I have watched the Don Lemon CNN “No Talking Points,” segment over and over again. I was looking for some truth in his five suggestions to young black men. Don Lemon said, we should pull up our pants, stop using the n-word, stop littering, finish school, and not have children out of wedlock.
I have by Don Lemon’s estimation done all the right things. I am a 24 year old black man. I don’t sag my pants. I went to Georgetown from the Cabrini-Green Housing projects and then on to get a Masters degree, and recently just finished teaching for two years in an under resourced community in Brooklyn. I don’t litter, and I don’t have any children. But I do feel alienated by Don Lemon’s comments. I feel alienated by his comments because they translate into a form of media violence, that Black men know all too well.
Don Lemon’s comments are reminiscent of the media violence that has played out across news broadcast with reports that have called young black men crack babies, predators, dropouts, absentee fathers, and thugs. Reports that have captured the American imagination, and created moral panic. Reports that lead most of America to believe that the “scene of the crime” was not in historical processes and institutions located in American history but in black neighborhoods with black men. These reports and the media figures that delivered them have sought to construct the Black male identity for the large part of the last 40 years. It is a construction that makes black men suspicious because the media has pathologized the way we talk, act, and dress. Don Lemon said black young men should stop saying the n-word, stop sagging our pants, and stop having babies out of wedlock. But Don Lemon ignores the fact that according to the National Center for Health Statistics, black teen pregnancy rates decreased 48% between 1990 and 2008. This means consenting black adults are making choices about their lives that would be considered normal were they white. However because the pregnancy trope is so over used in describing the issues black men and the black community face, facts are often discarded.
Media violence has produced a construction of the black male identity that has made it more difficult for us to get jobs, walk down the street, buy skittles, soft drinks and think ourselves equal in this world. It is a construction that has created fear in our hearts. Fear we are not allowed to talk about because there is no place for black victimhood to be acknowledged amid all the media scrutiny that has made us the perpetual aggressor. So when people look at us, we can’t help but think do they see us as thugs and are our ambitions, because they sometimes lie outside the traditional American success narrative, not worthy of pursuit. Even though, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a recent column, “at the most basic level, there’s nothing any more wrong with aspiring to be a rapper than there is with aspiring to be a painter, or an actor, or a sculptor.” It is a construction that has informed everything I have done in my life and everything I will ever do. It is a construction that I tried and failed many times to make peace with. But the humiliation that comes with the suspicion of my blackness in my everyday mundane life seems only to get worse, and I have the media portrayal of young black men in part to thank for that.
In the aftermath of the shooting death of a face down unarmed Oscar Grant by a white police officer and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, the media again seeks to define who black men are. People like Don Lemon, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity have yet again placed us under scrutiny that holds us to a different standard than our white counter parts. These reporters have superficially scrutinized our appearances, which entice their audiences to do so as well. There attacks on black young men also influence their audiences to believe that problems like black male disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system or the insane gun violence taking place on the Southside of Chicago is not tied to failed social policy and must be corrected.
When I was in Kindergarten my teacher gave us a poem. It was a kid version of the “I Am—Somebody,” poem written by the civil rights activist Reverend Williams H. Borders. The poem had a little black boy stating to the world I am somebody, over and over again. At the time I didn’t understand why we, the boys, had to memorize the poem and recite it to the class. I do now.