In August of 1994, 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer — nicknamed for his love of sweets — fired a gun at a group of rival gangmembers, accidentally killing a neighborhood girl, Shavon Dean. Police searched Chicago’s southside for three days before finding Yummy dead in a railway tunnel, killed by members of the drug gang he’d sought to impress. The story made such an impact that Yummy appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, drawing national attention to the problems of inner city youth in America.
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty relives the confusion of these traumatic days from the point of view of Roger, a neighborhood boy who struggles to understand the senseless violence swirling through the streets around him. Awakened by the tragedy, Roger seeks out answers to difficult questions — was Yummy a killer or a victim? Was he responsible for his actions or are others to blame?
Before Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, there was Yummy Sandifer.
When he was just eleven-years-old, Robert ‘Yummy’ Sandifer (so named for his love of junk food) opened fire in a street of his local neighbourhood in Roseland, Chicago. Yummy fired a 9 millimeter semiautomatic pistol, hitting and killing a young girl called Shavon Dean, who was just 14-years-old. Yummy fled the scene, and a manhunt got underway – the senseless murder and 11-year-old killer making national headlines . . . but that was just the beginning of this tragic saga.
Yummy was close to members of the Black Disciples Chicago street gang, and this is presumably how he came to be in possession of the gun. During the manhunt, it was reported that the shooting was even an initiation gone wrong. And it was because of his fledgling ties to the Black Disciples that it was the gang who ended up finding Yummy, and executing him.
Brothers Cragg and Derrick Hardaway, ages 16 and 14, were Black Disciples members who met Yummy on August 31. They promised him a safe place to hide from the police . . . instead he was driven to an empty underpass and told to get on his knees – he was then shot twice in the back of the head. His body was discovered by Chicago police the next day, and brothers Cragg and Derrick Hardaway were convicted of his murder and given long-term prison sentences.
Yummy’s mug-shot was plastered over the cover of TIME Magazine (the same mug-shot his family used for his funeral program). His story sent shockwaves through America as more of his sad background and violent end became known. By three-years of age, Yummy was known to Child Welfare authorities as his mother had a history of misdemeanour arrests and his father was incarcerated. Yummy was beaten on a regular basis, and was found to have cigarette burns on his body as well as more serious bruises consistent with physical beatings. Sandifer was taken to live with his grandmother when he was three, but the house was often overrun with other children (up to 19 at any one time) and by the time Yummy was eight-years-old he’d started stealing cars and breaking into houses.
President at the time, Bill Clinton, spoke about Yummy and the sad circumstances of his life and death in a President’s Radio Address on September 10, 1994. It was during this address that Clinton announced his eminent signing of a proclamation declaring the upcoming week National Gang Violence Prevention Week.
Some sixteen years after the violent life and death of Yummy Sandifer, author G. Neri together with illustrator Randy Duburke, created ‘Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty’ – a middle-grade graphic novel about the child killer who still haunts Chicago and the American conscience.
Neri’s reimagining of this tragic event is told from the perspective of Roger, a Roseland resident and classmate of Yummy’s. Roger tries to come to terms with the killing of Shavon Dean, the manhunt for Yummy and his eventual murder amidst his own family’s struggles with Roger’s older brother, who has been hanging out with the Black Disciples.
This book is intended for ages 12 and up – though I can imagine a lot of people would take issue with the violent themes being discussed and depicted in a graphic novel for middle-grade readers. But the fact of the matter is; this violence really happened. This is Neri and Duburke recounting and questioning a very real, very violent crime that rocked America and, sadly, involved a young boy who is nearly the same age as the intended readers of this graphic novel.
In 1994 Neri was a filmmaker teaching workshops to kids in the inner-city schools of Los Angeles, when the Yummy story broke. In interviews he talks about how those kids grasped and processed the breaking news story of Yummy Sandifer – the opposing beliefs that he was a thug who deserved his end, versus those who saw him as a victim. There was also a recurring discussion of gang and gun violence. In reading ‘The Last Days of a Southside Shorty’ I can see how Neri came to tackle Yummy’s story from the similar point of view of a young classmate who is grappling with Yummy’s death, and life.
Roger’s voice is carrying this story, as we see events unfold through his eyes – he’s weighing the tragedy of Yummy’s life against the recent news of Shavon’s death . . . and eventually, Yummy’s execution. And then there’s Roger’s older brother, Gary, who is himself friends with members of the Black Disciples.
Neri does very well to process all of this information through Roger, who slowly comes to realise the shades of grey in the tragedy. And it is a slow processing – as bits and pieces of Yummy’s abusive childhood leak into the news-feeds amidst images of the shrine in Shavon’s memory.
Randy Duburke has done an incredible job of illustrating this powerful story – in bold, black and white panels he captures Yummy’s innocence in one drawing, and then hints at his menace in the next. And some panels are lifted right out of the 1994 newsfeeds and TIME magazine photos – like the haunting picture of Yummy in his casket, surrounded by stuffed toys.
Author G. Neri and illustrator Randy Duburke have created a haunting graphic novel exploring one of the darkest moments in America’s long history of gun violence. That they’ve created this novel for young readers is incredibly important and potent. ‘Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty’ is a beautiful and raw graphic novel that looks unflinchingly and with great care to the story of Robert ‘Yummy’ Sandifer – and while the illustrations may be in stark black and white, Yummy’s story is reflected in complex shades of grey.