As I look at the journey to manhood for the African American male, I see it as a journey across a tightrope over the abyss. One wrong decision and you end up dead, incarcerated, or otherwise rendered unable to prosper in modern America. Positive role models for our young men are far and few in between. Even with our nation’s first African American president in charge of the nation, we see him helpless against the slings and arrows of a racist political infrastructure and at the same time, a collaborator in the condemnation of males that is routine in American society. But seeing as he only has daughters, I would guess that President Obama has little stake in improving the lot of African American men or men in general.
But furthermore, the very concept of a competent and positive African American male has been broken in our country and more importantly, in our communities. When Bill Cosby had his award-winning sitcom “The Cosby Show,” more non-African Americans viewed the show than African Americans. The main reason cited by African Americans, especially those in the lower income brackets was simple; stark disbelief. Men and women alike, could not suspend their belief that an African American couple could be so positive and successful. Moreover, there was a massive disbelief by African American women that Bill Cosby’s character, “Dr. Heathcliffe Huxtable” could be that successful in both his career and as a father. But to understand why that idea could still hold weight in today’s society, you have to look at where it came from in our past.
Historically, we have been taught that African American men are not only dispensable, but nearly unnecessary; especially in the lower economic class communities. During the slavery era, the male would be the one sold as often as a child, in order to break up the slave family. After the Southern Diaspora, many men left the home in order to seek work for their families; this included African American males as well. Later on, poor African American men were stripped from their homes when Women in those same poor African American communities learned via positive reinforcement from the government and the media that they were financially better off without their husbands than with them. And the natural extrapolation of that idea led to men only being needed for their sperm as these women found that the more children they bore, the more money they could receive from the government…and again, just as long as the man did not live in the home.
Then, mainstream feminism came into the picture and told the African American woman that she didn’t need her African American man in her life at all. And again, the government came in and reinforced the idea by providing countless incentives for African American women to remain single. Oprah Winfrey, a newswoman from a Tennessee news station made her bones (and millions) by demonizing African American men to African American women (and White American women). The early episodes of The Oprah Winfrey show repeatedly showed America how horrible African American and poor White men were to their women. Add to this the patent criminalization and incarceration of African American men that has been part of American culture since the late 60s and the net result; a large part of an entire generation of African American children who grew up fatherless or otherwise without a responsible male role model in their lives.
History has proven that the imagery of identification is a very powerful force in the development of children. Going back to television; in the late sixties, one of the landmark television shows was “Julia” starring Diahann Carroll; a show about a single (widowed) African American mother who was a nurse. This had a personal relevance to me as I was in elementary school during the period of time in which the show aired. Nearly every girl in my school had a Julia lunchbox; not Barbie or any other “white” marketing item, but Julia. As a result, a large number of African American women in my generation were influenced into nursing as a career. But even then, people recognized the danger of the show to the African American community. The series came under criticism from African-American viewers for its depiction of a fatherless Black family. Excluding a Black male lead, it was argued, “rendered the series safer” and “less likely to grapple with issues that might upset white viewers.”
And while we are still on the subject of feminine identification and going back to “The Cosby Show;” that show was credited for inspiring a large number of African Americans to consider collegiate-level study and attending HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) based upon the Huxtable Alma-mater, Hillman College. It’s funny that the spinoff show “A Different World,” featured the Huxtable daughter, Denise (Lisa Bonet) rather than the one Huxtable son, Theo (Malcom Jamal Warner). Especially considering the unstable acting career and decisions surrounding Bonet at the time. Warner would have made a more stable choice and would have been more likely to remain with the cast of the show…but I digress.
Going back to the sixties and seventies in TV; at least the young African American women in that period of time had somebody they could identify with, as many of their mothers were also single and raising them. Unfortunately, the young men weren’t so lucky. They didn’t have “Paul Winfields” or “Fred Williamsons” to look up to in real life. Instead they had less scrupulous men like “Comfort (Clifton Davis’ role as a pimp in the 70s ABC “movie of the week” “Little Ladies of the Night”) as role models. Without respectible father figures in or around the home, the young African American males had to look elsewhere for their icons. In those poor communities filled with fatherless male children, the only men who demonstrated evidence of prosperity were the criminals and hustlers. Thus you see the “gangsta” or thug culture that is endemic in African American society today.
Once, I worked with young men in “at risk communities” and I saw the results of this everyday. I saw these young men who dumbed themselves down because intellect is now considered an emasculating trait in their neighborhoods. All the math you need to know is how to count your money and the number of shots you fired out of your gun.
At the same time, I see countless opportunities available for young African American women to better themselves. Foundations, scholarships, organizations, and more. Where are these things for the young men? The only government sanctioned youth organizations I see for young African American men are Job Corps or the detention home. There’s a lot of “unsanctioned” ones though. The Vice Lords, The Black Gangster Disciple Nation, The Crips, The Bloods, Zoe Pound…there are “youth organizations” like these for young Black men in nearly every major city….
Yet the same, I see African American men who are willing to defend mainstream feminism at all costs. I ask those men to take a look at what has been done to us in feminism’s name and at least see their responsibility in the troubles that have beset the African American community. The Slutwalk is the latest demonstration in how mainstream feminism does not even consider the issues of our sisters, but claims to speak for them. If mainstream feminism cannot even address the needs of African American women, then how can you as African American men even think that the movement as a whole has our best interests at heart? The answer to saving this generation of young African American men is not going to be found in mainstream feminism…not alone. There have to be masculine interests and viewpoints involved.
I’m not completely damning feminism in this indictment of what has been done to our children, but until we can eliminate some of the zero-sum politics that feminists use to divert attention and funding from helping young men in need, this is only going to worsen and eventually the powder-keg that is the African American male youth is going to blow up.