In photos of a young Jeremiah Sterling, a beautiful brown boy smiles from the frames, making life look easy: laughing, playing tough, but with sweetness and mischief in his eyes.
But, according to his mother, that wasn’t exactly so.
“That boy’s been fighting since he got here,” LaWanda Thompson-Sterling says about her son, Jeremiah, who was shot down in the alley across the street from their house on a residential street in West Pullman on July 15.
Odel Sterling, Jeremiah’s father and LaWanda’s ex-husband explains: “Jeremiah was stillborn, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he lost oxygen, so when he was born he didn’t breathe for 10 minutes before being revived. But I didn’t worry,” says Odel, a pastor, “because God had already showed that he would live.”
They named the boy – LaWanda’s second son, Odel’s first – Jeremiah because “it means `one whom God hears’,” says Odel, “and I wanted God to hear his prayers and his cries, and God did.”
In the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah is a prophet and usually given authorship of the Book of Lamentations. Islam considers him a prophet too. In Christianity, he appears in the Old Testament and is considered both saint and prophet.
Fitting, or perhaps ironic, for the young man from the troubled neighborhood whom his friend Aaron “Agee” Neal said thought could “talk to everybody” across turf borders and battle lines.
But, for LaWanda, whose uterus was ruptured bringing him to the world, the name of ‘The Weeping Prophet’ was appropriate for an entirely other reason.
“He cried all the time,” she says, somewhere between a chuckle and a sob, the loss from this summer still fresh, radiating heat, anger and disbelief. “I had 96 pacifiers for that boy. I asked if he was hyper but the doctor said he was fine. And he was, he was fine,” she adds, and the tears flow.
When he finally stopped wailing, Jeremiah took on another predictive activity: hopping around. For a while, he was known in the family as “Rabbit.”
“Oh, he was jumping,” says LaWanda, “just jumping all the time, all over the place. He wouldn’t stand still.”
Eventually, all that energy would be harnessed into an obsession with footworking, a deliberately manic and astounding South Side dance style Jeremiah practiced with Terra Squad, one of the city’s best known crews.
As a boy, Jeremiah attended John Whistler Elementary School and Johnnie Coleman Academy. He was a student at Fenger High School before moving to Denver last December and matriculating at Altameda High.
But for the last six months of his existence, he spent his entire life on the South Side of Chicago, in West Pullman, Roseland, Chatham, Stony Island and those whereabouts – all neighborhoods ravaged by youth violence, all neighborhoods marked by the constant drumbeat of funerals for young black men at the very precipice of promise.
On the same summer day 16 year-old Jeremiah Sterling died, crowds of young people – the photos on Facebook depict, literally, scores of them — gathered in shock to mourn at his mother’s house on May Street. Nearly one thousand people attended his funeral.
“Jeremiah showed young and old that it does not matter how long you spend on earth, that it’s all about who you have touched in a positive way while you were passing through this journey that we call life,” says Odel. “Maybe,” he says with a slight catch in his voice, “maybe he was the breaking point that neighborhood needed.”