This past year, I have worked as a lead facilitator in a leadership program with Black male eighth graders on the South Side of Chicago. These are Black males who attend a school that is closing as a result of Rahm Emanuel’s upheaval of Chicago Public Schools. In addition to these woes, these Black males are intimately acquainted with the violence in their communities.  Due to the shootings they constantly hear in their communities, these young Black boys have told me that they often don’t go outside of their homes. Ultimately, these Black youth are being forced to understand the places where they dwell as places of violence and disinvestment, when these are not the totality of their experiences. Accordingly, what are we to make of the fact that these young Black men are learning to make sense of themselves in a time where devastating current affairs are forcing them to constrict their lived experiences–their own identities–to violence and political marginalization? Despite these oppressive structures, we must understand how we can help them cultivate healthy senses of themselves that are expansive, unique, and nuanced.    

This challenge must be undertaken because we do not live in a society that cultivates Black male complexity. In America, the celebrated male is the emotionally inarticulate and thoughtlessly aggressive superhero. And so many of our boys endeavor to be the superheros—the athlete, the rapper, the womanizer. This is not their fault. Of course, this is the logical route to take when you live in a society which praises sterile notions of masculinity. We however, must reject this. In response, we as a community must make the effort to imbue our young Black men with the power of discerning their own complexities. We must give them the power and the means to ask themselves questions that this world won’t ask of them. This effort is especially important in places like the South Side of Chicago, where there are systematic and institutional efforts to flatten the robustness of all our Black youth.

Against this backdrop of economic and social issues, I search intently to discover who my young men are beneath the surface. What are the things they care about? What frightens them, physically and emotionally? Where do they shine? Where do they know they shine? And what do they love? I am forced to take note of the implications of their social interactions with one another. I seek to question and challenge some of the social interactions we typically associate with young Black boys and Black youth: the verbal sparing, the persistent play hits and the occasional real one, the appeals to hyper masculinity through  calling each other “faggot” and “gay.” And for my ostensibly straight boys, I wonder how to complicate the emergent, fiery, and yet oddly innocent fascination with the opposite sex. A fascination that often problematically slides into very overt patriarchal and misogynistic notions. The challenge lies not only in answering these questions for myself, but in teaching my young men to find the answers for themselves. And yet, before that can be done, we must teach our young black men to ask themselves the right questions.

Teaching our young Black men to ask themselves the right questions requires three things. 1) We must be willing to challenge our own often-limited notions of Black masculinity. 2) We must recognize that our Black boys are complex emotional and social beings. Therefore we cannot reduce them to the stereotypes we often make about Black males and Black youth more broadly. 3) Lastly, we must guide them through this same process of challenging themselves. We must help them to unlearn the things society tells about them, and allow them to see the greater sides of themselves.

As violence and institutional disenfranchisement continues its assault on Black communities, we must teach our young Black men to discover the deeper aspects of their identities. They must learn to see themselves outside of their social circumstances. And I think this lens must be inward. The deeper they can see themselves, as loving humans, rather than stereotypes, the sooner they can see beyond themselves, their limitless potential, and the courage to live out that potential.