How do you spell 'devastated'?" Torri Boozer wanted to know. The assignment I had just given my creative writing group at Sojourners Neighborhood Center in inner-city Washington, D.C., was to write about the events surrounding the verdict in the assault of Rodney King. "Devastated" described the streets of Los Angeles well--I spelled it for her. It wasn't until Torri read to the group what she had written that I realized that she wasn't writing about the streets; she was writing about her soul.
When I was exactly her age--13--riots swept through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. From a comfortable living room 13 miles away in the "chocolate capital" of America--Hershey--I watched on television as flames shot into the night sky and homes burned to the ground.
Those riots changed my life. They opened my eyes to a world beyond the security and privilege of my upbringing, setting in motion a quest to find answers to burning questions about injustice and poverty and racism. By summer I was volunteering with children at a church in inner-city Harrisburg--a first, tentative step on a long journey.
In recent years I have occasionally used the word "devastated" to describe how I felt after the riots in 1968. It was the knowledge of a world so different from the one I had been shown that I thought had devastated me. I carried a feeling of betrayal, a sense that I hadn't been told the truth about my country.
But I know now that I wasn't "devastated." The term must be reserved for those who, like Torri, feel the insult and the fear in their flesh and blood.