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Jennifer Hudson's Tragedy Stirs Debate On Family Ties

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, hip-hop icon Q-Tip on his new album: what he's been up to over the past few years and his thoughts about tomorrow's election.

But first, it's time for Behind Closed Doors where we try to tackle important subjects that many people find difficult to talk about openly. Today, keeping it in the family. Singer and Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson was devastated by the recent murders of her mother, brother and young nephew. Funeral services for the three victims are set for today. No charges have been filed in the case, but authorities consider Jennifer Hudson's estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour, who served time for carjacking and other crimes, a person of interest.

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Aside from the prayers and well wishes and sympathy that the public at large has offered, there is another undercurrent of conversation about this tragedy. What was happening in that family? Why hadn't Jennifer Hudson moved the family out of the neighborhood, one where gunshots heard early in the morning were never reported to the police? Why would Julia Hudson, the mother of the youngest victim and Jennifer's sister, have an ongoing relationship with somebody who was a convicted felon?

We wanted to talk about this because the fact is many families have that dichotomy. High achievers bonded by love and blood ties to folk with criminal records, with drug problems, with other family problems. So what is owed to a loved one who has been in trouble? Where do we draw the line and protect ourselves? To talk about that, I'd like to welcome Mary Mitchell. She's a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Bertice Berry, she's an author and sociologist, and Iyanla Vanzant, she's an author, and I would also say, spiritual mentor to many people. Welcome, ladies. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MARY MITCHELL (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Thank you.

Ms. BERTICE BERRY (Author; Sociologist): Thank you.

Ms. IYANLA VANZANT (Author; Spiritual Mentor): Thank you.

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MARTIN: Mary Mitchell, I want to start with you because you wrote an op-ed piece last week about the Hudson tragedy. You know the neighborhood where the family lived, and you mention that there are two common trends. First there's this idea that, you know, criticizing Jennifer Hudson for not moving her mom out of the hood. What do you make of that?

Ms. MITCHELL: First of all, the idea that God-fearing, law-abiding, good citizens in a community who've lived there all of their lives have to move out because of the thugs and gang bangers and the violence, that's unacceptable. And second, the idea that Jennifer Hudson because she is very successful, that she had the responsibility to move her mother and her adult siblings, that she would have a responsibility to move them into another environment. As a grandmother and as a person who has adult children in our home, I can tell you, my kids can't make me move out of my house.

MARTIN: Iyanla Vanzant, what do you make of this, and have you ever confronted this? I mean, you're very successful and presumably you can live wherever you want.

Ms. VANZANT: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I had a brother who was cross-addicted to drugs and alcohol. He lived in Newark, New Jersey, probably an area that would scare the bejesus(ph) out of most people, and by the time I had reached a modicum of success, both of my parents were deceased but I did have sister who also lived in Brooklyn in the house that we grew up and raised in.

And the other part of it is, what we call success may not necessarily translate into monetary means. The fact that she won an Oscar, she didn't get paid for winning an Oscar. So people make up that because they see you on television or see your name in lights or because they hear about these things, that translates into financial reward, which it doesn't always. And the second thing is, your first loyalty is to yourself.

MARTIN: Bertice, what about you, and what do you make of that?

Ms. VANZANT: You know, it's interesting because the other part of it is, you don't know if her mother wanted to move or needed to move. What happens in domestic situations happens in every neighborhood in the United States. And every day you can turn on any channel and you can see these situations going on everywhere, but we don't go in and look for the one person who kind of paints the whole neighborhood as something that everybody should run from.

When I graduated from school of course I, you know, did everything I could to help my younger siblings and nieces and nephews go to school as well. My mother did move with me but I had to keep her house for her in Delaware at the same time because there was that community, that church, that family that she didn't want to leave.

MARTIN: But I wonder - can I just interrupt for one second? I was just wondering if there is some particular issue for people of color, particularly blacks and Latinos because on the one hand there is all this, you got to keep it real, you got to stay connected to the community, and people constantly, it seems to me, being graded on this question. On the other hand, then if something happens, they're criticized for staying in the neighborhood. And I was just wondering if you have ever - Iyanla, you wanted to say something.

Ms. VANZANT: Well, the neighborhood didn't kill her. The neighborhood is not - was not the issue. This could have happened anywhere. Those two brothers that killed their parents that were convicted on in California...

MARTIN: The Menendez brothers.

Ms. VANZANT: The Menendez brothers, right. They where in a mansion. So I think that it's really just about judgment.

Ms. MITCHELL: Here's a unique problem for African-American families, and especially those in poor neighborhoods. Our communities are being flooded with people coming from prison. And so you have this combination of women who are looking for mates, who are running into these guys and thinking - and giving these guys a chance. And so the question that we don't like to talk about is, when you are in that situation, you're a mother and you have daughter with you, she gets married, do you open your door to let this ex-felon, who is not just coming - you know, we're not talking about drug possession or that kind of thing. We're talking about someone who was convicted of attempted murder. Do you let him into your house and into you life?

MARTIN: Iyanla, what did you want to say?

Ms. VANZANT: My son is an ex-felon, you know, and right now he is going through many, many challenges just trying to get a job. It breaks my heart. You know, he made a mistake many years ago. He served his time. And I think I would feel away if someone shut the door in my son's face, which they are doing simply because he is an ex-felon. I don't think we can use a broad brush.

MARTIN: Can I ask if he was a violent - was it a violent crime?

Ms. VANZANT: Transporting drugs with weapons.

Ms. MITCHELL: That's totally different from attempted murder. I mean, I'm saying...

Ms. VANZANT: Well, yeah, but you say attempted murder, and as a former public defender, I know that those charges are based on the scenario and not necessarily on what actually created the crime.

MARTIN: What do you make of Mary's point, though? Her concern, it seems to me, is that she feels that as a community it's almost like there is this dichotomy here. On the one hand, people could have minimized the seriousness of some this conduct because there is a sense that the larger world is very harsh and unforgiving, and then I think she feels that there is a lot of pressure on families to be, perhaps, more tolerant than they ought to be for their own good. I don't know. What do you think of that?

Ms. VANZANT: I think you have to look at the particulars. Was it an attempted murder? Did he hit somebody with a bat? Did he hit him with a car?

Ms. MITCHELL: Actually, he carjacked him and then flew down the expressway with him hanging onto the car with the police chasing behind them and seriously, seriously injured this man, something that has affected him for the rest of his life. But beyond that, beyond that, what I am saying - and I agree with you wholeheartedly. It is a shame that when someone has served their time they can't go get a job. That's not what I am talking about.

I'm talking about letting this man come in who maybe has some lingering problems for being incarcerated - we don't know. And from this story, we know that they had to continually throw this man out. So there was domestic problems going on, and all I'm saying is that maybe as women we need to step back.

Jennifer Hudson's mother was a single mom who raised her kids. She was basically trying to deal with the situation on her own. So maybe as women we want to forgive our sons and our uncles and all these people for the crimes that they've committed and we want to give them a second chance, but maybe we ought to rethink how quickly we allow them into the family unit.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Mary Mitchell, Iyanla Vanzant and Bertice Berry about ties in the family that are not easily broken and what do we owe family members who may have had difficulties with the law. What do we owe them as family members, as a community? Bertice Berry, what do you think?

Ms. BERRY: It's very difficult because as a sociologist, we do want to look at the generalities and the patterns of behavior. But as an individual and as a spiritual person, as Iyanla was talking about, when Iyanla said we have to not only look at it from case to case, but you also have to kind of say, what is my responsibility? As she said earlier, it is the responsibility of the individual to get out, to be successful themselves, and then to shine a light on the way to get to where others need to go. There is this sense that we have once we've quote unquote "made it, " whatever that - however that's defined, that you are responsible for everybody else that's not there. And you feel a tremendous amount of guilt and responsibility that almost keeps you from getting to where you need to go. So there has to be a sense of getting somewhere before you could pull everybody out.

On the other side of that, we're only one generation away from segregation. One and a half from Jim Crow. In my case, three from slavery. So in terms of the collective and these things being a burden on our community more than they are anywhere else, we have to look at the society as whole. I recently lost a daughter, and it's a situation very similar to this where out of the environment, everything is OK. Back in the environment, it's not OK. And so it's a very personal thing, but at the same time, you cannot paint a brush over an entire neighborhood. You can't paint a brush over an entire block. I do so much in terms of folks who are still there, but you've got to shine a light.

MARTIN: Can I just ask a question here, and also I wanted to mention, Bertice, that you adopted your sister's children, four of them, when your sister had drug problems.

Ms. BERRY: And I am also raising other children who came from similar situations and backgrounds and helping put other kids through school. Part of that is because people helped me. Part of that is you have to be able to identify those kids who are saying, yes, I'm ready to go. I'm willing to change. I want to get out. But it's a case-by-case scenario.

MARTIN: How do you draw the line? On the one hand, I think it's pretty clear that families support family ties, communities' support are critical to people getting themselves back on their feet and reclaiming their lives and changing their lives if they need to change. On the other hand, you do have situations - again, this man is innocent until proven guilty. We don't know who was behind this crime. But let's just say that there is some connection. Iyanla, how do you draw the line? How do you decide to protect yourself?

Ms. VANZANT: It's a hard call. I think it's about having clear boundaries and clear structure in the house. And still - in the home. And still, if the person has psychiatric problems, emotional problems, you never know. I mean, you know, I could be one pill away from a rampage any moment but you've got to have clear boundaries and you've got to look for the signs. And I think that some of what Mary is saying is clear. I don't think that we shouldn't open our door to people because of their background, but I do think that we've got to look for the signs.

MARTIN: Mary, I think one of the things you're saying is you don't think there's enough acknowledgment, in particular in the Africa-American community, about the kind of harm that some of these folks do. But can I just tell you, though, on the other hand, one of the things that I think people appreciate about the African-American community is the sense that it is willing to give people a second chance when perhaps other people are not. How do you mediate those two competing values?

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, that's why this conversation is so interesting because now you're hearing from women, and I've done the same thing, raise kids, and I've adopted kids from siblings who were involved in drugs, so I understand that. We give and we give and we give. But here's the point. Even in the story, the first thing that you hear a parent would say is that my son could not have done that. Even though he has a criminal background, even though he's just getting out of jail, even though he's been stopped for cocaine possession, we will say, he's not a saint but he's not that bad either.

Well, what is that bad? And I think that we have to, as a community, understand that we have to have our own boundaries. I'm not saying that you don't forgive someone who's made mistakes in their lives, but you've got to protect your kids. You've got to protect your daughters. You can just fling open the door and let someone come in and you don't know how they're going to interact with your children. I just think that as black women and as families that we've got to be the ones to make sure we're protecting our children. We can forgive those who've done wrong but we've got to make sure that we're protecting those kids.

Ms. VANZANT: So let me ask you a question. This is a father who'd been away, who's coming to visit his son. What is the criteria that you use to say, yes, you can come in and visit, or no, you can't come in and visit? Because you've also got that going on.

Ms. MITCHELL: I would that say that when you're talking about a father and a son in a family unit, that's one thing. That's not what this situation is about. It's about someone who's not the father of the child. It's about someone who just got out of prison and hooked up with Jennifer Hudson's sister, who has a girlfriend on the side who's pregnant, by the way. This is not someone who has proven himself to be ready to go back into a family situation. So it's a case-by-case basis, but I don't think you can just generally say, oh, let's just welcome these people back.

MARTIN: That's a tough one. Bertice?

Ms. BERRY: The question becomes then, where did we go and what do we do on their way to recovery if they are family members? And I think that's what we have to start having some dialogue about each family, saying, what are the limitations? What are the responsibilities? How far can I take this? I know in my own situation, I've had to say, this far and no farther. And it's almost like I can take the boat across to freedom but I can't take it if you all are hanging on this side pulling it down.

Somebody is going to have to stay on the side to keep watch so that we can all get over and then send the boat back. And that same thing has to happen now. There has to be a sense of responsibility, but the responsibility not just for taking people over but also knowing who to bring.

Ms. VANZANT: And for them to not have every piece of baggage they have on the boat with you.

Ms. BERRY: That's exactly right.

Ms. VANZANT: Or we'll all going to sink.

Ms. BERRY: We have to determine that there's a point when certain behavior makes you no longer my people.

Ms. MITCHELL: Draw the line. You have to draw the line.

Ms. BERRY: You got to draw the line but I can't speculate about this situation any more than anybody else should. We can't judge the situation. Having gone through it myself, it is painful, it is personal and it puts you in a place where people start judging you, saying, you could have done more. And really, we're not in control.

Ms. VANZANT: Well, what I did was I blew my life up. I just made sure that I didn't have any more money, any more anything so that I didn't have to take care of nothing. I mean, really...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did you really do that?

Ms. VANZANT: Absolutely. I know I did it because the pressure of - you know, I had cousins coming out of Decosta(ph) and you know, aunts and uncles coming out of the Wal-Mart aisles. It was like ridiculous. So subconsciously, what I did was literally blew my life up so that I didn't have the money, I didn't have anything because the pressure, the guilt and then the shame of being in that position and realizing that you're related to boo-boo(ph).

MARTIN: I'm sorry, ladies, we're running out of time. So I just wanted to leave time for - clearly, this is a very rich topic that deserves some attention. So I wanted to ask each of you, just to close it out, to leave us with a thought about how you think the families and communities should think about this situation when they're confronted by something like this. Bertice, do you want to start and then we'll just go around?

Ms. BERRY: The question is not about the past. The question is about the present. What behavior are they displaying now? And give them enough time to display this pattern of improved behavior long enough to say that this truly is a change.

MARTIN: All right. Mary Mitchell, what are your thoughts about how you'd like families and communities to confront these situations?

Ms. MITCHELL: As a parent and as a grandmother and someone who's been a single parent for many, many years, what I've learned is that my first responsibility is to protect those in my household. And so I'm gong to make sure that even though, you know, that maybe I can help you from a distance, I'm going to make sure that I'm at that door protecting those children that I've brought into the world and make sure that they are safe. That's my first and foremost responsibility.

MARTIN: Iyanla Vanzant?

Ms. VANZANT: I say, don't be quick to judge but don't be quick to jump. You've got to be very observant, and you can't be in denial. You've got to watch what's going on. You've got to have very clear boundaries and very strict consequences once those boundaries are violated. And then, case by case, person by person, do what you can in the moment.

MARTIN: Iyanla Vanzant is an author, a spiritual guide, mentor. She was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington. Bertice Berry is an author and sociologist. She joined me from Savannah. And Mary Mitchell is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. She joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Ladies, thank you so much.

Ms. BERRY: Thank you.

Ms. VANZANT: Thank you.

Ms. MITCHELL: We have to come back after the election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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