Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Jamar Jackson is familiar with gun violence, so writing a poem about it felt natural.
“Usually, you’ll be safe unless you dip your nose somewhere in someone’s business where you shouldn’t,” he said. “Whenever I’m walking to the bus stop to go downtown to work and school and I’m just walking to the bus stop, I have to be careful of my surroundings because I don’t know what can happen, and there’s people that I’ve known and gone to school with and they’ve been in the wrong neighborhood, and things have happened to them.”
Jackson, who will start 11th grade in the fall at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, won first place in the Pulitzer Center’s poetry contest for his poem “One Bullet, One Hundred Sets of Hands,” which was inspired by the BuzzFeed News story “One Bullet Can Kill, But It Takes More Than 100 People to Save a Gunshot Victim’s Life.” Nearly 1,000 students entered, but Jackson’s poem stood out to the voting committee because of its “lyrical momentum” and “fresh perspective,” said Hannah Berk, senior program manager of the Pulitzer Center’s K–12 education program.
Jasmine Mans, a poet and performance artist who judged the contest, told BuzzFeed News that Jackson’s poem used patterns to hold the story.
“As writers, we search to find ways to talk about this same, ever-present thing called death,” Mans said. “This writer doesn’t make the harshness easier to bear but allows us a new curiosity.”
The BuzzFeed News story takes a look at how many people care for a victim of gun violence — from the police officers who arrive on the scene to the paramedic who cuts off the victim’s clothes to better access the bullet hole to the injury prevention coordinator who helps the patient get back to regular life after they physically heal. It takes just a few seconds to shoot someone, but the recovery lasts weeks, months, years, and even a lifetime.
Jackson said he chose the story because he’s familiar with the toll gun violence takes on people growing up on the South Side of Chicago and knows people who have been victims of it, including a longtime friend and a friend’s father.
“When I scrolled and I saw your article, that was something that struck me because … this is something that resonates with me, this is something that’s been on my mind a lot,” he said, “[something] me and a lot of people I know have to go through. This is something that I can write about and I can tell a story about this. People can heavily relate to [this].”
Even though the BuzzFeed News article doesn’t touch on how gun violence disproportionately affects Black people, Jackson’s poem, told from the first-person point of view of a victim, states, “The breeze lingers through the hole in my chest / As if it penetrated my brown skin One Hundred times.” He said because of his skin color, he might be stereotyped that he belongs to a gang.
“By the time I finished the article, it was so easy for me to see myself on the way to the hospital, dealing with doctors or going through therapy or other treatment because it’s a fear that’s been planted into Black children from the beginning,” Jackson said in a text message. “I also thought about police brutality and the fact that weapons are so easily accessible in neighborhoods such as mine on the South Side. I think that whether people have experienced gun violence firsthand or not, it’s something that we battle internally and externally continuously in our lives, simply because our skin causes so much conflict between us and people like police officers, or even our own people.”
Jackson said he has ideas for poems running through his head all day.
“I could be washing dishes or just doing homework and I could just have certain words in my head — and when I find one that strikes me, I just start off a poem that way,” he said.
Jackson’s first-place win earned him $300, which he said he plans to spend on back-to-school supplies and clothes; he also hopes to put some of the funds toward publishing his own book of poetry. He said he would like people to read his poem and understand the process of what it takes to care for a gunshot victim.
“When people read, I just want them to take that in, whether they’re the cause of gun violence or whether they just hear about it on the news,” he said. “It’s very essential for people to understand that it only takes a few seconds for someone to make that choice and ruin a person’s life. Their entire life, not even just a month.”