Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Black Culture in America: Who Did This to Us?

There was once a time when young Black men like me were taught the importance of getting an education, getting a job and maintaining a neat appearance. We emphasized good grooming and tried to present a neat appearance at all times. (“No one wants to hire a bum, especially not a Black bum!”)

Whenever we got off the ship during my Navy days it was called “liberty.” Once in a while, the required standard for liberty dress was raised without warning. The typical White Sailor of the time preferred the same outfit most of the time: tee-shirt, ball cap, jeans and sneakers. Sometimes that didn’t cut it and they had to scramble to find suitable attire.

These men glared angrily at the Black Sailors as we were let off the ship. We were not being given special privileges, we were simply appropriately dressed. Rewind two hours earlier before liberty call. Down in berthing the Black Sailors were shaving, showering, selecting a proper outfit for the evening and of course, trimming our hair.
The White Sailors were slouched in the lounge waiting for the clock to run down to freedom. No, it wasn’t favoritism; it was being properly groomed no matter the occasion. Our mothers and fathers taught us that.

Little Jayvon

I saw a handsome young boy in McDonald’s today. He must have been about six or seven years old. He had that calm, placid observant look that naturally intelligent children have. Watching the world, waiting to see what it holds for them as they journey through life.

He also had a head of long, intricate braids pulled back into a ponytail cascading down his back. I wasn’t sure if it was his natural hair (it was not his natural color-light brown tending towards blonde) or if someone had taken him in for a very expensive bonding session. He looked good but I have been plagued by questions from the moment I saw him.

What is expected of him now? What can he do? Looking back over my own childhood I can hardly imagine running, playing, climbing rocks and trees with such things in my hair. Neither do I think the women who coifed him would be pleased if he came home sweaty and dirty as boys his age are inclined to do. So I wondered, “What does he do?”

What is the future for this boy?

He is maturing around women, no male role-model in his life to mentor him, dressed like a doll in someone’s collection and not allowed to play or encouraged to study. He is being taught the importance of looking good at all times and praised for it daily. But nowhere is he being taught the value of being a man.

I see older versions of him walking around the streets daily. Sagging pants, stoop-shouldered and tattooed; they walk aimlessly from one uninteresting place to no place in particular. Life after high school is empty for these boy-men. Unless they have a woman willing to care for them as the single mothers and aunts have done in the past, these lost souls have no future.

Go back to the boy with the braids then look at the 19 year old behind bars or serving food at KFC and wonder “Is this the best we can do?”

Corporate Role Models

The nation is full of successful Black men for these boys to look up to, but nowhere are they presented where they can have a positive effect. Tattooed thugs, gangsta rappers, wild athletes and criminals dominate the media. Even the highest paid, most talented Black men don’t make the news for long unless they are involved in criminal or sexual behavior.

Tiger Woods, for example dominated the gentile sport of golf for a decade. He was only really in the paper when he won some tournament or made a great shot but the limelight quickly faded as he was simply too “clean cut” for the masses.

Once his marriage exploded and his sexual misconduct came to light then Tiger Woods had a place in our culture. How is that possible? Why is it a Black man cannot do anything significant unless it involves screwing someone?

Our culture sexualizes Black people. We never talk about it, here at least, but foreigners see it clearly and are not shy about discussing the topic. I have been told quite a lot by the people I have met during my own global travels. From Asia to Europe and everywhere in between, the people see Black Americans held up as a sexual ideal and examples of physical perfection. So why do we not see or hear that here?

Sidney Poitier

According to his biography, Sidney Poitier is "a native of Cat Island, the Bahamas, (though born in Miami during a mainland visit by his parents), Poitier grew up in poverty as the son of a dirt farmer. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to Miami to live with his brother in order to forestall a growing tendency toward delinquency. In the U.S., Poitier first experiencedthe racial chasm that divides the country, a great shock to a boy coming from a society with an African American[sic] majority. A determination to find and create opportunities for African Americans was born in him because of the poor treatment he received on the streets of Miami."

Sidney Poitier went about changing the perception of Blacks in America through the characters he portrayed in his movie roles and in how he conducted his personal life. He is no saint but he is more remembered as a dapper, handsome, well-spoken educated Black man which is far better than the thug and clown roles more common for Black actors of his era.
I remember him as most people do in his roles as an educated man in a suit. Clean and intelligent; he looked like he belonged no matter the setting. His smart demeanor removed all excuses for exclusion. The White majority was forced to fall back on their own simple prejudices to block his progress. Many chose to release their bigotry rather than embrace it.

That was a contribution to our cause. And it was an example of how racism can be fought successfully. Not with violence or rebellion but with passive excellence in the style of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was also a man of character and stature.

Life was not easy or perfect for either one – certainly not for Dr. King – but it was a sacrifice they made for us to have a chance at a better life today. And what has become of that chance? Sagging pants, tattooed faces, missed education, broken families and crime are all we have to show for the opportunities bought by the pain of Civil Rights.

Dathans Among Us

I will address who a “Dathan” is in another article. Suffice it to say, he was a character portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the movie THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. His goal in life was to live comfortably among the Egyptians by helping to keep his own people in slavery. Once they were freed, he did all in his power to deliver them back to Pharaoh so that he could go back to his privileged life.

Black Americans have many such people laboring daily to ensure Blacks never rise to a level of excellence rivaling their White neighbors. Russell Simmons, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and the entire hip hop industry exist to market failure in the Black community. What is sold as “our style” is really nothing of the sort. More often than not, the Blacks portrayed on screen and the media are molded to fit someone else's perception of what it means to "be Black."
We had a glorious past filled with influential musicians who made the world that much better for everyone. Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and other songstresses made a career without sexualizing themselves. Great music came out of our homes and clubs through labels like STAX and MOTOWN without one mention of the “n-word.” The songs were not pure or puritanical but they certainly did not serve to degrade the morals and self-esteem of an entire generation. The worst fears of Whites who opposed “Jungle music” when rock and roll was being born have now come to fruition.

What now?

I worry less about the moral decay than I do about the simple lack of drive, the lack of vision. When asked where they expect to be in five years most young Black men today would answer “Jail.” Many would be surprised if they are still alive.

What future does Little Jayvon have and who will be in his life to help guide him to it?

One thing I do know is what happens to the Black community eventually spreads to everyone else. Young White boys sag their trousers without the slightest idea where the practice came from (prison – with its purpose of making homosexual rape that much easier and escape for the victim that much harder).

I would rather we had a new fade of emulating the best of our predecessors instead of the worst. Imagine if high school boys embraced a fad of wearing suits to school regularly and getting high grades. The worst thing that could happen is they would find themselves fit for hire and (much better) capable of starting their own companies.

It always comes down to numbers. A tall, talented boy with a basketball has a 2% chance of making it in pro sports. But a boy of any size with a love of books has a good chance at going to college. A boy with an engineering degree has an 80% chance at a high paying job and almost 100% chance of avoiding poverty.

Don’t give Jayvon braids, give him a book.