Black Men Awaken
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Ellison’s quote captures the invisibility too often attached Black males in this country. People refuse to see us as we actually are, instead viewing us, as they desire us to be, which validates their often bigoted and misguided beliefs. Like the unnamed protagonist in the Invisible Man, Black men have to deal with their own conceptions of how they view themselves while simultaneously challenging the dominant structures that engage in the ongoing emasculation of our existence.
As Black men how can we guide our sons within a society that truly does not understand or respect us? How can we support and be role models for our sons, when our very existence is challenged on a daily basis with the ever present reality that our lives can be ended or altered based primarily on who we are: Black men.
Throughout this society we see endless examples of Black men being valued for their athletic physicality, while simultaneously be derisively dismissed for their lack of intellectual prowess. We may be good enough to carry a football or dribble a basketball, yet we are not capable enough to coach, manage or own the processes in which our physicality is welcomed. We may spend large sums on our entertainment but we cannot manage or own the processes that are used to entertain us. We may be the stalwarts of a political party yet we often struggle to have our voices fully heard by that same party.
America rejoiced that the end of racism and bigotry was upon us when the country elected a Black man as President. Yet for the past eight years we have witnessed countless acts of disrespect and hatred for this same man who was celebrated when he was first elected. We are not blind to the racist hypocrisy of this contradiction, yet we must ensure our younger brothers that the election of a Black man is not an aberration but a testimony that anything is possible regardless that it may appear otherwise.
How we do help our younger brothers overcome the hypocrisy and contradictions that they see as an irrefutable failure of the American credo that we are equal in this country with the same opportunities of success and failure? Malcolm was right when he proclaimed “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” The value of education is even more critical for individuals whose future is not already assured through the accomplishments of previous generations of a family. As Black men we are among the most in need of the opportunities that a strong education can provide, yet we lag every other demographic group in this country when it comes to educational achievement. That has to end if our young brothers are to have a bright future and realize their dreams.
Carter G. Woodson had it right when he wrote in 1933:
When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
Over eighty years later, Woodson’s words are still relevant and describe the future prospects of too many Black children, especially males, in this country. In too many schools our children are not being educated they are being controlled, controlled to find the back door. The consequences of too many children being compelled to find that proverbial back door is what we are witnessing in our communities today.
There is much that must be done to save our children. Our young males need the guidance, support and challenge to realize their potential and their destiny. Too many young Black boys have to find their way to manhood without any significant positive male guidance. That is evident in many of the issues that are gripping our communities: systemic academic failure/underachievement, high crime rates, high underemployment/unemployment rates, poor health outcomes, single parent families, teen pregnancy, to name some of the pressing issues.
Some of the issues I have named can be impacted if more men are able to influence how our younger brothers become adults. The poor choices that young males make regarding their lives which are manifested in terms of education, crime, health, family, relationships with women, etc. can be tied back to the lack of strong older male guidance.
Black mothers and women are on the forefront of challenging the senseless violence in our communities, violence mainly committed by and upon young males. Black fathers and males need to take their place next to them to stop this fratricide that is occurring in our communities. Black lives do matter and all fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, men, need to be at the forefront at stopping the endless killings. While it is obvious that conventional governmental and societal structures are not going to stop the madness, the answer must exist in our communities and it starts with older Black males influencing younger Black males to respect themselves and life itself.
Martin Luther King ended his speech at Riverside Church in 1967 with the following warning: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.”
Black males must become more assertive and prominent in their relationships with younger males. As Black males we must model the type of behaviors and aspirations we want our younger brothers to embrace. We must be strong in the face of challenges and obstacles just as we want young brothers to be in similar situations. As older Black males, if we do anything for our younger males we must be like the African proverb that proclaims: “When there is a big tree, small ones climb on its back to reach the sun.”
Assistant Provost for Community Partnerships and Diversity
University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center