Are we witnessing the rise of black men?
I asked myself that question when I reflected on the powerful African American-themed films about Solomon Northup, who wrote, and lived, “12 Years a Slave,” and White House butler Eugene Allen brought to movie theaters across the country last year. I also pondered it when I listened last week to President Obama recount his own personal, and sometimes troubled, history during the announcement of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.
Northup, Allen, Obama — from different backgrounds and eras — have offered a panoramic view and deeper understanding of the collective African American male narrative. Some have cast the story of black men in America as dark and one-dimensional. Actually, it’s a chronicle filled with strong characters, rich textures and complex plots.
Some of the people I talk with credit Obama with sparking a resurgence of interest in the full story of black men in America while also boosting their upward trajectory. “I saw the legacy coming when he was elected,” E. Ethelbert Miller, literary activist and director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center, told me.
Obama has been a transformative force, providing multiple opportunities for Americans to reassess themselves and each other. African Americans have benefited most. “[He] gave us a new equation — not as a fraction but as a whole. [He] provides us with a certain kind of vision, an image of a black family instead of just a single-parent household,” continued Miller.
For decades, African American men have been strapped inside a Bigger Thomas straitjacket, analyzed against an assortment of pathologies. Sure, the group has had its problems: high dropout rates; high unemployment; high intra-race violence, for example. The District’s long-declining homicide rate is on the upswing with 25 murders so far this year, compared with 12 this time last year.
“It is a crisis in our city,” mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D- Ward 6) told residents during a political forum in Ward 7, where the crime rate is high. He has proposed investing $100 million in youth mentoring, tutoring and other programs, which he has called a form of economic development.
Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), another mayoral candidate, described the hike as a “public health crisis.” The violence in urban centers has long been considered by medical professionals to be a mental health issue.
Violence among black males seems to have begun escalating in the 1960s, following the deaths of Malcolm X and, later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Was it a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, fueled by atrocities experienced by African American men during segregation and the deaths of those revered leaders? More recently, has it been exacerbated by the casual killings of young men such as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis? Have some black men unknowingly engaged in dissociative behavior?
When I wrote my book “Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women,” I sought to capture how women, including myself, were dealing with growing up without their biological fathers. Along the way, I came to appreciate more fully the deep and acute pain felt by boys and men, many of whom, for myriad reasons, left their children and families. Those men told me they wanted to return but didn’t know how. They understood the damage and havoc they wreaked and wanted desperately to prevent their children from following the same path and unconsciously making mistakes triggered by that suffering. Many of these men were themselves the victims of father absence, expressing the same symptoms as their children.
Can the cycle be broken? Can there be a healing? Or at the very least, asked Miller, “How do we build new images to correct the stereotypes?”
Fortunately, the recent films have made a small but important contribution. They have begun to help contextualize the plight of African American men while reestablishing the long-forgotten integrity of black masculinity. They also have helped alter some perceptions — and perhaps even their own perceptions of themselves, helping to create for black men a more positive self-image.
But what happens if Hollywood stops telling stories like those of Northup and Allen? Obama’s initiative, and others like that suggested by Wells, offers a more dependable, long-term approach.
My Brother’s Keeper is designed to galvanize private- and public-sector institutions into investing in programs that would improve educational outcomes for boys and young men of color while keeping them out of prison and in the workforce. Obama has established a federal task force and solicited support from a slew of nonprofit organizations and foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Open Society; they have pledged a total of $200 million for the multi-year effort.
That’s not enough money, critics have argued. But the initiative is less about money and more about creating an opportunity for grieving and healing. It’s about inspiring hope, shaping dreams and setting the expectation and achievement bars higher. It’s about reestablishing the black-male project, helping boys and men embrace manhood — real manhood, not the one expressed by butt-hanging pants or found in negative, misogynistic and self-loathing rap lyrics.
The prime focus of My Brother’s Keeper may be on men. But women shouldn’t feel they are stranded on the sidelines. They have much to offer and gain from the initiative’s success. Truth be told, the healthy futures of African American men and women sit inside one another.