In the neighborhood I grew up in, guns, knives, fists, chains and other weapons were common. I saw first hand what guns and other violence could do to a neighborhood, a family, a childhood.

On weekends, people got drunk and forgot what they had been taught at home, if they had ever been taught anything at home. As a child, I saw this behavior around me, no matter how hard my mother tried to shield me from it. The behavior was in my family. Cousins, aunts, uncles who visited sometimes had too much to drink, and sometimes started fights with each other or friends or neighbors or anyone handy.

Walking home from school, I passed five beer joints where drunks staggered to the sides of the buildings to relieve themselves in plain view. Fights were so common, we simply crossed the street to avoid being hit by flying beer bottles. My cousin was shot in the arm passing by a beer joint at mid-day. All the violence around me was hard to digest. People were saying it was because poor black people felt cheated and discriminated against; and they didn’t know any other way to handle their frustrations than violence.

Even the president wasn’t safe from the violence. President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas as I watched on television with the rest of my schoolmates. Some Americans said they were not saddened by his assassination and blamed his liberal Civil Rights policies for his death.

Kennedy_signing bill

President John F. Kennedy

At the time, I was child struggling with a life that was filled with violence. If the president of the United States could not be protected from violence, how could I feel safe? Television was filled with police violence against civil rights marchers and bus riders. Dogs were even set loose on little school children protesting Jim Crow laws.

When a man killed a cousin of mine by beating her to death with a car chain, he went to prison for about a year. I vowed to kill him when he got out, not because I was afraid of him. I felt pure vengence when I stole my grandmother’s gun from her underwear drawer. But I couldn’t find her bullets. She discovered my plan and confronted me. Later, she presented me with a Brownie camera and said, “Now, you can shoot without a gun.

Read more about Sunny Nash’s childhood in her book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, about life with her part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama, during the era of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.