Kweisi R.L. Dunlap, an intense-looking 30-year-old with stiletto sideburns curving down his cheeks, starts by giving the kids at the James R. Jordan Boys & Girls Club the same line as most other motivational speakers: stay in school, get good grades, go to college. Suddenly he pauses, then in a dramatic voice says, "On January 11, 1992, my younger brother, Lemont, was kidnapped, taken to a vacant lot, and shot once in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun."
The 30 teenagers lounging on couches in the club's game room gape at him.
Kweisi starts to recite the first poem he ever wrote, which was inspired by his half brother's autopsy photo. "His Face," he says, leaning forward and reaching out with his hand to mark the beat.
The right side of his head had a hole in it
the size of a grapefruit.
The ear on the right side of his head was
Lemont didn't even look like him.
If only you could see.
When he finishes reading, Kweisi holds up a copy of his book N'nocent Rage, which includes, among poems and letters, the photo of Lemont's head. He wants the kids to see the still-wet blood leaking out of his brother's temple, the shocked look on his face, the gaping mouth, the eyes that, hours after death, still ask why.
When his brother was shot, Kweisi--the name he chose in college to clearly identify himself as African-American--was at a party on the campus of Central State University in Ohio, where he was studying marketing. "I was preparing to be a sales representative or go into advertising," he says. "I wanted to be in corporate America."
Just after dawn the next day one of Kweisi's fraternity brothers called him to the phone. His sister Rosetta shouted, "Somebody kidnapped Lemont!"
It was a five-hour trip back to his family's home on Chicago's south side, but Kweisi made it in three. As he drove, the Boyz II Men song "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye" came on the radio. He wept. He says he knew then that his brother was dead.
"When I got home and walked in the door, my mom and sister Rosetta said that the kidnappers had killed Lemont," he says. "I just turned around like 'Damn, no they didn't.' My mother and sister embraced me and started crying. I held back my tears for my mother's sake, 'cause I knew she would be looking toward me for the family's overall strength and support."
The newspapers called Lemont's murder a case of mistaken identity. The reports said that around 11 PM, Jonathan Judkins and Eric Taylor, two gangbangers from Harvey, were cruising up and down Lowe Avenue in Riverdale, looking for Gangster Disciples. Lemont was standing in front of his family's house, talking to a friend. The two men threatened the girl, and when Lemont stood up for her, they forced him into the car. After driving around for half an hour, Judkins and Taylor ordered Lemont to strip naked, then shot him in the head. His body was dumped in a vacant lot in Dixmoor, two miles away.
After the funeral Kweisi went back to college. He got his degree, moved to Cincinnati, and found work selling vacuum cleaners and water-filtration systems. But his life wasn't fulfilling, and he knew his mother was seriously depressed about Lemont's murder and the upcoming trial. "When I was living in Cincinnati I used to ask myself, 'Why don't I have a woman?'" he says. "Then my grandmother called and said I needed to come home, that my mom was crying all the time and stressed out. One day I woke up and realized, 'Who is this woman I need to be sharing this with? That's my mother.'"
Kweisi came home to live in his mother's new house in Blue Island. She'd moved because she couldn't bear to live on the street where her son had been abducted. At school Kweisi had started drinking 40-ouncers of beer or fifths of Cisco to help him sleep without having a recurring dream about killing Judkins and Taylor. Now he added marijuana to that nightly anesthetic and began "pursuing physical relationships with women." He would spend hours in his room staring at Lemont's senior picture, blaming himself, his mother, his race. "I hated my family," he says. "I hated my mom for teaching us to be Goody Two-shoes, 'cause if she hadn't I'd still have a brother. I felt guilty for beating up my brother, because I thought that made him passive. I had a lot of hate and anguish toward black people. I hated black women. I would look at them subconsciously and say, 'You're responsible for Lemont's death.'"
Twice, he says, he was "seconds away" from suicide. Then, as the family was preparing for the trial, the prosecutor showed him the autopsy photo. He sat down to write a poem about it. "I was angry, I was mad as hell," he says. "When I started writing, it taught me how to deal with my anger--you don't keep it bottled in. When I don't have anyone to talk to, I have that pen and paper. Even thoughts of suicide. I committed suicide on paper to save my life."
Every Thursday Kweisi goes to Roosevelt High School, on West Wilson, to lecture the in-school suspension group--kids who've been sent to detention for wearing a hat, fighting, not dressing for gym, not standing for the pledge of allegiance. During one recent visit he makes his way through the worn hallways to the little classroom on the second floor and is stopped every few seconds by a student calling his name. "How you doin'?" he says, hugging a girl. "Peace."
Wearing his usual outfit of jeans, a shell necklace, and a black T-shirt with a screaming face and the word RAGE, Kweisi tells the 22 kids in detention that if they don't like their classrooms, the government has got another room ready for them: a jail cell. "I got a word for kids who don't pay attention in school," he shouts. "Pimps bein' pimped, players bein' played, and macks bein' macked. In short, you're a ho. People gettin' paid off you, and you're not benefiting. Next time you're in school and you're kickin' it and you're not payin' attention, I want you to think, 'I'm a ho.' You know that 1.9 million people are in jail? Over 80 percent of the people in prisons are high school dropouts. They build prisons based on the dropout rate. It costs 60 Gs to incarcerate you, 12 Gs to educate you. Where do you think the system wants you?"
"In jail," says one student.
"In jail. If you think you're a pimp bein' pimped and a mack bein' macked now, wait'll you go to jail and become someone's ho."
After detention is over, Damaris Quinones, a spunky 15-year-old who met Kweisi earlier in the school year when she was sent to in-school for mouthing off in class, leads him to her locker. She rarely gets in trouble now, but she still shows up at detention to listen to Kweisi. She takes out a piece of notebook paper and reads a poem she's written for him.
To whom it concerns
It only concerns you
I'd like to thank you
for being so true
You are an inspiration
To all old and new
You let out your anger
And let your mind
You encourage people
to do what's right.
You showed the way
I should let it out.
And for that I
write this out.
After she finishes reading, Kweisi gives her a hug. "I'm coming to school now," she tells him. "I'm on contract, so I'm going to class every day."
"She's one of those who's had a big turnaround," says Terrance Jakubiec, the teacher who supervises the in-school detention. "She was in there two or three times a week. She was out of control in the classroom. I'd say she comes in a lot less. I'd say a great deal has to do with [Kweisi]. She has a great deal of admiration for what he's trying to do."
For seven years Kweisi has been speaking in schools, most of which pay him a small fee. Sometimes he appears on behalf of Hands Without Guns, a citywide antiviolence project. "He brings a more personal touch, because of losing his brother and turning his anger into compassion," says Claude Robinson, who coordinates the project. "I think that's one of the things with experiencing tragedy--sometimes people come through it and become better."
But most often he speaks as part of the program he started, Let It Out, which is aimed at reducing violence by teaching kids to express themselves. Sometime he asks the kids to keep journals. Sometimes he just lets them talk. "Sometimes when we don't express what we feel," he says, "we let it out in violence."
His mother, Diane Dunlap Reese, thinks his work is a worthy memorial to Lemont. "I know he helps a lot of different kids," she says. "They call him, they write letters. He's brought kids here. He's not gonna get rich off it, but if it helps somebody, if it can save a kid in a certain situation, that's good."
A few years ago, while giving a Let It Out presentation at Julian High School on the south side, Kweisi met Malachi Holmes. After the class ended Holmes wrote Kweisi a one-paragraph letter saying his parents had abandoned him. He also wrote that one of his brothers was in jail, the other was selling drugs, and he didn't want to end up like either of them. Kweisi called Holmes, encouraged him to write poetry, and invited him to read with him at local high schools and colleges.
"I was one of those kids--I would have shot my brother for his shoes," says Holmes. Now he's a freshman at the University of Iowa, and this semester he's in Venezuela studying Spanish. "He made me a better person. College was far-fetched from my life. I had hardly been beyond a five-mile radius from my house. He just exposed me to something different. 'It's a bigger world you're in than the world you know.'"
"He's like my little brother," says Kweisi, his voice cracking. "When Lemont was killed, I knew there wasn't gonna be anybody who wanted to be like me. The things that I did for Malachi, I would have done for Lemont."
Kweisi is a celebrity in Chicago's hip-hop poetry community, known as much for his performances as his words. From 1993 to 1997 he did "phood pha tha souL" on WGCI, one-minute inspirational messages that were broadcast five days a week. They included epigrams such as "When you face your fears you become a river flowing to the sea" and "What's from the heart in you is felt in the heart of others." The spots always ended with the same line: "Think about it. Livelovelifelearn." He has read his work on television with Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States, and onstage with Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate of Illinois.
Kweisi sometimes shocks black audiences by appearing at churches and clubs in a white robe and a hood, trying to make the point that "us killing each other the way we have, we are more a threat to each other than the KKK." He would read his poem "BLAKMAN," which starts like this:
where are U today
are we so afraid of Life's challenges that we
kontinue to runaway
runnin' away to krime, theft, drugs, drug
sellin', violence and the mental and the
rape of ourselves and our BLAKWOMEN
where are U today
when are we goin' to stop killin' and shootin'
don't we realize we are taking someone's son
Kweisi also shocks audiences by painting his face white, except for raccoon circles around the eyes and broad teardrops. He calls himself the "boogieman"--white America's scapegoat for the violence in this country.
kallin' me the boogieman
what about waco man
kallin' me the boogieman
what about those montanamenz man
kallin' me the boogieman
what about the unabomber man
"Kweisi's pretty well known, he's pretty popular," says poet Buddha Blessed, who has read with him. "He was named the number one spoken-word artist at the Chicago Music Awards. He's really tapped a gift he didn't know he had, and he's just run with it."
Kweisi says that in college the only poem he ever read was William Earnest Henley's "Invictus," which he had to memorize for his fraternity initiation. Poetry didn't interest him. "Wasn't a fan of it," he says. "Didn't write it."
He says he writes for one reason: because he wants people to stop shooting each other. Poetry took him by surprise the day he looked into his dead brother's face. He says it's now the thing that keeps him alive. "Poetry has given me my justice, my revenge--fighting that evil spirit."
One cold afternoon in March, Kweisi drives his car past the places where Lemont spent the last half hour of his life. First he stops in front of a row of run-down town houses on the 13600 block of South Lowe and makes his way toward a tall, sturdy silver maple. He calls it the "tree of life." It's where Lemont and his friend were standing when the killers approached them.
"Eric got out of the car, approached her," Kweisi says. "She stepped back. Eric pulled out a sawed-off 12-gauge. Lemont said, 'What's goin' on?' He told her to run home. Eric said, 'Yo dude, we got something to talk about.' Eric forced him into the car. They made him take off his clothes. Eric shot him execution-style right in the head."
Less than an hour after the shooting, Lemont's body was found in a vacant lot at 142nd and Lincoln. There's a house on the lot now, but it's still a sacred spot for Kweisi. He says that when he was still drinking and getting high to deal with Lemont's death, "I would go to where Lemont was shot. I would sit there for hours at a time. Sometimes I'd cry, think, 'Why not me? Why didn't you do this to me?'"
His last stop is Cedar Park Cemetery, where Lemont is buried in an unmarked grave. The family is still saving for the right memorial, a marker with the words "Beloved Son: In Memory of James Lemar Ford"--Lemont was his nickname--and his senior portrait.
Lemont's killers were captured two weeks after the murder, when police spotted them driving a stolen car on the south side. Judkins was wearing Lemont's pants and shoes. Just the day before, they'd murdered a man in Harvey. The day before that, they'd robbed and shot a woman on 147th Street. Both men were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
While Judkins and Taylor were still in Cook County Jail awaiting trial for their other murder, Kweisi sent them letters--which are reprinted in his book--asking if he could visit.
"I am kweisi," he wrote. "I am writing you this letter because I would like to meet and forgive you for the murder of my younger brother James Lemar Ford. During our meeting, if you choose, you do not have to say or admit anything. I would just like the opportunity to express my personal and phamily pain and hurt. And in turn, make peace with you."
His mother thought he was crazy to want to talk to them, just as she thought he was crazy to tell the prosecutor that they shouldn't get the death penalty. "I didn't like it," she says. "Those are his feelings. Those aren't my feelings. Myself, they can rot in hell. They'd never admit that they did it or not. They wore his clothes. They didn't have any remorse."
Judkins talked to Kweisi on the phone once, for ten minutes. Taylor let Kweisi visit him several times. But he wasn't interested in forgiveness. He wanted Kweisi to find Lemont's friend so she could testify that he wasn't one of the kidnappers.
"He never really admitted that he did it," Kweisi says. "But that wasn't my goal. It was to make peace and forgive him. He told me, 'Kweisi, you've been here more often than my family.' I was joyous in a sense and kind of glad that I could face my fear. I did it, I did it. It was like I won a championship."
Forgiving violence is the most controversial part of Kweisi's message. He once went on the talk show Rolonda to argue with a man who joined the NRA after his son was murdered but failed to persuade him that buying a gun was the wrong response. And when he speaks to a class at Taft High School on the far northwest side in March, almost no one agrees with the concept of walking away from a fight. "People push your buttons on purpose," one girl argues. "At the beginning of the school year this boy was throwing pennies. I got in a fight with him, and I got suspended four days. It kept messin' with me that I didn't do anything about it."
"It's not important what happens to you," Kweisi tells her. "What's important is how you deal with it."
"If you walk away, everybody gonna pick with you--'cause they think you're a punk," she says.
"You're letting other people define you by what they say about you," Kweisi tells her. "People tell me I'm soft because of what I do, 'cause I met the brother that killed my brother. It has made me stronger to do that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.