By: Vickie Wilcher
I recently overheard a conversation between a mother and grandmother. The grandmother in classic “grandma” form had covertly slipped one of her grandsons a cookie. His mom (grandma’s daughter) spied the cookie operation and intervened—chastising both her mother and her son. She made the child give her the cookie and said to her mother, “That was so unfair to him. Please don’t do that. I don’t want him to grow up thinking he can just break the rules whenever he feels like it…that’s not the kind of man I want him to be.”
Upon hearing this my reaction was initially mixed. At first I thought, “Damn, it’s just a cookie.” But almost immediately upon that thought my mind shifted to a scene that disturbs me deeply—it’s a scenario that plays out on corners, in parks, in alleys on front stoops and any number of trash strewn nooks and crannies across the District and in many other urban areas across the country; it’s that scene in which a group of Black males, young, and sometimes older, linger aimlessly in an empty moment, drinking cheap beer and liquor, maybe firing up a blunt and seemingly watching the world pass slowly by.
As the words of the young mother echoed in a deep place in my psyche and the pictures of the many young Black males on corners became clearer I wondered two things: 1) what kind of man would this little boy, who could not have been more than four or five years old, grow up to be and 2) had those boys on the corners had moms (and/or dads) like this mother, who had clearly given deep thought to how she would raise her son and what kind of man she wanted him to become.
To the latter question first: studies suggest that most of the young (and old for that matter) males that we see just sort of hanging about, existing in lethargy, hopelessness and helplessness are victims of poor or no positive, strong male role model/father figure; and in many cases these young men are further burdened by overly protective mothers who neither encourage, nor allow their sons to fully experience the tensions involved with the various stages of human development so that they might learn and grow from those experiences. These mothers unwittingly (we should hope) “coddle” their sons, thereby perpetuating the idea of the Black man that Zora Neal Hurston must have been referring to when she wrote: “So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks.”
Hurston’s point really had to do with how strong Black women were and had to be, but in this context I’d like to look at the equal and opposite notion: the Black male’s unwillingness and/or inability to “tote the load.” Going back to our men on the corner, many of them, regardless of their age, live with their mothers or some other woman in a home that is hers. Often, neither woman, mom nor wife/girlfriend, forces the issue of making the Black male contribute more (carry at least part of the load). Rather, and probably for more reasons than I or you the reader can comprehend, any number of Black women accept and sometimes even condone the Black male’s idleness and his willingness to sleep in and later hang out with the fellas on the block or play video games for the better part of the day.
Sadly, this is the case even though we know such things as, according to author, Michelle Alexander, there are “more Black men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began; and that “one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males, if current incarceration trends continue.” Turning a blind eye to the present condition, these facts included, of a significant portion of the Black family and community with respect to role of the Black male will likely have a damning impact on the whole of society in years to come.
But there’s a herd of huge bright purple elephants in the room—one of which is the fact that Black women have a tremendous part to play in determining the way of their male counterparts; and like the other elephants/facts, we don’t want to talk about this one either. My statement here is not to suggest that Black women are the sole architects of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of Black males. In fact on some levels Black women, like so many other women around the world have little or no power in terms of effecting immediate and global change—cultural and institutional power constructs prevent this. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step and charity (love) does begin at home. So, if Black folks, men and women, (re)educated ourselves, embracing the fact that when people behave in a certain way they are likely unable or unwilling to act otherwise. Whichever the case, in the case of the many Black males who find themselves mere pieces of statistical charts and graphs; I can’t help but believe that if more of us raised our boys in ways that emphasized characteristics like strong work ethics, trustworthiness and respect (much like what the mother noted above appeared to be doing) they would indeed be bigger better men and therefore help to build bigger, better families and communities.
After a while it became clear to me that the young mother who scolded her own mother for slipping her son a cookie had it right. It was in that moment that she was teaching her son that deception, cheating, taking things inappropriately and breaking rules for the sake of mere personal gain are all unacceptable behaviors. As they walked away, the boy’s mom said to him, “You know daddy won’t like that…” And then my understanding of being able to hear this exchange was complete. I knew then why one of my first thoughts had been about the innumerable Black males (tweens, teens, 20 somethings, 30 somethings and even older) I’ve seen and known who think nothing of languishing slowly away, living life on the cheap, taking whatever they can with as little effort as possible.
When I compared and contrasted those Black males to the little Black boy who couldn’t keep his cookie I concluded that his was a most fortunate position to be in—having a grandma who would attempt to show him some special favor and a mom who would counter that with a loving lesson and reprimand. This little boy was/is in that wonderful place where he’ll see/experience two extremes involved with parenting and he’ll be able to work toward finding balances between the two. This will be good for him and will likely contribute to his growing well.
I also resolved that while there are many corrections for us (the African American community) to make—spiritually, socially and otherwise—a simple adjustment will be for us to look honestly at the facts before us. Let’s stop ignoring the elephants in the room, like: “Black males ages 30 to 34 have the highest incarceration rate of any race/ethnicity; a black male born in 1991 has a 29% chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life;” and despite the fact that African Americans make up only approximately 12%-13% of the American population, we are nearly 40% of the prison population.
Let’s accept and deal honestly with the fact that while many single moms and dads have and will raise wonderful sons, growing them into strong, smart, caring men. But it’s time for us—all of us, the village that we so conveniently reference—to pay more than lip service to the “proper” rearing of our children. Fathers and father figures must engage and mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends must stop making it okay for our “mens” to hand the load to the womenfolks.” We must teach our sons (and daughters)that the world has an assortment of the sweetest cookies, cupcakes and the hugest slices of all kinds of cakes and pies there for them to enjoy—and all they have to do is righteously earn them.