Being a Black Man
Interactive Feature: Series explores the lives of black men through their shared experiences and existence.
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The Old Kinship

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By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Friday, December 29, 2006

It's midmorning on a Friday at the TriNitely bowling league in Crofton, and the four members of Team 33 are in the later frames of their lives, pulling together as a team, trying not to let one another down.

Leadoff man Glenard Hodges, 65, says he needs to set a winning tone with his ball. Anchorman Edward "Shotgun" Garrison Jr., 65, says give him the ball when the game is on the line and he'll bring it home every time. Lawrence T. Thompson, 64, just wants to close every frame. And Ray V. Mitchell, 60, can do the math in his head, letting the bowlers know when they're 20 sticks down and a couple of good rolls would put Team 33 ahead.

Once, they were young men, living in the South, raised by a black community that provided love and sustained attention. They folded into a fraternity of men who preached self-reliance and offered protection, humor and support during their shared struggles. In white places, where a black boy could be jailed or beaten, the world was fraught and perilous. And they might be the last generation of black men who share the memory of being deliberately taught how to walk in the world.

"When we were in the South, that's all we had was each other. We were still competing in school or athletics or whatever, being the best we could be, but we still had the community," Hodges said. And community held you up. Black people have lost that, the bowler said. "We're separate now. Now, we're fragile."

The retired ex-union guys have watched the rules change. In two generations, they've seen some of their deepest beliefs -- in work, family, respect and responsibility -- fall out of vogue with some younger black men. And they've seen their vaunted brotherhood, an answer when the old Negro spiritual wondered how their souls got over, dissipate as black men maim and kill one another over the smallest slights. It's something they could not have imagined as young men, laboring to find their places.

Each of the bowlers on Team 33 has a long view of the lanes. Three of them go back more than 35 years, when they came to Washington and met driving buses -- part of the 20th century's great migration of black people propelled by Northern labor markets and the promise of civil rights. Their lives have been better than their fathers'. They've seen black men make significant social, educational and economic gains.

But now, they say, that promise has shifted into reverse.

* * *

The Working Man

It can be hard to eye the bowlers on Team 33 and guess how old they are. Perhaps it is out of a belated sense of fairness that time does not so easily cut and line the faces of black men. To fix their ages, it's best to listen to their stories.

The men on Team 33 all made between $60,000 and $80,000 a year before retiring. None has a college education, but they bought middle-class houses in Prince George's County. They're married, and they sent their children to college. They've made mistakes but took care of their responsibilities. (Hodges and Mitchell, for instance, had children outside their marriages -- and helped send them to college as well.)

They have pensions and health-care benefits for life. They are sandwiched between a generation that bragged of being locked up in the march toward civil rights and a generation in which being locked up for criminal offenses is sometimes a rite of passage.

They came through at a time when a blue-collar man could win.


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