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Kenny Lee: a Profile in Despair

In the aftermath of a young black man's murder, tragic tale of two selves emerges

KENNETH DWAYNE LEE was shot to death on a chameleon of a Washington corner: placid and unremarkable by day, sinister and dangerous by night.At 28, the man whose friends called him "Waterman" was shot on the night of April 10th, apparently while trying to hold up a man who turned out to be an armed private policeman. The precise circumstances are murky, but, in any case, one black man was killed by another. "The leading killer of black men is other young black men," says United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan. In a way, Kenny Lee was like the chameleon corner on which he died: He changed back and forth, too, from model youth to drug user and seller to a man who finally was getting his life together. Then, unaccountably, that last night he relapsed, resumed drinking, and tried to commit the holdup that killed him and so wounded his family. "I used to look at TV [news accounts of deaths of young black men] and ask myself how their parents felt," says his mother, Rosie Lee, with a far-off look in her eyes. "Now I know." Sometimes called an endangered species, young black males like Kenny Lee are being shot - and killed - in increasing numbers in Washington and other cities across the nation. "A young black male has a 1-in-21 chance of being murdered before he reaches 21," Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, a clinical psychologist, recently told the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Reaching 21 is no guarantee, either, as Kenny's family learned to its sorrow. By early next century, young black and other minority men will represent much of the manpower needed to fuel the American economic engine. For these economic as well as the higher moral reasons, many people are recognizing that the nation must find ways to bring the Kenny Lees who inhabit the streets and alleys back into the workplace. Through congressional hearings and the government-established 21st Century Commission on African-American Males, Washington is trying to figure out how to stop the killings of America's Kenny Lees and restore them to productive lives. The root of the problems of black males today lies within the incorrect views of white people, and the solution is for whites to change their thinking, says Clifford Alexander, former secretary of the Army. "You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us.... Because of the negative perceptions that you have accepted about black men... [they] become the people whom you most want to avoid." The violence and self-destructive behavior of young black men "are merely symptoms of a deeper malady - a malady of the soul," Mr. Sullivan recently told the commission. "At the heart of these symptoms is a pervasive sense of disconnectedness and despair. Many African-American men have been beaten down by job discrimination, under-employment, and joblessness." But the despair that precipitated Kenny's decline apparently was more personal than economic: the death four years ago of his father, to whom he was very close. When Kenny was growing up, his father and mother had done their best to keep him on the straight and narrow. He had a curfew, went to church, and was restricted to his own block to keep him away from trouble zones. As a preteen he was "a real nice guy," says longtime friend Julian Young, who met him 16 years ago. "Just nice. Very nice." But in 11th grade, Kenny dropped out of school and worked at various odd jobs, especially painting and repairing automobiles. Often he worked with his father. DURING these years, Kenny "was good with his hands," says Michelle Jones, his sister. "If anything was broke, he could fix it. That was a guarantee." Like many young men, he loved sports. What he most liked to do was "play basketball [and] football," says Donna Furtrell, the mother of his three young children. "Football was his favorite." "He could do a lot of things," says his mother, a woman of great grace. "That's why it was so hard to see him throw his life away." But when his father died, that's what he started to do. "Our father was like the guidance for him," sister Michelle says, "and once he passed, Kenny just got off on the wrong track." Before long, he lived on the streets or in cars, got into fights, and once was shot in the leg. He started using drugs, then selling them. One time when Kenny dropped in on his mother "he was irrational ... and out of it," she says. Thinking he was ill she called the police for help; they told her he was on drugs. She pleaded with them to take him to a hospital drug program, "but they said they couldn't, that he had to go himself." He wouldn't. The law-enforcement system would pick him up but not insist that he be treated for drug abuse, his mother says. Once he was arrested for driving someone else's car, but he was back on the street within a day. "All they had to do was look at him and see he needed help," she says. Later he sought help from a drug rehabilitation program, but it wouldn't accept him. It had a long waiting list. "What we really need is more drug programs," his mother says sorrowfully. "There are a lot of young people crying for help, and there's no place to help them." After his father's death "you could tell he was hurting," Mr. Young says. "He wasn't the Kenny I used to know.... He just didn't care [about anything]. He didn't care no more." "He kind of distanced himself from everybody," Ms. Furtrell says. In the weeks before his killing, there had been reason to hope as well as fear. A friend had given him a place to live. "My [other] brother was telling me that he had a haircut," Michelle says. "He was dressing nice, he was spending time with the fellows again - he hadn't been doing that. So to me it looked like he was getting back on the right track." "He looked like he had years ago," Young says. "He looked like he was trying to tighten up." "He had cleaned himself up, showered and all, and was keeping himself clean," his mother says. "He called me the Monday before he was killed and said he was doing real good." He spoke of plans to attend sister Michelle's wedding in three weeks. "He told me he loved me," his mother says quietly. "And he told me he would see me later.... It made me feel good, because it took him so long to get himself together." But Kenny never did see his mother again: Within two days he was dead. No one knows for certain why Kenny regressed the day of his killing. But the anniversary of his father's death always upset him, and it was only two days away. Perhaps Kenny, ambivalent about his future, just gave up. A week earlier he told a cousin "he was tired, so tired he wanted to die," his mother says. Of the night's drinking and holdup she says: "I think he just went out and did what he did because he didn't want to live anymore." Deeply affected by Kenny's death, his nine-year-old son, DeJuan, wrote and delivered a eulogy at the funeral. "Though you wasn't always here when we needed you, you were there when it meant the most," he said manfully, his uncle's hand on his shoulder for support. "You know we will always love you. For all the good times and bad times we shared, we always knew you cared.... "We know you meant well and changed your ways. For what we learned will someday give good pay in our life. We love you daddy and always will."

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