Friday, October 14, 2005

Shall We Overcome?
A Black Look at Black America

On the one hand, we are CEOs at AOL Time Warner, American Express and Merrill Lynch; we have served as secretary of state and White House national security adviser; we are mayors, police chiefs, best-selling novelists, MacArthur fellows, Nobel laureates, professors, billionaires, scientists, stockbrokers, engineers, toymakers, inventors, astronauts, chess grandmasters, dot-com millionaires, talk show hosts, actors and film directors; Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists (as is yours truly). We are inescapable in the fabric of America's lived experience and defy easy categorization. The GDP of black America is $631 billion. Homeownership is close to 50%. The number living in poverty is 25%, which is too high, of course, but a vast improvement over indigence of the past.
So writes Charles Johnson, a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle and the author of "Middle Passage" and "Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories".
But there is a second, disturbing profile that reveals too high a percentage of black men being AWOL as fathers and husbands; as disappearing from our colleges (UC Berkeley's 2004-05 freshman class had only 108 African-Americans out of 3,600 students, with less than 40 males, and not one black among the 800 entering students in engineering); as graduating from high school with an eighth-grade level of proficiency in math and reading; in prison, on probation or on parole (a third of black men in their 20s). …

It seems that after decades of supporting and building up our daughters, sisters and wives, we are finally willing to acknowledge a national "boy problem" in general, one with devastating consequences for black males in particular. That belated recognition, our "leaders" seem to be saying with yet another media-courting march, might be too little too late. We have already allowed the talent, resources and genius of two generations of young black men who might have enriched this republic to be squandered by gang violence, by poor academic preparation, by the lack of good parenting and by the celebration of an irresponsible "thug life" that is ethically infantile and, predictably, embraced by a notoriously values-challenged entertainment industry.

Two things could not be more clear in 2005: First, without strong, self-sacrificing, frugal and industrious fathers as role models, our boys go astray, never learn how to be parents (or men), and perpetuate the dismal situation of single-parent homes run by tired and overworked black women. The black family as a survival unit fails, which leads to the ever-fragile community collapsing along with it. Second, our black predecessors (particularly Booker T. Washington with his corny but unfailingly correct "gospel of the toothbrush") understood from the era of Reconstruction until the late 1960s how indispensable was the black family for sustaining a fight against racism that by its very nature can only be measured in centuries, and for ensuring that our progress toward liberation, personal and political, would not be lost in but a single generation as it now threatens to be.

The columnist William Raspberry has lately urged black people to resist becoming trapped and limited by antique narratives about their lives. "For the first time in black American history," he wrote, "what we do is a greater determinant of our future than what is done to us. We need to teach that and preach that and shout that--to our young people and ourselves. We need to take note of the immigrants--including those from Africa and the Caribbean--who see opportunity where too many born here see only disparity."

No comments: