I read the recent New York Times cover story, “Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn” (March 20, 2006), with a great deal of pain and sadness. As a Black man who is in his late 30s, I have literally encountered every dilemma documented: I am the product of a single-mother-led household, fatherlessness, horrific poverty, omnipresent violence in and outside of the tenements of my youth, and the kind of hopelessness, depression and low self-esteem that led me to believe, very early on, that my world was just one big ghetto, that Black boys like me were doomed to a prison stint or a premature death, that there was nothing we could do about it.
For sure, much of my life has been spent attempting to both reconcile and ward off the demons of those circumstances. On the one hand I managed to get to college on a financial aid package because my mother instilled in me, in spite of her possessing only a grade-school education, a love of knowledge. But, by the same token, the cruel variables of my adolescent years followed me into adulthood, leading to temper tantrums, arrests, suspension from college, job firings and violent behavior toward males and females that has only subsided in the past couple of years because of a renewed and determined commitment to therapy, healing, self-love and spiritual transformation. I have had a very productive career as a writer and I have been homeless and hungry as a grown-up. I have traveled much of America lecturing and bringing people together, and I have burned more bridges than I care to admit. And I have been a great model for Black male achievement to some, while a symbol of the worst aspects of contemporary Black masculinity to others.
It is not an easy balancing act, because most of us poorer, fatherless Black males, especially, were not presented with a blueprint for manhood as boys, other than the most destructive forms in our ’hoods and via popular culture. Thus we find ourselves stumbling through minefields riddled with systemic racism, classism, drugs, guns, crime, gangs, minimal expectations, unprotected sex, disease and death. We often have to figure this all out for ourselves, with little guidance or direction. And we are, indeed, those homeboys you see on America’s street corners, left alone to fester and rot our lives away.
Without question, so much of American maleness is rooted in the belief in white male superiority, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, violence and materialism, and it is abundantly clear how those stimuli disproportionately and disastrously affect poor Black males. Or, rather, what was said in The New York Times article is accurate in each and every city I have visited: “We’re pumping out boys with no honest alternative.”
Part of the problem, undeniably, is perpetual governmental neglect at the federal, state and local levels. If a similar article had been written with the heading “Plight Deepens for White Men, Studies Warn,” it would be considered a national emergency, monies would be earmarked for a domestic Marshall Plan focusing on these white males, and empowerment policies would be implemented immediately.
Little wonder, then, that as I work with and talk to younger Black males in urban settings they aspire to be three things: a rapper, an athlete, or some form of a street hustler. These limited life options exist because not only have governmental agencies largely abandoned this population, but so too has the Black middle class, and, specifically, those of us who are Black male professionals.
It is a very obvious phenomenon to me: In segregated America, Blacks were forced to dwell in the same neighborhoods. Thus, even if you were a poor Black male, you at least saw, in your community on a regular basis, Black men with college degrees, Black men who were doctors, lawyers, businessmen—Black men who offered a proactive alternative to the harsh realities of one’s poverty-stricken life. Integration not only brought about wholesale physical removal of the Black middle class, but also wholesale emotional removal as well, a broken relationship, if you will, that has never been mended. This is the vacuum, the gaping hole, for the record, that created hip-hop culture, a predominantly poor Black and Latino male-initiated art form, in America’s ghettoes in the late 1960s, early 1970s, right on the heels of the Civil Rights era. And this is why hip-hop, to this day, with its contradictions notwithstanding, remains the primary beacon of hope for poor African-American males.
So as we rightfully petition the government, on all levels, to work to improve the opportunities for poor Black males, to view this crisis surrounding Black boys and Black men as linked to the very future and livelihood of America, I issue a challenge to professional, successful Black males like myself: become a breathing, living example for these poor Black boys and men. Share life lessons with them, mentor them, please, and do not be afraid of them, ever.
Kevin Powell, writer and community activist, is a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Brooklyn, New York’s 10th Congressional District. This version of his article, “Black and Male in America,” is an excerpt from a longer version that can be found at www.kevinpowell2006.org/writings.html.
By Kevin Powell