I write this in ambivalence, dejectedly trying to wrap my mind around a string of incidents that continue to unearth the plight of young Black men in this country. In scarcely a week’s time, 17 year-old Jordan Russell Davis was shot to death by another gun toting “scared” white man, while Brandon Jackson, another Black youth, was sentenced to 12 years of prison after fending off 8 white males who jumped him. And because our country fails to learn from its racial woes, these incidents have occurred frighteningly close to the anniversary of the December 4th governmental assassination of 21 year-old Fred Hampton. The young Chairman of the Illinois Chapter Black Panther Party, whose charisma and commitment was able to galvanize vast resources to the struggling Chicago community. Of course, let’s be clear, these incidents are the dramatized ones, let’s not forget about the Black men killed in the streets, the over 846,000 Black men imprisoned, and the many left unemployed and underemployed in their homes. Black men dispossessed, disheartened, and catapulted “…outside history…” as Ralph Ellison once said. This is not to diminish the efforts of many present and valiant Black men who continue to contribute much to all of us. But we must be realistic in saying that the state of Black men in this country is dire, and we need to have a sense of urgency about this.
But perhaps, I’m stating the obvious. What I am greatly concerned with then is how the reality of present social circumstance perpetuates insufficient narratives of Black men. As a Black male youth, in which legacies am I to look for evidence of my complexity and humanity? Basketball players? Rappers? Trayvon? Obama? Ah—I see, to be a Black man is to be murderer, victim, or superhero. Well if those are the only options presented to me, I guess I’ll start dribbling and free styling! At least they appear to be loved. The dominant portrayals of Black men in the media and often in our communities leave little room for little Black boys to cultivate aspects of their identities that don’t fall into oft-repeated archetypes.
I do not mean to be cynical, but the dearth of complex narratives surrounding Black men means that we (whoever you are) must do the work of cultivating the identity of Black men. We have to add color to whitewashed history that refuses to ensure them that they came from a long line of brilliant individuals who contributed to all aspects of the world. Men who “…come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds.” Men who were scientists, writers, doctors, artisans, teachers, orators, and a slew of other things that this country does a poor job of revealing. For every Black youth who falls prey to the current of a racist society, we must uplift and empower 1000 more. This is where mentorship becomes important. This is where activism becomes important. This is where love becomes important.
I remain rigorously optimistic despite these seemingly never ending stream of misfortunes, and I celebrate our Black youth who continue to do amazing things despite the odds. But we must be urgent in nurturing our Black youth to realize the magnitude of their personality. It is absolutely necessary to fight against infantile narratives and inordinate injustices.