"Be careful, this apartment building is full of drugs," my companion said. We were balancing boxes of turkey dinners and shiny red bags of goodies, heading for the homes of several senior citizens.
A commotion at the doorway caught our attention. About six boys who appeared to be 8 or 9 years old were shouting. Two of them were fighting -- one was sobbing, the other landing punches.
"Hey, kids, stop the fighting," my companion, Jeff Wells, of Emmaus Services for the Aging, and I said at almost the same time. We tried to separate them. But one boy's anger was so intense that, after a few futile attempts, we backed off.
Across the street, a group of hard-eyed teenage boys had noticed the scuffling and came over to investigate. "Hey, leave my brother alone," said one of them, putting himself between the two. But the little boy who was filled with fury tried to push the much taller teenage boy aside. "I'm gonna mess him up!" he shouted, reaching for the sniveling boy. "I'm gonna mess him up!"
Telling his sobbing brother to go upstairs, the teenager fended off the younger boy's furious blows.
As the fracas abated, we climbed trash-littered steps to the second floor of the 12th Street NW building. An emaciated woman who appeared to be in her thirties spied our packages and asked, "Is that for me? I wish somebody was bringing me a Thanksgiving dinner."
We told her apologetically that the packages were for senior citizens, and knocked on doors to make our deliveries. We were greeted in one hot and cluttered efficiency apartment by a woman who was bent over and obese; in another by a heavy woman who sat on a bed folding clothes, surrounded by three grandchildren; and in a third apartment by a man who had been lying on his bed listening to the football game on the radio.
All were profuse in their friendliness, appreciation and praise for the food that had been donated to Emmaus Services.
When we left the building, the little boys were gone, but I couldn't help despairing and feeling shaken by the fight we had witnessed. Across the street, the hard-eyed teenage boys were a sullen contrast to Thanksgiving's midday sun. I wondered about the fate of the furious little man-child. What could possibly intervene to stop him from walking across the street and joining those teenagers and their bleak future?
"They are caught up in a complex mix of forces and circumstances that will, in the absence of policy changes, make their conditions even worse in the future," said the National Urban League's John E. Jacob in the foreword to a 1986 book edited by Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, "Young, Black and Male in America: An Endangered Species."
"Schools have failed them, so they have dropped out or been pushed out," Gibbs said. "Without education or skills, employers have rejected them or consigned them to menial dead-end jobs. Without jobs and legitimate income, they have gravitated to the illegitimate world of drugs and delinquency. Without security and stability, they have been unwilling or unable to assume family responsibilities for the children they father."
The authors recommended guaranteed family income, adequate health care and housing, and equal access to education, employment and training for youths and their families.
But solutions remain elusive. In fact, a new book on the plight of black men has just been published, "Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The Afrikan American Family in Transition," by Haki R. Madhubuti. It addresses such key concerns of black men as fatherhood, male-female relationships, sexism, drugs, AIDS, economics, and power issues.
The timing of this latest book is particularly germane to Washingtonians: The number of homicides in the District is beyond 400, at a record high for the third year in a row. Stunning and outrageous carnage, it is, however, sadly reflective of other urban areas.
What's important about Madhubuti's book is that he offers some strategies for survival, empowerment and development that are practical in the context of black people's lives, such as some innovative thoughts for aiding the development of children. I don't subscribe to all of Madhubuti's solutions, but many are worth considering.
And though I hope that the adults in the lives of men-children like the angry one I saw would somehow read these books and reach out to these youngsters, I felt this terrible despair, amid the conviviality of Thanksgiving Day, about the gulf between the books being written and the young men who will never read them.