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Introduction: A Group Apart
I'm not exactly sure when I realized that black males are special, that the world sets us apart from normal humanity, that we evoke, in not quite equal measure, inescapable feelings of envy and loathing. It dawned, I'm sure, like most great truths in barely perceptible stages, tangled up inextricably in the mundane puzzles and preoccupations of life.
I do recall some of the childhood incidents that awakened me to that truth, incidents that, sometimes in painful ways, spelled out the difference between black and white. One began on a pleasant enough note. I had gone to Marshall Field and Company, a large department store in Chicago, to buy my mother a gift. As I roamed through the impressive emporium, assessing what my few dollars could buy in such an expensive and intimidating place, I realized that I was being followed and that my stalker was a member of the store's security force.
From one section of Marshall Field's to another, the guard shadowed me, his surveillance conspicuous and obnoxious. Determined not to be cowed, I continued to browse, trying as best I could to ignore the man who was practically walking in lockstep with me. Finally, unable to contain myself, I whirled to face him. I shouted something I no longer remember what a yelp of wounded pride and outrage. Instead of responding, the man stood his ground, staring at me with an expression that combined amusement and disdain.
We must have glared at each other for several seconds, as the realization slowly seeped into my brain that I was no more a match for him and his contempt than a mouse was for a cat. I shuffled out, conceding him the victory, my previously sunny mood eclipsed by barely controlled anger.
Decades after that day, I remember my emotions precisely the impotent rage, the stinging resentment, the embarrassment, the intense disappointment at myself (for not standing firm in the face of the man's silent bullying, for allowing a bigot to make me feel like a fool, for being unable to crack the guard's smug self-assurance). Yet, as acutely as I recall my feelings, I cannot recollect a single distinctive feature of my tormentor's face. I doubt that it's just the passage of time. On some level, I wanted to forget or at least forget the parts of the experience not useful to remember.
I have written about this incident previously, in The Rage of a Privileged Class. I dredge it up again because it was, for me, a defining moment. It was far from the most dramatic encounter of my youth, but it forced me to think deeply, in a way I previously had not, about how easily I could be stripped of my individuality, of my humanity, about how easily racial preconceptions could render irrelevant (at least at first glance) any truth about who I truly was. In the guard's eyes, I evidently was nothing but a thug, and his job was to run me out of the store to protect Marshall Field and Company, its clients, and its merchandise from this trash who had wandered in from the streets.
Some years later I experienced a similar humiliation. A maitre d', claiming he recognized me as a troublemaker, refused to seat me, and ordered me out of a San Francisco restaurant. When I declined to leave, he called the cops who eventually persuaded me to go. The small financial settlement I got after filing suit against the restaurant did nothing to assuage the anger that raged inside me for months after the incident occurred. At the oddest moments, the smirking face of the blond-haired maitre d' would creep into my mind, and I would fume anew over the fact that it took nothing more than the word of an arrogant white man with an inability to distinguish one black face from another to get the cops to literally kick me to the curb.
To be a black male in America is to recognize such treatment as a routine part of life. For, with minor adjustments of fact, the experiences related above are essentially universal among black urban American males. Some 52 percent of all black men (and 25 percent of black women) believe the police have stopped them unfairly, according to a poll taken by the Washington Post in 2001. And when you add to that the countless number who have been hassled unjustly by store clerks, bouncers, and other undiscerning gatekeepers, you pretty much have the entire black male population of the United States. For those of us who are the target, a steady diet of society's contempt is not shrugged off so easily. We tend to react in one of two ways: We either embrace the role we are told constantly that we are expected to play, or we reject the script and endeavor to create our own. For those unwilling to push themselves into the realm of self-invention, models of behavior abound.
Why are so many pimps black? Because sex is one area where (whether merited or not) we have been granted dominance, one area (and you can add certain sports to this) where countless white men envy us (or at least the myth of us) and fear we may outshine them. Pimping is easier (psychologically, at least) than proving ourselves than winning acceptance in arenas, such as the classroom, where we have been told we do not belong. We can draw comfort from the cold fact that whatever else they may think of us, whatever they may make us think of ourselves, they can never take away the awesome power of our physical gifts.
Like most men, I don't particularly mind being thought of as sexual. There are even circumstances in which I don't mind being thought of as a thug. There are times on the street late at night where such a stereotype provides a measure of protective coloration, so to speak. The problem is that the stereotypes carry a set of connotations self-fulfilling prognoses not all of which are either flattering or life preserving. And it is those connotations that are likely to get you tossed out of restaurants, refused admittance to stores, and pulled over by the police. It is those associated expectations that foretell a future circumscribed by the limits of someone else's imagination, those self-fulfilling prophecies that will have you hustling for pennies instead of reaching for greatness.
We can reject those expectations or we can succumb to them; we can follow the path of our presumed destiny or somehow find another route. The wonder is that so many of us refuse to give in, that we summon the strength to resist society's expectations and discover how truly wonderful and special we can be.
Being a black man in America has never been easy. It certainly wasn't for our forefathers. Yet at a time when the entire might of a race-demented society conspired to destroy their dignity, millions managed to hold their heads high. They refused to allow their humanity to be stripped away.
Every generation has its demons. Ours tend not to come clothed in white sheets dangling nooses from their arms. Many of our demons reside deep within us, invisible yet powerful, eating away at our confidence and sense of worth. In the worst case, they drive us to destroy ourselves or our brothers. And even when they don't kill us outright, they place us at a greater risk of miseducation, imprisonment, and spiritual-emotional devastation than any large population in America today.
It's not my intention to minimize the very real and formidable challenges that women face particularly women of color, who make up the fastest growing segment of America's prison population, who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune much more deeply, very often, than do men. But that is a subject for another day.
So, for those who are black men, for those who care about us, I invite you to contemplate where we are headed and where we should be going. And I also invite you to spend some time appreciating our accomplishments, as well as our potential, and acknowledging all that we have become and overcome.
We strut through the world like some dusky colossus, looming larger than life itself: a nightmare, a fantasy, an American original feared, emulated, shunned, desired. We are Colin Powell and Willie Horton, Louis Farrakhan and Tiger Woods, Jesse Jackson and O. J. Simpson, the deliverer and the doomed. We are as complicated, as intriguing, as American history, and in many respects, are every bit as confused. Jazz and rap, art forms that we created and in which we excel, define American music, just as basketball and boxing, two activities that we dominate, are the face of American sport. We set the standard for style and make concrete the meaning of cool. White men in boardrooms envy our style and confidence. (Ally McBeal's nerdy law partner isn't the only one carrying around the likes of Barry White in his head.) White kids in the suburbs want to talk like us, want to walk like us, want to dress like us. Some of them, in their pursuit of ghetto chic, are even flashing rapper-wannabe gold teeth. Yet, as much as they want to be like us, they have no desire to be us. (Well, maybe some of them do want to be Tiger or Michael.) For as special and gifted as we are, we occupy a tenuous place on this earth. And admired as we may be in the abstract or performing on the court or floodlit stage, when we walk the streets at night, we are more likely to inspire anxiety than affection.
Cradled in America's ambivalence, we embody her contradictions. We swagger as if we own the universe, yet struggle with our own feelings of powerlessness. And we struggle as well with the knowledge (both exhilarating and overwhelming) that we are deemed extraordinarily dangerous perhaps the most depraved group anywhere judging from the numbers of us (approaching a million) in prison and in jail; some 11 percent of all black American males in their twenties and early thirties are currently behind bars. But we are also think Martin Luther King, think Nelson Mandela, or for that matter Bagger Vance of the eponymous legend or John Coffey of The Green Mile a shining, global symbol of morality and compassion. Some of us think Cornel West (part preacher, part pundit, part philosopher poet) or Harvard colleague Henry Louis "Skip" Gates (scholar, multimedia master, and academic impresario) are reinvigorating the nation's most venerated temples of learning. And those of us who are neither uplifting the world nor wreaking havoc on it can revel in yet another fashionable identity, one recognizable from Newark to New Delhi: the ebony prince of hip-hop, sovereign and creator of the most danceable rhythms on Earth.
So why, given our status as cultural icons and the inarguable reality of our intellectual accomplishments, are so many of us filled with self-loathing? Why are we still debating whether our great democracy is truly capable of appreciating the true range of our talents and the fullness of our potential? For one thing, we are haunted by stereotypes, rooted in history, that give America's admiration a double edge. The very things she admires about us are, in somewhat different form, what she abhors and always has. John Coffey, the noble, selfless, gentle giant in The Green Mile, is merely the most benign manifestation of a superstitious, sentimental, dim-witted creature not quite on the same intellectual plane as normal human beings. The giant's superior morality is not won through conscious and conscientious inner struggle, but granted at birth, like the untainted but also untutored innocence of a child a man-child who, in this case at least, dotes on his morally deficient superiors. Similarly, our physical prowess and aggressiveness, so admired in sport, becomes something altogether different in noncelebrity mortals, who are less likely to be received with the blissful anticipation accorded a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods (who are seen either as "superblacks" or as heroes who have transcended blackness altogether) than with the dread and suspicion that greeted Rodney King whom the police, in defending their violently aggressive tactics, portrayed as some kind of quasimythical beast, imbued with herculean strength and subhuman self-awareness. Even when we are perceived with our morality intact and our brains fully functional, as we drive Miss Daisy or impart mythic wisdom, à la Bagger Vance, we are implicitly advised that our purpose is not to achieve anything for ourselves, but to serve the interests of others, usually white. Such presumptions, although somewhat flattering, endow us with characteristics, positive and negative alike, that have less to do with us than with the idea of us, with the dream or nightmare we have come to represent. And those are the flattering characterizations. When we are portrayed as less idealized creatures, we can be anything from mack-daddy, jive-talking pimps to soulless, street-smart killers. And unfortunately, being human, many of us take those fanciful, often destructive images to heart and try to fashion an identity out of them. But given such powerful societal preconceptions, how much power do we really have to determine who we are? In today's America that question presents itself from a thousand different directions, but let me begin by briefly revisiting the issue of prison.
To put it bluntly, we are watching the largest group of black males in history stumbling through life with a ball and chain wrapped around their legs. The statistics would be shocking were they not so familiar. Some 792,000 black males a record number were in U.S. prisons and jails as of June 2000 (more people than live in San Francisco, the twelfth largest city in the United States), a grand metropolis of wasted black potential. And there is every sign that things are getting worse. Unless we somehow change our present course, one out of four black boys living in America today will spend at least part of his life locked down.
How have we reached this sorry point? I'll have much more to say about this later, but allow me to make a few points in passing. Over the last several years, researchers have generated reams of statistics that demonstrate, among other things, that racial prejudice plays a substantial role in who gets arrested, in who gets convicted, in who is written off and hung out to dry. But this vast social tragedy can't all be attributed to a conspiracy of the system. Much of the responsibility lies closer to home. There is something very wrong with the way many of us are defining our place in the world, and that something is landing a lot of us in jail.
Much of it has to do with an attitude all too common in the streets, an attitude that encourages young people, especially young black men, to sabotage their future. It "helps us embrace negativity, embrace sickness....We're proud of having been in juvenile [detention], in the penitentiary....[People] celebrate at funerals...with a fifty dollar bag of marijuana....'Your boy' got killed. You go all out." The observations come from Zachary Donald, a young man who is part of a remarkable group of "street soldiers" who belong to the Omega Boys Club (more on that later) in San Francisco. And the sickness Donald alludes to is not confined to any one urban area.
In Los Angeles, a man in his early twenties a few months out of prison tried to explain to me why he had ended up involved in armed assault, drug dealing, and a long list of other crimes. His mother and father, he explained, were serious, church-going people who cared deeply for him and had tried to instruct him in proper values as they had tried to instruct his five brothers and three sisters. But despite the love and religious values at home, every boy in his family had gotten in trouble with the law. All had been sent to prison. And so had one of the girls. The call of the streets, particularly for the boys, had been too strong, and the parents' influence had been way too weak. "I started hanging around gangs when I was ten years old. I saw the older guys, and I wanted to be like them," he told me. The story told by his mother was much the same. The closest she could come to explaining why seven of her children had ended up in prison was to attribute it to the neighborhood in which they had been raised, a neighborhood where cops assumed any black boy was a thug, where gang leaders were the most respected males around, where it was a lot easier to "affiliate with the wrong people" than to reject them and the suicidal values they represented. And whereas girls had the option of staying at home with Mom, and thereby avoiding situations likely to end with sirens, guns, and handcuffs, boys had no such option not if they expected to be treated as men.
To his credit, my young friend was trying to re-create himself. He had become part of a group of ex-cons who leaned on each other for support. And he was working with younger boys, some not yet in their teens, trying to get them to envision a better life. He recalled a kid of twelve he had met recently who was convinced he would go to jail. "By talking to him, I tried to get him to see that it doesn't have to be like that."
Yet I was far from persuaded, sincere as he was, that he truly believed what he was saying. The insightful words that tripped off his tongue so easily seemed not unlike a prayer offered to a god who he was not quite convinced existed. Given his particular experiences as a low-level drug dealer, gang-banger, and police-certified demon it would have taken a truly indomitable spirit for him to totally turn his back on the assumptions of his past. Holding faith in beautiful, life-affirming possibilities is always a challenge in neighborhoods whose very existence reflects society's judgment that certain communities (and the people who live within them) are not worth much investment. It's easier to accept the message that life is meant to be short and that the only glory we are likely to get is the glory won by following a code of the streets that elevates us by devaluing our kind.
In a world with values so perverted, it's perhaps to be expected that even suicide which we once, with some justification, thought of as a white thing is increasingly becoming a black thing, and more specifically, a young black male thing. From 1980 to 1996 the suicide rate more than doubled among black males from fifteen to nineteen years of age. Obviously, no one explanation could make sense of thousands of unnatural and unnecessary deaths (and here I'm talking not only about those who killed themselves intentionally, but those who died from sticking needles in their veins or from ending up on the unforgiving end of a rival's gun) but allow me a few speculations.
Many of us are lost in this America of the twenty-first century. We are less sure of our place in the world than our predecessors, in part because our options, our potential choices, are so much grander than theirs. So we are trapped in a paradox. We know, whether we admit it openly or not, that in many respects things are better than they have ever been for us. This is a time, after all, when an African American can be secretary of state and, possibly, even president. The old barriers that blocked us at every pass have finally fallen away or at least they have opened enough to allow a few of us to get through. But although it is fully within our power, collectively and individually, to achieve a level of success that would have been all but unimaginable for most of our forefathers, many of us are doomed to fail.
The deck is stacked against us in childhood, when we are least equipped to know what we are up against, when in the absence of strong and wise guidance we often compound the problem of our racial stigmatization by making unfortunate choices about life. Opportunities for deliverance, bountiful though they may be, are not so easy to spot, and by the time many of us learn of their existence, our optimal moment has passed. So we stay stranded on the road to nowhere.
Some of us, of course, get lucky. We somehow get plucked off the road to failure a path carved by centuries of racism, a road designed especially for us and placed on a different path. Yet, even those who make it to the privileged class have found that success in this not-yet-quite-integrated America comes with burdens of its own.
"Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" James Baldwin famously wondered. If, in fact, the house is not exactly burning, the friction within it periodically generates plenty of heat. For acceptance in that house is frequently provisional, and won at the price of sublimating one's true self, of denying pains others have no reason to share, of ignoring slights others are determined not to see.
There is also the matter of a weakening sense of black community. The gap separating those who make it from those who don't has grown wider. And in that wide space, resentments have grown. Worse, in that huge space, that wasteland between untapped potential and unlimited possibility, a sense of futility has grown as well. There is "no place to be comfortable at," as one youth who had tried suicide on several different occasions put it.
In The Fire Next Time, written nearly forty years ago, Baldwin observed that white people were "trapped in a history which they cannot understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men." What has become clear, in retrospect, is that the white man is not the only one trapped in that history. We are trapped right there with him. So many of us approach the world feeling that we don't really belong, that we really are the brutish figures the world once perceived us to be.
"You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger," wrote Baldwin. Today rap stars build multimillion-dollar fortunes by embracing the identity imposed from without, by relishing being "niggers," with all that that implies. We wallow in stereotypes and call the practice "keeping it real." And we do so totally without irony, without realizing that much of the so-called reality we cling to (that black men are sex-obsessed, strutting sticks of macho dynamite, brimming with street sense, devoid of intellect, driven only by desire) is nothing but a tragic myth rooted in a time when white Americans, in order to feel good about themselves, needed to believe we were something vile, something disgusting, something inhumanly strange. For how could such a righteous and religious country justify enslaving people unless they were less than real human beings? In our anger and confusion, some of us have emulated have become the thing whites feared so much, without bothering to figure out that that thing was never really our authentic selves.
That, I suppose, is only natural. At some fundamental level, people tend to believe that they are what their society tells them they are. Our challenge, as black men, as human beings, is to see beyond the assumptions that limit our existence.
The same year (1963) that Baldwin published The Fire Next Time Martin Luther King penned his famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail.
That letter was King's defiant response to a group of white clergymen who had counseled him to be patient, to keep his protesters and agitators off the street. But justice, King pointed out, was not prepared to wait. And neither was he. "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," he proclaimed.
To see Birmingham today is to see a very different city than the one where King occupied a place of dubious honor in the local jail. During a visit there, I found myself at a dinner table with the city's mayor, a black man. He and the white constituents with whom he was dining were eager to put the old Birmingham behind them and to celebrate what the new Birmingham had become. No longer a place of oppression, Birmingham is a barometer of progress, a would-be symbol of how things have changed, for whites, for blacks, male and female alike.
The very week September 2000 that found me in Birmingham also saw James Perkins, a black man, elected to the mayoralty in Selma the first black man ever elected to the post. And to make things even more symbolically poignant, he was replacing Joe Smitherman, a symbol of the old South, a man so mired in the old way of thinking that he had argued during his campaign that Selma needed a white mayor to keep industry and white residents from fleeing.
That such a blatant appeal to racism did not pay off says something hopeful about the America we are now constructing though, given that most of the voters were black, Perkin's victory doesn't exactly prove that Alabama has become paradise. Still, how do we square the very obvious progress with the fact that so many of us feel thoroughly incapable of reaping any of its fruits? How do we square the lifting of barriers with the fact that black men are literally falling in droves, destroyed by everything from bullets to depression to AIDS?
We begin by recognizing a simple fact: Though this may be the best time ever to be a black man in America (and here comes the all-important fine print), you only prosper if you make it through the gauntlet. And that gauntlet is ringed with bullies armed with ugly half-truths with which they will try their damnedest to beat you to death. So what you must remember is this: Your best chance at life lies in rejecting what they what much of America tells you that you are, perhaps rejecting, in the process, ideas you have harbored for most of your existence of what it means to be black and male.
Being a black man in the twenty-first century is a very complicated thing. It requires us to be open to unprecedented possibilities. It also compels us to acknowledge that all the success some of us enjoy is not enough when so many by some standards, the majority of black men are denied the opportunity to share it. It requires us to rethink who and what we are and, as we have done so many times in the past, to invent ourselves anew. This book, this extended letter, is not meant as the final word on what that process will entail. The aim is a great deal more modest. It is more in the nature of an invitation to contemplate the possibilities of the journey yet before us, and a review of some of the strategies required to arrive at the end of that journey intact. It is also an acknowledgment of the strength, beauty, pain, and confusion of those of us negotiating our continued survival in a country that still can't decide whether it most wants to love us or lock us down.
Copyright © 2002 by Ellis Cose