Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint have a message for families and communities as they lay out their visions for strengthening America, or for that matter the world. Their new book hopes to address the crises of people who are stuck because of feelings of low self-esteem, abandonment, anger, fearfulness, sadness, and feelings of being used, undefended and unprotected. These feelings often impede their ability to move forward.
The authors aim to help empower people make the daunting transition from victims to victors.
Read quotes below, as well as the first chapter of the book.
On what it takes:
“What will it take to pull our people out of poverty? What will get us to contemplate a life with brighter dreams? What will inspire us to pursue the future as if it mattered? How will we learn to respect ourselves and help each other? What will it take for us to become entrepreneurs and to run businesses that will serve the community, not destroy it? We ask these questions only because we think there are answers, real ones, attainable ones.”
“Certain people tell us that we are picking on the poor. Many of those who accuse us are scholars and intellectuals, upset that we are not blaming everything on white people as they do. Well, only blaming the system keeps certain black people in the limelight but it also keeps the black poor wallowing in victimhood.”
On raising children:
“All black parents can do right by their children, and all black children can succeed. There is no reason why not.”
“Use standard English when you have your kids together, not Black English. They’ll hear enough of that in the streets…Watch the movie My Fair Lady. All cultures discriminate against people who have not mastered the standard language, and when race is involved, it is all that much harder for a nonstandard speaker to feel competent or even at home in the culture.”
On the media:
“Some of the most negative images of African Americans on TV and in the movies seem to be the most popular among young people—black and white. With both good and bad media out there, you have to help select media for kids that will support their successes and suppress their urge to give up or drop out.”
On black men:
“Gangsta rap makes our young people tough, but not so tough they can walk through prison walls. It can jazz them about sex, but it can’t begin to make them a good father. No matter how often, or how publicly they grab their crotches, crotch-grabbing isn’t even going to get them a bus ride downtown.”
“When all is said and done, the black child is our future. It’s time for us men to think of the future, to straighten out our acts, to say to ourselves, I am more interested in raising my child than any other issue I had before. I’m going to behave or get help, but it’s about the child. No matter how useless or hopeless a father may think he is, his role is simply to be there. If he makes that commitment, he is a much better man than he thought he was.”
“Sometimes people with a victim mentality feel hopeless and do self-destructive things that make their lives even worse. It is time to redirect that energy. It is time to think positively and act positively. Black communities and families must provide our youth with the love and guidance that keeps them strong and on that positive path. Blaming white people can be a way for some black people to feel better about themselves but it doesn’t pay the electric bills.”
WHAT’ S GOING ON WITH BLACK MEN?
For the last generation or two, as our communities dissolved and our parenting skills broke down, no one has suffered more than our young black men.
Your authors have been around long enough, and traveled widely enough, to think we understand something about the problem. And we’re hopeful enough—or desperate enough—to think that with all of us working together we might find our way to a solution. Let’s start with one very basic fact. Back in 1950, before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, when Rosa Parks was still sitting in the back of her Montgomery bus, when the NBA was just about all white, back in those troubled times, black boys were born into a different world than they are today. Obviously, many civil rights leaders had hoped that with the demise in the 1960s of officially sanctioned forms of segregation and discrimination, black males would have greater access to the mainstream of American society. They had fully expected that these young men would be in a better position in every way—financially, psychologically, legally—to sustain viable marriages and families. Instead, the overall situation has continued to go downhill among the poor who are mostly shut out from the mainstream of success.
How is that possible?
There is one statistic that captures the bleakness. In 1950, five out of every six black children were born into a two-parent home. Today, that number is less than two out of six. In poor communities, that number is lower still. There are whole blocks with scarcely a married couple, whole blocks without responsible males to watch out for wayward boys, whole neighborhoods in which little girls and boys come of age without seeing up close a committed partnership and perhaps never having attended a wedding.
BUILD ON OUR LEGACY
In 1950, we still feared our parents and respected them. We know that for a fact because we were both in our early teens that year and were both testing our limits. We and the others in our generation weren’t saints. We’ll be the first to admit that. We were filled with piss and vinegar like many teenage boys—white, black, and otherwise. If we saw something we wanted and didn’t have any money—and trust us, few of us ever had money—we thought about taking it, sure. But something called “parenting,” something that had wormed its way into our heads from the time we were still in the womb, said to us, If you get caught stealing it, you’re going to embarrass
your mother. The voice didn’t say, You’re going to get your butt kicked.We knew that and expected that from experience. No, that inner voice said, You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family. As we became older and grew more interested in girls, our hormones raged just as boys’ hormones rage today. The Internet may be new. Cell phones may be new. But sex, we don’t need to tell you, has been around since Adam and Eve. So has shame. We knew that if one of us got a girl pregnant, not only would she have to go visit that famous “aunt in South Carolina,” but young Romeo would have to go too, not to South Carolina maybe, but somewhere. It would be too embarrassing for Romeo’s family for him to just sit around in the neighborhood with a fat Cheshire cat smile on his face. And there was something else we understood: that girl likely had a daddy in the home. And he’d be prepared to wipe that grin off Romeo’s face permanently. This was what parenting was about. It wasn’t always pretty, but it could be pretty effective. Parenting works best when both a mother and a father participate.
Some mothers can do it on their own, but they need help. A house without a father is a challenge. A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe, and that’s just about what we have today. Can we fix this? Can we change it? We don’t have a choice. We have to take our neighborhoods back. We have to go in there and do it ourselves. We saw what happened in New Orleans when people waited for the government to help. “Governments” are things. Governments don’t care. People care, and no people care like parents do—well, except maybe grandparents and other caregivers, and thank God for them.
Richard Rowe, in Baltimore, reported on one path to change: Twenty years ago in this city we started the “Rites of Passage.” Nobody else was doing it on the East Coast. We started looking at how the African-American male was going downhill. Twenty years from now, I hope we will not be having this same type of conversation. The purpose of our program is to nurture young men who can maintain, protect, and provide for a family and a community.
The problems start early for black boys, and we can all see it. Call it ADHD or learning differences or whatever you like, but our young black males can act up a Level 5 storm in class. The fact is that little boys are diagnosed with ADHD approximately three times more than girls. Also, black boys are diagnosed with higher rates of mental disabilities and emotional problems than black girls, white girls, and white boys. To be sure, little boys in general are more aggressive than little girls. In some cases, too, teachers are wary of black boys and too quick to dump them into special education classes. This kind of racial profiling and discrimination against active, aggressive black boys by school personnel accounts for some of the discrepancy in the numbers, but the bottom line is still bad.
Why is the problem so grave? A mother can usually teach a daughter how to be a woman. But as much as mothers love their sons, they have difficulty showing a son how to be a man. A successful man can channel his natural aggression. Without that discipline, these sons often get into trouble at school because many teachers find it difficult to manage their “acting out” behavior. If you think we’re exaggerating, talk to a teacher.
Some words of wisdom from Dr. Bernard Franklin in Kansas City:
In our culture too often boys are reared and taught by women who want boys’ behavior to be like girls’. But boys were never, ever created to sit still. Boys are active, always have been, always will be.And so sometimes mothers have to pass them on to uncles or other men. We also have to figure out how to get more males in the classroom so that these boys can have active participation with another man in their lives.
There is another thing that little boys don’t do any more: go to church. When we were kids, once a week we had to get dressed to the nines in clothes we’d rather not wear and spend an hour sitting and kneeling quietly in a place we’d rather not be. But this was a useful and necessary discipline. We learned how to sit still. We learned how to sit quietly. We learned self-control, and we knew the consequences if we didn’t. We could always go out and play ball when church was over, a little wiser for the experience. Today, many boys don’t go to church and couldn’t even put their clothes on straight if they did. Many of these kids have never tied a tie or buckled a top button or shined their shoes. Sadly, the first real suit many of them get to wear is colored orange. And what’s really unfortunate is that the beltless, droopy-drawered look you see on the streets is a fashion straight out of prison. Boys like the defiance of the look, and some make it part of their permanent identity, but that look doesn’t get anyone a job.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE PROBLEM
As these boys move through school, their behavior goes from bad to worse. The schools don’t help much because they are often of terrible quality. Even the good schools are designed to favor girls, whose language skills tend to develop earlier than boys. The boys are much more likely to end up in special education programs than girls, or white boys for that matter. Special education at its best is helpful for kids who need it, but too many kids are warehoused in these classes and never make it back to the mainstream. And if the drugs or the warehousing doesn’t work, the schools finally just suspend the kids or expel them. Troubled black boys in schools are more than
twice as likely to be suspended as white boys or Hispanics, and this does no one any good except the neighborhood drug dealers.
Gregory Payton, in Cincinnati, talked about his journey: Going into the service, flying around the country, fixing battleships—that’s a good life. But what I couldn’t figure out was, if it was so good, why did I put my whole life in a tube? I’m talking about a crack pipe. I put everything I ever had in that tube, and nothing came out the end but smoke. After coming out of the shipyard, I quit. When I say I quit, I quit everything. I gave up. I gave up on me. I was homeless. But when I started listening to people, I started changing. And when I started changing, some things happened to me. And one of the things I did was I went back to work. But you know, in Cincinnati, they don’t have ships. So I had to go back to college. You have to have a vision. You have to have people who believe in you too. You have to have people who support you. You feel support. You feel love. They seem like small things, but yet, they’re so big, and they’re so great. One of the things I do know is that we all make mistakes. But where I work now, they have a little sign on the door, and it says: a smooth ocean never helped build a sailor’s skills. What I found out is that it starts with me and it ends with me. I can’t blame anybody for anything. I just gotta keep my head down and keep moving. The thing I do now is I just don’t quit anything.
When the boys get suspended or expelled—admit it, parents—there is usually a good reason. The problem is that not all of us will admit it. Our boy gets sent home, and what do we do? We get angry at the teacher or the principal or the school board. We call a parasite lawyer like those we see on TV. “No, Mrs. Jones, it’s not their fault! How dare they punish little Jovon! Let’s sue.” By the first grade, we’re encouraging the kids to use “the other dude did it” defense, and some of them never forget it. They’ll keep repeating “The other dude did it” like a mantra right up to the day they die, all too often courtesy of the state of California or Texas or Florida, (at this time the leading states in applying the death penalty). To be sure, the justice system disfavors black males, and some are in the system who should not be. But tragically, too many of our sons deserve to be right where they are.
Those black boys who do make it to high school drop out more often than they graduate. Without a working dad in the home, or in their lives, most of them fail to learn the kind of basic hands-on skills that would help them find an entry-level job. Working fathers can teach their sons about the necessity of hard work and about the need to show up on time and stick to a job. A working parent can also introduce them to a rather simple device that all of us hate but that most of us have learned to live with—an alarm clock. Getting up when you’re tired and going to school or work is not something that comes naturally to anyone. It’s something that kids have to learn at home. One advantage that African-American kids have over most people in the world is the ability to speak English. It’s the international language of business. To be a success anywhere on the globe, you have to speak it. But we’re letting this advantage slip away too. Many of our kids don’t want to speak English. In our day, we used to talk a certain way on the corner, but when we got into the house, we switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except for some young people you see hanging around on the corners.
You can’t land a plane in Rome saying, “Whassup?” to the control tower. You can’t be a doctor telling your nurse, “Dat tumor be nasty.”
There is no Bible in the world that has that kind of language. We used to blame the kids for talking this way until we heard some of their parents. Some black parents couldn’t care less. Too many teachers, of all ethnicities, couldn’t care less too.
Most black employers we know want to see the entire community prosper. But even they don’t want to hire boys who can’t dress properly, and who speak as if English were a second language. When we see these boys walking around the neighborhood, we imagine them thirty or forty years down the road wandering around just as aimlessly, and we want to cry. The problem is they don’t see themselves down that road.
These boys don’t really know what the word future means. Neither did some of their parents. And that’s why they’re just hanging out at the bottom for five or six generations, trapped in housing projects that were built to stabilize people just long enough to get a job, move out, and move on. Even if there were more affordable housing out there, many of these guys would not be able to find their way to it!
FACE THE FACTS
Black males are failing at alarming rates in the schools. Their rates of suspension and expulsion from school far exceed that of other groups. Given the high drop-out rate, the number of black men entering and graduating from college is far below the number of black women.
Currently, in college and professional schools, black women outnumber black men two to one. And if you don’t think that causes a problem for female students, you haven’t talked to one.
Is it something about being an African-American male? Aren’t we smart enough? Black Americans fought to open doors of opportunity— and now black immigrants are walking through these doors while too many of us are hanging out on the street corners. There is certainly institutional racism—particularly against black men—but racism doesn’t explain everything. Black men are, in fact, lagging. If it weren’t for the relative success of recent black immigrants in schools and college, the statistics would be even worse.
Enough young black males behave badly at an early age that they set the norm for other black boys. The stereotype of the angry and potentially violent black male can lead to racial profiling by teachers in the early grades. This makes it doubly difficult for those boys who are trying to behave and trying to get ahead to succeed. Soon the kids begin to stereotype themselves. These images lead to low expectations for achievement, which then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Check the numbers:
- Homicide is the number one cause of death for black men between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age and has been for decades.
- Of the roughly sixteen thousand homicides in this country each year, more than half are committed by black men. A black man is seven times more likely to commit a murder (excluding military actions) than a white man, and six times more likely to be murdered. (Black mothers live with these numbers. We don’t know how they sleep at night.)
- Ninety-four percent of all black people who are murdered are murdered by other black people.
- The life expectancy at birth of black men is sixty-nine years, compared to seventy-five years for white men, eighty for white women, and seventy-six for black women.
- In the past several decades, the suicide rate among young black men has increased more than 100 percent.
- In some cities, black males have high school drop-out rates of more than 50 percent.
- Young black men are twice as likely to be unemployed as white, Hispanic, and Asian men.
- Although black people make up just 12 percent of the general population, they make up nearly 44 percent of the prison population.
- At any given time, as many as one in four of all young black men are in the criminal justice system—in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole.
- By the time they reach their midthirties, six out of ten black high school dropouts have spent time in prison.
- About one-third of the homeless are black men.
This is madness! Back in 1950, there were twice as many white people in prison as black. Today, there are more black people than white in prison.
We’re not saying there is no discrimination or racial profiling today, but there is less than there was in 1950. These are not “political” criminals. These are people selling drugs, stealing, or shooting their buddies over trivia.
And when these kids get out, they are no longer kids. Many are hardened cons, and they are then recycled back into the community with the same antisocial, violent skills that got them sent away in the first place.
KEEP YOUR COOL, BUT NOT TOO COOL
We’ll be the first to remind you it’s not easy being a black man in America; it never has been. If we seem hard on our brothers, it is only because we know how hard they will have to work to regain control of their destinies.
Over time, we admit, we have had to adapt in unique ways to survive, to maintain our sanity, and to excel in areas that were open to us. One important way that black men have tried to maintain their dignity and to keep control of their anger is by being “cool.” Even successful black athletes have had to work at being cool in provocative situations as a way of saving their jobs—or even their lives.
For better or worse, we invented “cool.” Being cool, incidentally, is a male thing. For black men, being cool has been a way of projecting strength and manhood in a society that stereotyped us as trouble. It has never really caught on with women, many of whom don’t quite understand its roots or its value. Men tend to. That’s why it has intrigued males all over the world.
Coolness is very attractive as a cultural force. Let’s never forget that black men have made major contributions to American culture as a whole—in music, in fashion, in literature, in oratory, in science and medicine, in sports, in dance, and yes, even in comedy. In fact, no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good.
Still, for all its superficial appeal, coolness can shut down other emotional reactions and shield us from our true inner feelings. Being cool is protective, but that protection comes at a price. Playing it cool is not entirely harmless and can interfere with our emotional health.
To be cool is to be emotionally detached, at least on the surface. For some, showing emotions is uncool, unmanly. Expressing the kind of emotions that any good father should express—like warmth, love, caring, and grief—is almost impossible for someone who has spent his whole life stuck on being cool. Many who feel abandoned by a parent protect themselves from being hurt by putting on a cool detachment.
Better to put on those bad shades and shut off the world. But when that cool mask comes off, watch out! We have some powerful macho emotions beneath the surface, and when men and boys who have never really learned to deal with their emotions “lose their cool,” there can be hell to pay.
These guys can explode in the kind of rage and violence that make no sense to anyone, not even themselves. How many times have you heard a dude say, “Dunno” when asked why he shot a buddy or beat his girlfriend or hurt his baby? And he may not know. This is the “hot” side of “cool.” If these young men are hurting, they want to put the hurt on someone else—with painful results for themselves and others.
One of the challenges we face as a community is how to channel the anger in young black men. This anger has a lot to do with what their socalled friends and family have done and continue to do to them.
Many young men have channeled a lot of their aggression into a competitiveness that helps them achieve in education, the arts, and other professions.
It helped to have an involved father who was a music teacher, but what distinguished Wynton Marsalis from the beginning was his willingness to study and work hard. Recognizing his seriousness, the New Orleans Philharmonic invited Marsalis to perform with them when he was fourteen.
Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center admitted Marsalis at seventeen, their youngest student ever. From there, he was off to New York. Along the way, he also managed to earn the Eagle Scout award, the highest honor in scouting.
Still in his forties, Marsalis has emerged as the premier jazz musician of his generation and is an inspired composer. He has won nine Grammys and the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first time ever for a jazz recording. The trumpeter has also proven to be a caring human being. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he organized a benefit for his hometown called Higher Ground and did everything within his power to resurrect the flooded city.
Such drive is usually all for the better. Success in sports or academics or entertainment or business makes us all feel like we’ve got something going on, and it diminishes our own inner sense that we are not good enough. Black men feel less angry when they get recognition from others for their accomplishments.
Still, many men adopt the “cool” stance in social settings even when they don’t have to, even though it accomplishes nothing, even where it is inappropriate, even if it leaves a mate or a child feeling out in the cold—and that’s a frightening place to be.
TURN OFF THE HEAT
If cool is a problem, at least we’ve had generations to deal with it, to integrate it into our lives. Now “hot” may be a bigger problem still. Rappers, particularly gangsta rappers, have ushered in a hip, bold, profane, aggressive style that has few pretensions of being “cool.” Rap builds strongly on traditions from slavery that encourage an in-your-face style of confrontation and a verbal “ranking” on each other. Some male rappers have pushed this style to an art form of sorts, and many have pushed it beyond art of any sort.
Hot leads to trouble too. Hotheads offend easily and let no offense pass without revenge. They are like those dudes you see in a Musketeer movie who insist on a duel to the death in response to the slightest “dissing.” The very idea of a “war” between multimillionaire rap stars is absurd. But rap stars have parents too. And those parents mourn the needless deaths of their sons. There is nothing cool about cold-blooded murder—nothing at all.
Black boys, much more than girls, feel the need to carry on these traditions as part of their identity of being hot and/or cool. When boys hang on to so-called Black English in the classroom and verbal confrontations in the street, they may be hanging tough with their homies, but they are handicapping themselves in the game of life. They can “trash-talk” or “play the dozens” better than anyone on the planet, and that still isn’t going to get them a job or into college.
GET SMART ABOUT SEX
Gangsta rap makes our young people tough, but not so tough that they can walk through prison walls. It can jazz them about sex, but it can’t begin to make them good fathers. No matter how often or how publicly they grab their crotches, crotch-grabbing isn’t even going to get them a bus ride downtown.
Here’s the sad and stupid part. The more socially impotent the black man is feeling, the more he will rely on sexual conquests to prove his manliness. There’s a lot of bragging that goes on among black men when sex and paternity are their main claims to fame. Some will see getting a girl pregnant and having a child as proof of their virility. But what it really proves is their insecurity.
Many young women are equally insecure. When a young man whispers to a girl, “If you really loved me, you’d have my baby,” she finds this kind of “sweet” manipulation difficult to resist. Even though many teenage girls are demanding that their beaus use condoms, others keep quiet out of fear of losing their lovers.
Real men act responsibly, and they sure as hell don’t walk away from the mothers of their babies. Real men make a commitment to these young mothers. If they do not marry them, at least they should take care of their children.
Unfortunately, not all boys become real men. In our poorer neighborhoods, in fact, few do. We deceive ourselves if we deny that there is a crisis among black families. Roughly 70 percent of black babies are born each year to single mothers. The mothers are not all teenagers either. The rate of teen pregnancies has come down. These single mothers are often women old enough and educated enough to make good choices.
The fact is, though, that many of the black females who used to get married when they became pregnant are no longer doing so. There is less shame and less embarrassment. But more than that, some black women simply don’t want to marry the fathers of their babies because these men appear to have little else to offer beyond the sperm. Many of these men are unemployed and unemployable.
Recent studies by scholars at several major universities and as reported in leading newspapers show that a critical mass of young black men is becoming “ever more disconnected from the mainstream society” than they used to be, much more so than white or even Hispanic men.
In poor communities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school. What happens to these guys is not at all happy. Despite a strong economy for the last two decades, most have not hooked into the job market in any meaningful way.
These studies show that the percentage of unemployed young black males continued to climb even as the stock market did. By the year 2000, after eight straight years of economic growth, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their twenties did not have regular employment. These were just about the only people in America who didn’t. They couldn’t find work, they weren’t looking, or the warden wouldn’t let them out to look. By 2004, that percentage had increased to a preposterous 72 percent, almost four times more than among Hispanic dropouts. Even including high school graduates, half of black men in their twenties were jobless in 2004.
Because so many black men are unemployed, underemployed, and incarcerated, they are not proposing marriage, and if they did, their proposals might not be taken seriously. A father takes care of his children.
These men have trouble taking care of themselves. The relationship between them and the mothers of their babies is often strained, or worse.
Society keeps laying the problem on the “unwed mother.” You never hear anything about the “unwed father.” We have to talk more about these men and to these men if we are ever to see them assume their responsibilities as men.
What aggravates the problem is the absolute shortage of black men.
Due to their naturally shorter life span, the high rate of death from homicide and accidents, the imprisonment factor, and other problems that take men off the street, there are many more available black women than men at every age level. The odds favor the men and often spoil them.
Not too long ago a television show featured a thirteen-year-old mother who had somehow managed to have two of her suitors appear on the show for a paternity test. One of the boys was black, the other Puerto Rican.
They were fifteen- and sixteen-year-old best friends, who both had had sex with this young girl during the general time she had conceived.
The word shameless comes to mind. Why these people would wash linen this dirty not just in public but on national TV is still another sign that all is not well in the world. Why someone would encourage them and reward them is even more troubling.
In any case, the Puerto Rican boy said he was planning on joining the army. The black boy said he was going to college. Both said the baby would mess up their lives and wanted no part of him. When the results were read, the Puerto Rican kid whooped in relief, the black kid groaned in despair, and the girl cried.
“I’m still going to school,” said the reluctant dad smugly. The fact that a sixteen-year-old can say this on TV without worrying about sounding like a heartless jerk gives you some idea of where his training came from.
Neither he nor his own mother wanted anything to do with that baby. And no one called him an “unwed father.”
TONE DOWN THE CULTURE
The Ku Klux Klan could not have devised a media culture as destructive as the one our media moguls, black and white, have created for black America. Too often on TV news programs, black males are shown as abusive, irresponsible, absentee exploiters. This image may reflect a certain reality, but the media should also provide positive models, and not emphasize the negative.
In 1995, the Million Man March in Washington DC brought together hundreds of thousands of black men who publicly affirmed their responsibilities to their families and children. But even that was not enough to counter the flood of negative imagery.
What do record producers think when they churn out that gangsta rap with antisocial, women-hating messages? Do they think that black male youth won’t act out what they have heard repeated since they were old enough to listen?
Oh yes, then there’s nigga a thousand times a day, every day. Martin and Malcolm and Medgar Evers must be turning over in their graves. They put their lives on the line. Why? So our young people can pick up where white people left off and debase themselves instead of being debased? Talk about lowering self-esteem.
WALK BACK IN
When people say, “I never liked the Huxtables,” we know why. People who don’t like Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable don’t like—or don’t know—their own fathers.
We can’t speak honestly of black culture in America unless and until we honestly address the issue of the estrangement of fathers and their children.
The situation is by no means hopeless. We just have to get these fathers to realize that the children they sired are their children and always will be their children. By walking away, they have punished their children. They leave these children feeling abandoned. Once they come and claim their children, and feel the joy and the beauty of a hug, they will at least begin to understand what fatherhood is all about. But let’s not kid ourselves either. This is much easier said than done.
For no good reason we can understand, society seems to be telling young black men that fatherhood is no big thing. Society tells young people in general to look after number one and to worry about everyone else later, if at all. Like the sixteen-year-old on the TV show—if you don’t like the outcome, walk away. Even if you get married and you’re not happy, walk away. With all the temptations to walk away, the black divorce and separation rate today is 50 percent higher than the white rate.
And black women who divorce are considerably less likely to remarry than white divorcees, partly because of the shortage of black males.
Without being told and told often, young men simply do not know or understand what a father’s responsibilities are. Many of them have never seen a real father in action. Many do not appreciate that fathers are important to a child’s healthy development or that unemployed, separated, and unwed fathers can still interact with their children and contribute significantly to their well-being.
A wise voice from Compton, California, John Hill: The environment is not you. You can rise above those things that have happened to you. Those of you who are raising your children—turn off the television, take some time, sit down and read with them.
Talk to them, motivate them, help them to become something that they want to be. That’s what you have to do. The teacher does not raise your children. Teachers teach. Your job is to raise your own children.
You can’t give over that responsibility to somebody else. And please, whatever you do, don’t let the gangs raise your children.
Gangs don’t raise your children. And to all of them here, we have got to become fathers in our neighborhoods, fathers to our children, and fathers to every child in that neighborhood. We have to understand that we have to be there; the children are only getting 50 percent because only the mother is there.
SISTERS, HANG IN THERE
Black women, bless their hearts, are more loyal to black men than we deserve. Still, they are not afraid to write about the strains in the relationships between us.
Many black men have heard this outcry and heeded it. They have decided to organize, to raise not only their own consciousness but that of other young black males as well. Today, just as black men as a group are more aware of their chauvinism, black women are more aware of the unique struggles of black men. Yet, despite our common history of victimization, we are still victimizing each other—with black males inflicting the most damage.
The reasons for this are not hard to figure. As gender barriers began to crumble in the late 1960s along with racial barriers, women entered the workforce in droves; more recently, there has been an enormous influx of immigrants. These factors led to the displacement of many black male workers. At the same time, the shift to new technology and service jobs left many black men without the education and skills to compete for any except the lowest paying jobs. The job market became more competitive for poor black men with few job skills and inadequate educational preparation.
Some thoughts from Darryl Green: Young girls need to have a relationship with their fathers as well. If that father is not present in the young girl’s life, nine times out of ten she is going to have something wrong with her in the dating process when it comes to knowing what a man is. When I look at my seven-year-old daughter now, I realize that I’m the first man she is ever going to know in her life. And if I screw that up, she is going to be screwed up. So I’m saying to men as Dr. Cosby has said, “We need you all to come back home, fellas.”
Enough is enough. We need you at the crib. Drop the kids off at school in the morning. Pick them up in the afternoon. We need you to have an active role in their lives.
Black men and women have begun to harbor racial stereotypes about each other. Black males who already feel insecure around white people resent feeling a similar kind of insecurity around “strong” black women.
But no one can take a man’s physical power away, certainly not women.
That’s why sometimes—too often—black men overcompensate with rage.
They direct their destructive rage against black women in any number of unfortunate ways—verbal abuse, battery, even rape. Meanwhile, gangsta rap musicians cheer them on.
Unable to fight back, women can unknowingly transfer their rage toward their sons—just because they are male. Black boys in femaleheaded households feel the hurt most when the mother is angry with a black male. If they hear their mom say, “Black men ain’t worth s—,” the boys wonder whether that includes them. When their moms yell, “You’re no good, just like your father!” all the doubt goes away.
Black males and females must take the time to talk about their relationships with each other and with the children. Open discussion, with guidance from counselors, about the sexual and parental tension in black communities is something we all should encourage.
Some black men have already decided to acknowledge that pain and to make their brothers aware of it too. Black men have rallied and formed such organizations as 100 Black Men and Concerned Black Men to help vulnerable young black males and to serve as role models and mentors. Civil rights organizations have developed various “black male responsibility” projects, and some school districts have considered the merits of organizing all black male schools to address their needs.
Low expectations coming from a teacher can cause a child to fail.
Coming from a parent, low expectations can crush the soul.
STRIVE TO SUCCEED
As history has shown, we are a resilient people. We overcome. In the face of all of the obstacles that even the most challenged of our children face, we continually come across stories that give us cause to smile and to hope.
What these stories have in common are two things: kids with the will to survive and succeed and adults who have taken the time to help these kids along. In the story that follows, we add a third element: the power of friendship.
One night, while a freshman at Putnam Vocational Technical High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, Loren Wilder went roller-skating.
When he returned home, he found his whole world turned upside down. The police had raided the apartment and arrested his mother for drug dealing. She would spend the next several years in prison. Wilder finished the ninth grade at his uncle’s house and started the tenth at his sister’s.
When she left for Puerto Rico, he was on his own. Wilder’s buddy, Jimmy Hester, wasn’t faring much better. After years of moving from place to place with his desperately unsettled mother,
Hester broke off their tumultuous relationship and left home. He was fifteen years old and determined to drop out of school altogether. A phone call from Wilder convinced him to come back to Putnam, where they both played football. “If it wasn’t for Loren, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” said Hester.
At Putnam, their coaches kept a close eye on the boys, who would soon rent an apartment together. The school’s guidance counselor also kept an eye on them. The parents of their friend Wesley White watched over them as well.
The Springfield Republican ran an article on the three boys, then seniors, about how they clipped coupons and hunted for bargains to help save money for college. As of this writing, with a little help from adults who read the article, the young men are doing just fine. All three of them are juniors in college in good standing. When possible, they come back to Putnam to help mentor those in situations like their own.
GIVE FATHERHOOD A SECOND CHANCE
Many black men, including the poor, have been struggling with the challenges of a new model of fatherhood, one in which they play a greater role in the child-rearing experience. Black men benefit from feeling the pleasures and satisfactions of being involved with their little ones. Many complain, however, that the mothers shut them out.
How do we change that? If the father has been cruel or indifferent to the mother or to the child, how can we ask the mother to give the man a second chance? It’s never easy for anyone involved. Still, if a mother has a difficult—but not violent—relationship with the baby’s father, it is important to get counseling to help them work through their issues for the sake of the child. Parents should not use the children to manipulate each other. There are counselors in churches, health centers, and community agencies who can help parents learn to work together.
If the father is physically abusive and refuses to change, the mother has no choice but to shut him out. And the father should honor any legal restraining orders until he gets his act together and convinces the authorities that he has. In the meantime, for her children’s sake, the mother should try to find “substitute” fathers among relatives, mentors, and community organizations.
The fact that a black father is unemployed or underemployed should not disqualify him as a parent in the mother’s eyes. These men can play an important role in the household. If fathers take on more child-care and household responsibilities, it lessens the burden on the mother. By participating in the life of the family, men can help relieve the stress that is frequently found in low-income households, as well as strengthen their children’s development.
Children who spend time with their fathers will develop closer family connections and will benefit from the individual attention as they share in day-to-day activities. There are committed fathers out there. We all know the story of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who are both worldclass tennis players. Twenty years ago, their father, Richard Williams, told his little girls they were going to be tennis champions. With the strong support of both their parents, they started on a tennis court in Compton, California, and went on to play on international courts. Mr. Williams believed his daughters would win, and win they did. Dream dreams for your children. They don’t need to become international superstars, but they do need you to lift them up so they can succeed in life.
Dr. Willie Barber, of Baltimore, shared his thoughts: I talk to fathers who want to see their children, but the mom will not allow it, or the in-laws will say, “No, he’s not coming around here.” So there are a lot of barriers.
Sometimes it is tough to forgive people for what they have done. We have to help women deal with that. We have to educate them about the important role that fathers can and should play in their children’s lives.
In recent decades, there have been many programs developed to meet the special needs of black men and their roles as fathers.
Fatherhood training programs now exist in many communities around the country. If you do not have one in your community, contact a social service agency, church, or health clinic to urge them to set up such a program. Fatherhood programs are also a way of encouraging young black men to bond with each other for mutual support.
Finding ways to enable black fathers to connect with their kids is crucial to the kids’ well-being. As should be obvious by now, black men often have to overcome some very real hurdles to connect with their children.
These include child-support difficulties, incarceration, lack of education, and unemployment. In some of the harder cases, the men avoid their children for no other reason than that they see themselves as bad role models. What they need to understand, though, is that from the moment they commit themselves to that child, and as long as they honor that commitment, they can still be a good role model. Our kids, thank God, don’t ask for a résumé or for references. They don’t need to see our bank accounts. They just want us in their lives.
Constructive programs, especially for ex-inmates, are sprouting up in some communities, and we need many more of them. It is in these areas that we need policy changes and a criminal justice system that will support such programs. This is where black people’s historic role as activists comes in.
The Dellums Commission in Washington DC on which Dr. Poussaint served as honorary vice chair, issued a 2006 report that recommended, among other initiatives, the repeal of mandatory sentencing, an increase in the minimum wage, and a restriction of zero-tolerance policies in schools.
We must listen to these voices of wisdom and fight for state and local governments to help us salvage as many black men—and women—as possible. This includes financial support for programs providing counseling, education, and job-training skills. Men need a good steady job that gives them a chance in life; otherwise, they end up back in jail or on the streets. Such men can become permanently alienated from the world, which can be hell on the community and heartbreaking for the children.
When all is said and done, the black child is our future. It’s time for us men to think of the future, to straighten out our acts, to say to ourselves, I am more interested in raising my child than any issue I had before.
I’m going to behave or get help, but it’s about the child. No matter how useless or hopeless a father may think he is, his role issimply to be there. If he makes that commitment, he is a much better man than he thought he was.
ROLE MODELS, PLEASE APPLY
For many black males, chances for success seem slim in many fields because they lack role models. They don’t have a clue as to what’s out there. How many kids in even the smartest Crips set in South Central have parents who have decent jobs? How many of them have available dads at all? How many have moms who are doing something more than just getting by?
Without working parents in the home, or in their lives, how do these boys learn about work skills? From the get-go, respectable careers in the trades are all shut off to them. Unlike their grandparents, they don’t have to worry about segregated unions. But they do have to worry about developing their own skills, and that’s a greater worry still.
Some thoughts from Dr. Curtis Adams Jr. in Baltimore: In order to be a full-grown man, you must see one in action. It’s not just what that man says but what he does. The little things done day in and day out demonstrate what makes a man. And when a boy does not see this, he is deprived, and he feels it. Having said that, girls need to see a good man as well. A woman will not know how to pick a good man if she has not seen one.
Despite the obvious gains that people of color have made in most jobs and occupations, many poor young black males still believe that important upper-level occupations exclude them because they are black. You can tell them this is a new day all you want, but they are still stuck on yesterday. It’s much more comfortable to have someone to blame other than ourselves. That’s just human nature. We must reach out to black youth, particularly black boys, to show them all of the opportunities that are available. But more than show them, we’ve got to lead them, and that takes mentoring and tutoring and coaching.
These kids see all the bad role models you can imagine—drug dealers, pimps, you name it. But positive role models do exist. We’re talking about ordinary black men doing an honest day’s work as cab drivers, counselors, bus drivers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, and coming home at night to the mother or caregiver of their children.
When Benjamin O. Davis Jr. entered West Point in 1932, there were many of his fellow classmates who rather wished he weren’t there. To discourage Davis from staying, his fellow cadets would not eat with him or room with him and barely spoke to him except when they had to.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr., though, had something going for him that his classmates did not count on. That would be Benjamin O.
Davis Sr. The senior Davis had enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private and served with the legendary Buffalo soldiers. By the time his son entered West Point, Davis had worked his way up to colonel and understood full well the opportunity that West Point presented.
When the son talked of quitting, the father steeled his son’s resolve.
The son persevered and in the process taught his fellow cadets a life lesson, as memorialized in the 1936 yearbook entry on Davis:
The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.
It was not good luck or white guilt that led Davis to command the famed Tuskegee Airmen in Word War II or to become the first African-American general in the United States Air Force. It was a combination of personal grit and paternal steel.
DON’T COUNT OUT THE EX-OFFENDERS
Our young men see the bad guys making all that jack and wooing all those women, but what they don’t see is the twenty-thirty-forty years the bad guys spend rotting away in prison. And many do end up there if they don’t end up dead. In California, seven times as many men are in prison now as there were just twenty-five years ago, and way too many of them are black.
We have met with men who have paid their debt to society for the crimes they committed, clear-thinking men, a combination of Black Muslims and black Christians working to heal the inner spirit that has been so badly damaged. It is marvelous to look at the faces of the young inmates as they heed the words of these full-grown men, who speak to them without profanity about the great wisdom that they have inherited but so far mismanaged. And these young men are listening.
This is not the scary ranting we saw in the film Scared Straight. These men know the Spirit. They are talking brother to brother and father to son. The Christian men are talking about how God paid them a visit and how those visits changed their lives.
These men are not afraid to go up to the junior gangsters they see in the street and have conversations with them. This is what we mean by putting a body on these boys. These men provide a counterforce to the recruitment efforts of the Crips and the Bloods and other gangs.
As a society we could do more. We could envision a system in which those who come out of prison wanting help are sent to a local community college. There, at the least, they could finish their GEDs and get reacquainted with the job market.
Those with the interest could complete a two-year program and become what we might call “psychological behavior technicians.” Armed with a two-year degree and some serious life experiences, they could have an important positive impact on youngsters coming up. If these ex-felons wanted to go on, they would not have to stop at two years. They might want to get a four-year degree, or their master’s, or maybe even their doctorate.
There is no reason we cannot save most of them.
The media can help. They can show black male role models across a spectrum of occupations. Right now, sports and entertainment figures predominate. Not surprisingly, many black youth aspire to careers as athletes and entertainers. Who can blame them? But for every guy who makes the NBA, there are a thousand who just dream about it. Dunking over your head is of much less use in the real world than designing a bridge or reading an X-ray.
CLAIM YOUR CHILDREN
We are calling on men, all men, the successful and the unsuccessful, the affluent and the poor, the married and the unmarried, to come and claim their children. You can run the biggest drug cartel in America or win the Super Bowl, but if you haven’t claimed your children, you are not a man.
You can make all the excuses you want, but no one can stop you from claiming your children. It’s not about you. It’s about them. If you have not come to claim your children, you have stolen their hope. You have stolen any kind of feeling that they are worth something. They will likely have no sense of the past, little pride, and even less faith in the future.
They will see fathers at the mall or on TV and they will wonder how stupid or ugly they must be to have driven their fathers away. In going around the country, we have talked to people who create their own solutions, who don’t wait for the government or anybody else to provide funding, who start their own schools and community centers and mentoring programs. Many such programs have already been created by civil rights organizations, settlement houses, churches and mosques, and black fraternal groups. We have to focus on healing these emotionally wounded children.
A word from Mr. David Miller: In the city of Baltimore, with 70 percent of our males dropping out of school, it is very clear we are looking at a community-based tragedy. So let’s talk about a community-based solution—I and some others started our own Saturday schools for black boys. We didn’t wait for the government or anybody to provide funding.
We stepped out on faith and decided to raise the money. This experience is based on the life of Paul Robeson. So we have a very vigorous academic component. We have a vigorous lifestyle component.
And parental involvement is magnificent. You can no longer wait for school districts to do for our children what we know God intended us to do.
So what I would like to see you do is to start a program in your community.
We have to instill fundamental life skills—how to dress, how to act, how to talk, what to do when stopped by the police. We need to do things that will keep our boys close. We also need to teach our boys that they can be entrepreneurs, that they can create their own economic destiny.
As Mr. Miller shows, you don’t stop an epidemic by cursing the world as unfair. You don’t stop an epidemic by condemning yourself as a loser.
You stop an epidemic by becoming an activist and stepping up and being a man. Every male, if he wants to, can be one.
In Baltimore, Richard Rowe and Earl El-Amin led the audience in the African-American fathers’ prayer: First, I will work to be the best father I can be. I will openly display love and caring for my children.
I will teach by example; I will be there for my children at all times. I will encourage them in family values; I will never say negative and discouraging things to my children; I will teach my children to be responsible, disciplined, fair, and honest. As a father, I will attempt to provide my family with love and security. From this day forward, I will hold sacred my role as a father and stop making excuses.
There are great responsibilities parents assume in raising a child. And for a black child, those responsibilities often weigh heavily. Raising a child, in fact, may not be for everybody. But once any adult brings a child into this world, the child’s well-being must come first. And that’s the way it has to be.
Excerpted from "Come on People, On the Path From Victims to Victors" by Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint. Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Nelson. Reprinted with permission of Thomas Nelson