Lafayette and Pharoah grow up in a public housing complex in Chicago where gun violence—the result of drug trafficking and gang rivalry—is part of ordinary life. Everyone at Henry Horner Homes grows up knowing friends and family members who have either been killed or have joined the ranks of brutal gangs. Even though many people in the neighborhood build resilience and develop techniques to deal with the frequent shootings and aggression, There are No Children Here argues that the greatest violence children face at Horner is not necessarily physical but, rather, mental and emotional. While a fatal bullet can take away a child’s life in an instant, the constant threat of death can slowly destroy life from within, forcing children to give up their childlike innocence and joy in the simple effort to survive. This less visible, more pernicious effect of violence is just as cruel and unfair as death itself, as it deprives children the opportunity to actually be children.
Children at Horner are forced to deal with the near-constant threat of death. However, the mental and emotional pain they face as a result of their violent neighborhood is just as detrimental—and sometimes more so—than the physical violence itself. During the course of their childhood, Lafayette and Pharoah are often forced to hide near school, in their building, and even within the enclosed space of their own home in order to escape shootings unscathed. In the apartment, they know to lie down on the hallway floor, far from windows, whenever the sound of gunfire is heard, as bullets have gone through the apartment in the past. These automatic physical reactions reveal the customary nature of violence in their neighborhood. In this way, the boys have to constantly deal with the mental and emotional impacts of hiding from the bullets rather than the physical impacts of the bullets themselves.
Pharoah refuses to even acknowledge the violence and injustice that makes up his everyday life, which is a coping technique that puts him under severe mental and emotional strain. He soon develops a stutter whose intensity is directly related to his fear, showing how his mental and emotional pain slowly corrodes even his speech. By contrast, Rickey, one of Pharoah’s friends, paradoxically reacts to violence by immersing himself deeper into it, showing that the emotional impact of violence is just as dangerous as the violence itself. “Often, when Rickey became embroiled in a fight, he began to relive [his friend] Bird Leg’s last minutes, and as he did so, his anger turned to rage. In class, he once choked another child so long and hard that, in the words of Pharoah, ‘he put him to sleep.’” Rickey turns his frustration and pain regarding the violence that surrounds him into more violence.
One of the less visible, more pernicious effects of violence is the way in which it deprives young children of their own youth. Physical violence—and its mental and emotional repercussions—forces children to grow up too quickly, thus essentially “killing” their right to exist as carefree, curious children. Overwhelmed by the stress of helping his mother cope with violence and poverty, Lafeyette finds that his role as his mother’s confidant weighs heavily on him, and he soon loses much of his youthful energy and innocence. “The things I should of been talking to Paul about I was talking to Lafie. […] [He] became a twelve-year-old man,” LaJoe confesses. The strain of family life thus places Lafeyette in an awkward position between child and adult. While he sometimes refuses to engage in what he considers childish activities, at other times he expresses regret for not being able to behave as an ordinary child.
Immersed in violence at a young age, Rickey soon decides to join gang life. “Rickey told Lafeyette he wished he were younger, that he were eight years old again. ‘Just to skip over things that I did,’ he told him. To make different choices. Rickey mourned for his lost childhood.” Rickey realizes that his early experiences with violence have marked him for life, depriving him of a period of innocence in which he could have chosen a different future for himself.
After the brutal deaths of various close friends, Lafeyette feels that death can strike at any moment, regardless of how well one behaves in life. “I ain’t doing nothing, I could get killed, or if not get killed I might go to jail for something I didn’t do. I could die any minute,” Lafeyette concludes. Grappling with the mental and emotional impacts of violence makes Lafeyette feel that life is purposeless. Instead of enjoying a carefree childhood, Lafeyette is forced to process a great deal of emotional trauma and accept the inevitability of his death. Although death is cruel in taking away the physical lives of those who have died, the constant threat of death is sometimes equally cruel. This threat, along with the emotional pain that accompanies it, permanently cripples the children at Horner.
Violence and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Violence and Growing Up Quotes in There Are No Children Here
I asked Lafeyette what he wanted to be. “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver,” he told me. If, not when. At the age of ten, Lafeyette wasn’t sure he’d make it to adulthood.
They have joined gangs, sold drugs, and, in some cases, inflicted pain on others. But they have also played baseball and gone on dates and shot marbles and kept diaries. For, despite all they have seen and done, they are—and we must constantly remind ourselves of this—still children.
But though the isolation and the physical ruin of the area’s stores and homes had discouraged LaJoe, it was her family that had most let her down. Not that she could separate the two. Sometimes she blamed her children’s problems on the neighborhood; at other times, she attributed the neighborhood’s decline to the change in people, to the influx of drugs and violence.
Cleaning house was the only way she could clear her mind, to avoid thinking about what might happen or what might have been. It was cathartic in demanding focus and concentration. She scrubbed and washed and rearranged furniture, particularly when things got tense—with family problems, shootings, and deaths. The kids knew to stay out of her way, except for Lafeyette, who, like his mother, also found cleaning a useful distraction.
Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the other children knew to keep their distance from Jimmie Lee. But they also knew that he and no one else—not the mayor, the police, or the housing authority—ruled Henry Horner. The boys never had reason to speak to Lee or to meet him, but his very presence and activities ruled their lives.
Even at Horner, the viciousness of this slaying unnerved people. By summer’s end, as the Vice Lords established their dominance, the war had touched the lives of almost everyone living in Henry Horner. Lafeyette and Pharoah, as well as the adults, began talking of the “death train” that drove smack through their community.
Often, when Rickey became embroiled in a fight, he began to relive Bird Leg’s last minutes, and as he did so, his anger turned to rage. In class, he once choked another child so long and hard that, in the words of Pharoah, “he put him to sleep.” These flashbacks, which were nor unlike those of a traumatized war veteran, haunted Rickey for well over a year after Bird Leg’s death.
Because he had lately responded to nearly every instance of violence and family trouble with the same refrain—“I’m too little to understand”—she feared that the problems, when he was at last ready to confront them, would be too deeply buried for him to resolve. Now, though, she was convinced that Pharoah’s attitude gave him some peace of mind and the strength to push on, so she avoided burdening him with stories of hardship.
“The things I should of been talking to Paul about I was talking to Lafie,” LaJoe said. “I put him in a bad place. But I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Lafie,” she said, regretfully, “became a twelve-year-old man that day.”
“To treat this as a cause célèbre, to give this man some long, long term in prison, is not going to change the narcotics problem. I wish I knew the answer—maybe some form of legalization, something to take the profit out of it. I don’t know. But I know it doesn’t stop it by giving people long terms in prison.”
Pharoah became more alert and prudent. He had never stolen anything. Nor had he ever gotten into any trouble other than talking in class. He wanted it to stay that way. The best way was to hang out more by himself. Pharoah decided he no longer had any friends. Like his brother, he just had associates.
“You don’t have no friends in the projects,” he said. “They’ll turn you down for anything.”
They didn’t listen. They didn’t understand. So if they thought he was a bad guy, if they wanted him to be a bad guy, then he’d be a bad guy. If they wanted to put him away for something he didn’t do, then he’d give them something to put him away with. It was a tangled and tragic life that had got him into trouble. It was his own confused method of seeking justice.
Pharoah realized that something was terribly wrong. He didn’t want to ask. No one seemed to care about his spelling bee triumph. No one wanted to hear what he had to say. Dutt was weeping. Lafeyette, while he had one ear to the conversation, stared vacantly out the window; he didn’t even congratulate Pharoah. LaJoe tucked Pharoah’s red ribbon into her pocketbook.
Memories for Lafeyette became dangerous. He recalled nothing of Bird Leg’s funeral. He couldn’t remember the names of any of the performers at the talent show. He sometimes had trouble recounting what he had done just the day before in school. Shutting out the past was perhaps the only way he could go forward or at least manage the present. Besides, he knew, nothing could bring Craig back.
She had seen Terence change in the year she had known him. He had hardened. The weight lifting made him look older and more menacing. He seemed more defiant. “When I first saw him he was a little kid. He was soft-looking and soft-spoken,” she said. She didn’t think a long sting in jail would do him any good.