yes all of them

DeAnna: That’s good are you trying out for any sports?

Oren: jit jitus [jiu jitsu]

DeAnna: That’s awesome! I wish I knew jiu jitsu!

Oren: what is it tell me about

DeAnna: I thought you knew about it. I just know it’s some form of karate.

Oren: no it no fight it submission

DeAnna: hmm….that’s interesting. What’s the difference?

Oren: don’t know

DeAnna: I understand. Maybe I’ll Wikipedia it. 

One Google search later reveals that submissions are “one of the key features of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), and represent instant victory and feelings of accomplishment for those who successfully submit their opponent,”  as www.bjjsuccess.com explained it. 

Oren eventually left the alternative school. The family moved into a house on Maria Drive in South Jackson. By the time Oren attended Wingfield High School, they’d moved to a house off Sharon Drive. He would later graduate from Wingfield, an accomplished feat for someone told he would never advance past the comprehension of a 10-year-old’s mind. His mother, Shannon, beams with pride when she talks about Oren’s high school graduation and his subsequent 2017 graduation from Hinds Community College where he received both a Career Certificate and a Technical Certificate in Welding and Cutting Technology. 

“The way he was looking at that diploma … he was more proud of that high school diploma than that college degree. He never posted his college degree, but he posted that high school graduation. He loved Wingfield,” she said in an interview. 

One could say that Oren gradually learned the BJJ principle of submission, applied it to his life, and was on his way to becoming a productive adult. 

“When he would achieve something like a good score on the test, he (was) always willing to share that information,” Tisdale-Perkins said. “He wanted what most kids want in life. All that stems from just figuring out how he learned and giving him a chance. When he graduated, people were surprised. He was doing well and was working and being productive.”

But like many young people like Oren, life can turn fast. “Then you get off track, and you don’t have all the encouragement that you need from all sources – that’s family, community, church –not having all those elements working together,” Tisdale-Perkins said.

“And so you slip through the cracks, and of course, he slipped and fell.”  

Oren worked various jobs, including construction, welding, and plumbing jobs at places like McLain Plumbing and Hinds Community College. But as Jay-Z stresses in his 2003 release, “Allure”: The game is a lightbulb with eleventy-million volts

And I’m just a moth addicted to the floss

The doors lift from the floor and the tops come off

By any means necessary, whatever the cost

Even if it means lives is lost… 

I mean even James Dean couldn’t escape the allure

Dying young, leaving a good-lookin’ corpse, of course 

Oren would begin selling marijuana and hanging out a little bit more in the streets of Jackson to make more money. 

Does it stink like rotten meat? 

Just two weeks prior to Oren’s death, Shannon Anderson prepared a full feast of chicken, greens, dressing, cornbread, sweet potato casserole, pie, pound cake  and strawberry cake for her four children during the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday. 

For the first and only time, Oren held his 4-month-old nephew with a proud smile on his face and a protective hold like he was afraid to drop him. Shannon was able to take a picture to capture the moment. 

“Oren was begging to hold him. And (his sister) was so scared to let Oren hold him because she thought he didn’t know how to hold him,” Shannon described. “But this (picture) is the only thing I’ll ever have to show (my grandson). And how proud he was looking at him. He was looking at him like a gift. He has Oren’s fingers, and he loves sweets. Oren loved sweets.” 

Earlier the day Oren was murdered, he stopped by his mother’s house to shower and change clothes. Shannon saw Oren every day since they lived just around the corner from one another. “I was baking chicken wings, and he had turned the stove off so I told him I’d left it on because I had taken his brother to work,” she said. “I scolded him, saying I was going to lock my home up because I didn’t want them running in and out. I didn’t know I’d never see him alive again.” 

After talking with his mom, Oren turned to exit out the back door. That’s when Shannon noticed he had a gun on his side. She asked him what it was and why he needed it but, in a polite tone, he answered that nothing was wrong. “I didn’t ask where he was going. I should have,” she laments. One of the last words Shannon would hear from Oren were “yes, ma’am.” 

From what is known, at around 11 a.m., Oren met up with a few acquaintances in his old neighborhood in the 2200 block of Sloane Street. He later got into a physical altercation with what is assumed to be three boys. Oren threatened them with his pistol but later rescinded the threat. He turned his back, got in his car, and shots were fired into the back of the car. 

Shannon received a frantic call from her daughter at around 11:30 a.m. Oren had been in an accident, she said. “We were trying to figure out what it was, and then it was on Facebook. I’m looking for it on Facebook. And I see the post.” 

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load 

Shannon traveled to the scene of her son’s death. “It is your worst nightmare. You come thinking that your child is in an accident, and when you get there, they won’t let you see him. So, you kind of know. You only have seconds to prepare yourself,” she said. 

Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart confirms that Oren died of a bullet wound. The documentation that Shannon was able to view alludes to the altercation as an illegal drug transaction where Oren participated in his own death. Neither the Jackson Police Department nor the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office responded to calls to verify this information. 

His mother believes that Oren knew and trusted the people who shot him. “Oren died with his eyes open. He was looking to the right. He was looking at that killer. He was looking at them,” she said. 

“They opened the side of that door, and they shot him. The bullet that hit his neck hit a main artery and killed him. That was somebody he trusted. When I saw Oren laying there on that gurney when Sharon Grisham opened it up, Oren had a tear coming out of his eye. And I kept it right there on his face. I buried him with that tear.”

Shannon bathed her son. She lined his hair and washed his dreads. “He was a king to me. He will always be my heart and a part of me I buried,” she said. “They don’t even have no vocabulary word for this. They got a widow. They got a widower. They got an orphan. What do they call a mother that loses a child? It’s not supposed to happen. Every day that you live without your child, a part of you dies.” 

Or does it explode? 

Shannon’s own mother, Lucille Virginia Anderson, lost her second eldest daughter, Thelma Lee Anderson, to domestic violence in 1987. “My heart has been ripped and torn to pieces, and I just couldn’t imagine nothing but how my mama felt,” Shannon told me. 

The death of Shannon’s sister shook the entire family, the effects reverberating still today. Shannon grew up in Virden Addition until her sister was murdered. Shannon was just 10 years old. That same year she was ripped away from her mother when the Department of Human Services intervened and labeled her mother as unfit to raise her. 

She lived with her father, Robert Earl Lindsey, Sr., until she was in seventh grade. Then she lived with her oldest sister, Judy, for a year, and eventually entered the foster-care system, moving around from place to place until another sister, Tonji, who lived in Milwaukee, Wis., petitioned the court to take custody of her. She lived there until she moved back to Jackson in 1997, a year before Oren’s birth. 

“I watched that destroy my mama. The shell of her that was left … people don’t know … the death of a child can really deteriorate a parent mentally and physically in every other aspect of their life,” Shannon said. “Every second that I’m not busy, Oren comes on my mind. You just can’t imagine your life without your child. But it’s something that you have to get used to,” a tearful Shannon added. 

A year later, Shannon and her children try to keep Oren’s memory alive. Shannon sleeps with a pillowcase that has a collage of Oren’s pictures on it. Her daughter wove some of Oren’s dreads into her own hair. And her eldest son, unfortunately, may pay the ultimate price yet for upholding and honoring his brother’s memory. He turned himself in and was charged with murdering who he believes was involved in his brother’s death – retaliation that is not unusual for young people trapped in cycles of crime. However, police have made no arrest nor identified suspects in Oren’s case. 

But Shannon fears the day that she’s unable to remember Oren as vividly as she does now. “It becomes a memory. And what happens to your memory after so many years? It fades,” she said. “You don’t remember things when you were 5 years old. It fades, and people don’t talk about it anymore because it’s a memory. No matter how many years I think back, my sister’s death hurt me. That was the first hurt at 10. My mama’s death hurt me at 39, but I forgot about that death. It faded. When I buried my child, I buried a whole piece of my heart.”

In Hansberry’s play, the matriarch of the family, Lena Younger, her son Walter Lee Younger, and her daughter Beneatha Younger move into a house in the white neighborhood despite one of their neighbor’s attempts to buy them out so they won’t move there. This comes after Walter gives much of his father’s insurance money to Willy, who runs away with it, leaving both Walter’s investment dreams and Berneatha’s career dreams to dry up … just like a raisin in the sun. Though they are seemingly off to begin a better life, the end of the play leaves the audience to ponder if their dreams are ever realized.  

“Oren was my favorite child because nobody ever chose him. I had to choose him. And I went around this whole city seeking and advocating help for that boy,” she said. And in the end, it was help she could not find for him. “I watched him do what a lot of EMD children with those kinds of rulings couldn’t do. To sit there and have all those struggles before he was 11 and then (now) to know that I only had 11 more years. 

“They was good, but I was expecting a lifetime with him. I was ready to see grandchildren and all of that. He had a girlfriend; he had moved out. I was expecting to see marriage at some point. It’s like a deferred dream,” Oren’s mother said. 

“I’ll never know what it’s like to hold his baby. I’ll never get to look at a child in the eyes and say, ‘Oh, he got Oren’s eyes; he’s got Oren’s hair; he’s got Oren’s hands. That’s just what aches at my soul.”

So, “what happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?” 

*Oren’s siblings’ names are withheld at the request of his mother Shannon Anderson.

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson has stepped into the role of publisher of her family legacy, the Jackson Advocate. Since March 2020, she has led the publication to once again become an award-winning newspaper with a new logo and website to boot. She is a Jackson native, graduating from Murrah High School and Tougaloo College. She is also classically trained in vocal performance, and, though she’s never broken a glass, she’s known to still hit a high note or two.

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‘Nobody ever chose him’: Dreams deferred for Jackson youth caught in violence cycle

By DeAnna Tisdale Johnson
January 12, 2022