I have just read colleague Nathan McCall's article, published in today's Outlook section of The Washington Post. (For those who have not, read it and return to this later.)
His is as insightful and as courageous a commentary about what is happening to black men in America as I have ever read.
Like McCall, I am a product of a black middle-class neighborhood. And when it comes to pointing out the homes of boys I grew up with who are now dead or who have lost their souls to drugs, McCall's Portsmouth, Va., is my Shreveport, La.
It seems like every other house has been cursed.
During one of my visits home not long ago, activist Dick Gregory was fasting and praying in a nearby park that had been taken over by crack dealers. There had been a rash of drive-by shootings, bayou-style: kids on bicycles firing at crowds of other kids. It was crude, but deadly.
In one of many local drug deals gone sour, a teenager had his head cut off and mounted as an ornament on the hood of his car.
These weren't just folks from "the bottoms." They were also from my part of town.
I asked McHenry Hardy, a neighbor and retired coach of championship public school football teams, how boys whose parents had given them everything they wanted had ended up just like the ones who didn't have a dime.
"We spoiled our children," Hardy said. "We gave them cars to drive to college, paid their off-campus rents, let them do as they please."
Parents who had once waited in the rain at unsheltered "colored" bus stops, who had been forced to eat at segregated lunch counters and use segregated restrooms, reveled in the new freedoms for their offspring.
In too many cases, Hardy believes, the approach backfired.
"We didn't want them having to go through what we had, so we ended up giving them so much that they failed to develop an appreciation for anything meaningful."
And there was more -- as McCall explained.
"Our parents tried to insulate us from the full brunt of racism," he wrote, "but they could not counteract the flood of racial messages, subtle and blatant, filtering into our psyches -- messages that artists like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison have documented, ones you never get accustomed to: the look in white storekeepers' eyes when you enter; the 'click' of door locks when you walk past whites sitting in their cars."
Enter anger -- the hollow point emotion exploding in black men nationwide.
"Murder is merely the apex of a self-destructive pyramid on which many black men of all classes find themselves," said Fred Phillips, a clinical psychologist with the Washington-based Progressive Life Center. "The larger problem, as I see it, is that black men are misdirected, misunderstood, misguided and misappropriated as a human resource. No matter how well we seem to be doing by external standards, there is a tremendous amount of underlying pain, stress, depression and rage."
Although middle-class lifestyles appear to insulate some blacks from the carnage, Phillips said, "clothes, cars and cash have not prevented an explosion in the breakup of black families or saved the black man from deadly stress-related cancers, heart diseases and hypertension."
Barbara Love, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, calls this "internalized oppression." Simply put, it is the guilt, shame, fear and feelings of inferiority that have been programmed into the black psyche over generations.
"The devastating consequences of these messages is that it is no longer necessary for the system to keep blacks in their place," Love said. "We start doing it to ourselves. Whites don't have to keep us out of college if we feel that we are not smart enough to go. They don't have to keep us out of jobs if we feel there is no point in trying to get ahead. The Ku Klux Klan need not carry ropes if we hate ourselves so much we kill each other off."
A question posed by McCall resonates deeply: How does the black man deal with this? How can he explain his anger and alienation from the rest of the world, if only to save himself?
As William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs noted in their book "Black Rage," if you want a man to self-destruct, just make him angry enough.
McCall reminds us that the roots of black rage run deep. Until black men find creative ways to dig them up and cast them out -- as McCall has done masterfully -- we will continue to be unwitting participants in our own demise.