Growing up in rural South Carolina, Sharmaine Brown was used to seeing firearms in her family’s farmhouse.
Her father kept a shotgun primarily to fend off predators that tried to prey on the calves, hogs, goats and chickens he raised. But the gun also gave her father and the family a sense of security. As an African-American man who’d grown up in the segregated South, where racial violence was a reality, he felt he needed the protection a firearm could offer, Brown said.
“That’s how I grew up. It was common to have a gun in the house,” said Brown, an Atlanta resident.
But her views on guns changed when her 23-year-old son, Jared, was killed in 2015. He was hit by a stray bullet while attending a cookout with friends in southwest Atlanta.
On Thursday, Brown, Douglas Jefferson of the National African American Gun Association and New York Times bestselling author Kiese Laymon will headline the “Guns and Black Southern Life” forum at the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta at 7 p.m. The forum, sponsored by WABE radio, in partnership with WAMU radio in Washington, D.C., is part of the “Guns and America” reporting project, which examines the role firearms play in contemporary American life.
WABE reporter Lisa Hagen, who is convening the panel, has been studying gun culture, particularly how it’s expressed in Southern, African-American communities. The rural experience, such as what Brown lived through in South Carolina, is common, Hagen wrote in an email interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“There are also a lot of significant gun regulations in this country that have been about regulating black gun ownership, from Reconstruction through to the Black Panthers,” Hagen wrote. “In so many ways, the American history of guns and gun policy is basically inseparable from race and racism.”
Given the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, the forum comes at a time when the nation is talking about gun rights, gun control and the Second Amendment. How African-American gun owners figure into that debate is important, but is often overlooked by media and some policymakers.
“With all the turmoil and instability over at the National Rifle Association, it also feels like an especially important moment to highlight a contemporary black gun culture that I think may hold different sets of meanings than what we typically associate with ‘the gun lobby,’” Hagen wrote.
Jefferson, with the National African American Gun Association, said many people don’t realize the tradition of black people bearing arms stretches back to the nation’s founding.
“The Second Amendment — and its embrace by the African-American community, particularly in the South — has been integral to this community gaining, asserting and practicing many other civil rights that we have today, including the right to vote,” Jefferson said.
Where Jefferson does not support a ban on assault weapons, Brown does. Hagen is hopeful the forum will spotlight the diversity of thought within the African-American community around policies and proposals roiling the nation, with no end in sight.