The Perils of Being Young, African American and Male
By James Ewers
There is an unhealthy generational gap within the African American male community. It is acute and now more serious than ever. There are some stark differences to what was and what is. Black men my age grew up respecting social customs. For example, we loved our parents and honored our teachers. Our neighborhoods looked out for us. Courtesy and good manners were the rule and not the exception. Using appropriate language with our friends and adults was the common practice. We did not stray from these tenets. We respected girls and women. Sure, my generation had girl friends but we didn’t go around calling them nasty names. We answered the telephone by saying hello and not “yo”.
I and other black men of my generation respected our parents. Personally, I loved and feared my parents both at the same time. My mom provided me with exceptional spankings. She orchestrated my spankings. First, she told me to go in the backyard and get a switch. As she spanked me, she always provided me with wonderful commentary. She would usually tell me how much it was hurting her to do this to me. My thinking was if it was hurting her so much, why wouldn’t she stop? My dad, with his heavy Jamaican accent, chastised me even more. His technique was to make me feel so ashamed for committing the indiscretion. Now after all of this was done the embarrassment of it all set in for me. Whenever the kids in my neighborhood got a spanking, everyone knew about it. All of the adults looked at you with shame and we kids just tried to console each other. There was no number to call to say your parents were disciplining you. Quite frankly, that would not have prevented parents from fulfilling their role as parents.
Going to school was a time for learning and for making friends. Our generation of African American men respected teachers. We would never berate them or talk back to them. I simply can’t fathom talking back to a teacher. Our discipline problems never involved guns and knives. If anything, we may have gotten out of hand with another student but never a teacher. I and many others of my time can honestly say that school was a safe place to be. We just enjoyed school and couldn’t wait until the next day. Our neighborhoods were for the most part quiet and serene places. During the school year we were in the house at an appropriate time. When the street lights came on, we were in the house. Police cars in neighborhoods were a rarity. I am sure that I speak for many African American men during this time when I say we didn’t see our friends with handcuffs on getting into police cruisers. We didn’t have street gangs who tormented each other and neighborhoods. Experiences like I just described happened rarely whether you grew up in cities or towns. Did African American males who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s have perfect environments? No. However, there was a certain level of love, respect and civility that we gave to each other and our families and friends. Even those we didn’t know received the same treatment.
Hurt, harm and danger seem to be words that are used too frequently with today’s generation of African American males. When I look out at some African American males in their 20’s and 30’s, I wonder what has happened. Some seem destined and almost determined to go down the wrong track. In the words of the young, they simply love “drama.” I observe and listen to young black men and I wonder, what has happened? Conversations about dope and not hope go on too often. Going to visit a friend in jail and not in college seems to be happening too frequently. Am I being overly concerned? I don’t think so.
Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.