This summer I have had the pleasure, the blessing to conduct free workshops aimed at building self-esteem among African-American boys. It has been a wonderful experience and I have been amazed, but not surprised, by the insights and intellect these boys display during our Saturday morning sessions. They are a compassionate lot and I have learned more from them than I have imparted over the last 6 weeks. I care for their welfare as I do my daughter, my only child, because I recognize that they are scaling a wall infinitely higher than she will face in life. I say that not to diminish her struggles or her triumphs but in honest recognition of the weight that is carried by Black males in this country. Thus, I have no choice but to lend these boys my support. This project is an extension of an initiative I launched 20 years ago to stem violence between young African-American men in my hometown and two neighboring communities. That effort, like my current workshops, reflects my desperation and sadness over how society has set upon Black boys.
Our attention turns to Black boys only in times of tragedy or moments of personal failure or criminality. We ascribe low expectations to them and when we get low results we attribute it to personal failure. Black boys are criticized for their lack of drive, determination and personal shortcomings but they exist in a world that does not expect much more from them and assigns these boys the most menial possibilities – vocational education, low-wage work or imprisonment.
Black boys are objects to be studied, analyzed, critiqued and controlled. Their discounting is not singularly the result of racial animus on the part of whites, but by the objectification by African-Americans as well. For whites who see Black boys through the lens of dysfunction, it is easy to accept the profiling of these boys by police, the uneven dispensation of justice on their behalf, their disproportionate arrests and incarceration, and expulsion from school. However, where many whites see Black boys as threats or dredges upon society, some African-Americans also contribute to the degradation of young African-American males.
Single Black mothers, and some well-meaning dads, make our boys “little men” and thrust upon them the burden of manhood before these boys are mature enough to carry that load. Popular culture, particularly the music and motion picture industries, habitually paint our young Black men as irresponsible and sexualized thugs driven by greed and the intertwined pursuit of women and money – by any means necessary. We have reduced Black males to non-thinking genitalia, incapable of adding anything of value to our human story.
The result is that Black boys become “things” that we have boxed them into a corner to become. And sadly, many Black boys have accepted this diminished profile as their destiny.
Black boys have a story to tell that we need to open our hearts and minds, not just our ears, to hear. I can hear these boys because their stories are my story. I have known poverty, witnessed the struggle of a single mom, and felt the lowered expectations cast upon me by some who simply believed that, despite my efforts to the contrary, that I could not beat the odds stacked against me.
We can save Black boys if we hear them. It requires a different conversation in the home and a different understanding in the community. Schools, if they are truly interested in the success of these Black boys, must begin to hear them and not talk down to them. There is considerable research that reveals the disproportionate school dropout rate among Black boys. The truth is that African-American boys are not dropping out of school; they are being pushed out at considerable social cost to all of us.
We are making choices that do not reflect the reality of the Black boys talking to me; the pain of profiling, the humiliation of low expectations, the misinterpretation of their energy as bad behavior, the absence of compassion and love for their plight, and the lack of acknowledgment of their intellect, creativity and aspirations.
Black boys are talking. We can’t help them if we refuse to hear them.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.