It seems like every time I take a break from writing one issue resurfaces that compels me to come back to the keyboard. Over the last two months I took a much needed break to meditate and refocus my energies. During my respite I was again awakened by the drumbeat of bad stories and bad statistics painting an ominous future for young African-American men. The plight of Black boys is like a bad movie that has no ending; it is just an endless loop of tragic scenes.
During a recent midday drive through the heart of Newark, New Jersey I watched those scenes unfold through my car windows. Young Black men standing idly on street corners, profanity laced “conversations” in the presence of children, and wheel chair bound or crutch supported young men who I can only surmise are casualties of street wars. Reading the obituaries in the city’s major daily – The Star Ledger – is a crude reminder of the death march of young Black men and the eventuality of the grave as a way-too-soon destination. Yet, in a twisted sort of way, Black boys get more attention in death than they ever receive when they walk among us. Perhaps it is why so many are fearless of that final curtain call.
I never use the word “crisis” anymore in referring to the plight of Black boys. The word crisis suggests an unfolding apocalypse. We past that point about two decades ago. We are now in some sort of hellish nightmare that is constant even when we are awake or at least appear to be conscious. Black boys have become society’s road kill, the tragic leftovers that no one wants. And truth be told, we bear much of the blame because the African-American community has left Black boys to fend for themselves and thrust upon them the mantle of manhood long before these boys are prepared to take on that role or meet the attendant responsibilities of adult life.
Black boys are engaged in genocidal violence that is now claiming the lives of innocent children. They are facing suspensions and expulsion from school at an alarming rate, and their absence in the classroom is more often looked upon with relief and not alarm by teachers. If being expelled or dropping out of school is not bad enough, the streets now serve as their path to the criminal justice system and prison. Far too many of our boys punch that ticket and become trapped on the recidivism wheel.
All of this negative energy has an impact on families and the larger community too. Young Black men are challenged in their relationship with young Black women because there are often few examples for them to model responsible behavior. Sadly, many of these boys who become young fathers have little to offer their sons and end up passing down the low expectations that was assigned to their lives. The community suffers because there is very little peace or a reasonable quality of life in many Black neighborhoods as many relationships involving young Black men, both personal and family, dissolve into an endless string of mindless arguments and petty disputes that often have violent and deadly outcomes. While no expert, it seems to me that Black children are vulnerable to the same post-traumatic stress experienced by soldiers in combat. A human being cannot witness this much violence and bloodshed, death, destruction, chaos and despair and not be permanently affected.
None of this is new news. In fact it is now a tired litany of real life tragedy. And it must stop.
Out of nothing but sheer frustration and anger I am sponsoring a free 5 week summer enrichment program for young Black boys, age 12 to 14, for boys in my community and neighboring towns. The program is a continuation of efforts I initiated over two decades ago. I am not the only one who has become fed up as other folks, and Black men in particular, are stepping up and reaching out to our boys. Just two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a book launch by my friend Vaughn McKoy. A product of public housing in his native Paterson, New Jersey, Vaughn is an attorney with an MBA, a proud graduate and former football player at Rutgers University, husband and father to three beautiful daughters. His book, “Playing Up,” serves not only as a life lesson of overcoming the odds but the basis for his launching a mentorship initiative.
Another friend, Salaam Ishmaill, a longtime community activist who I came to know through Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, has been relentless in his efforts to stem violence in his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey and throughout the state. Salaam just completed a 58 mile walk to the State House in Trenton to bring to the attention of Governor Chris Christie the issue of violence in our communities. He has been working to have each of the state’s 21 counties declare violence a public health crisis. No doubt that Black men like Vaughn McKoy and Salaam Ishmaill have decided that this is our problem to fix and are not waiting for emergency relief to swoop down upon our communities.
It’s time we all “played up” and got in the game. The longer we sit on the sidelines and watch Black boys catch hell and unleash it back on us in return, the quicker we will see the demise of any semblance of normalcy and community in African-American neighborhoods. One thing I know for sure, the Calvary is not coming and there is no Plan B. It’s time that we own up to this mess. This does not mean we don’t hold society and popular culture accountable for their contribution to the dehumanization of Black boys. We just can’t trust those who set these toxic conditions to now come along with the antidote. It is our cure to find and administer.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.
For information on the summer enrichment workshop for African-American boys referenced in this column, contact Walter Fields at firstname.lastname@example.org.