PLEASE deliver a message from me to all those young men involved in stealing cars," Myra Green said. "Tell them to find something more constructive to do with their time."
"Like getting an education," chimed in her husband, Dennis. "Knowledge is the power."
That is the message the Greens say they tried to convey to their son, Simmont Thomas, a young man who was gunned down while fleeing from a police officer in West Baltimore April 17.
Simmont was no saintly 14-year-old. Nor was he the incorrigible thug some would like to believe. He was treading a thin line. On one side he was a student and loving son; on the other, he was an accessory to car theft.
"Simmont wasn't a bad kid," his stepfather told me. "He was never disrespectful to an adult. His problem in school was cutting up. He wanted to be the class clown -- keep everybody laughing. He also refused to make good grades. He didn't want to be considered a nerd."
Simmont's view was not unique. Young black people, a generation of them, are eschewing knowledge, disdaining scholastic achievement and consciously stifling any flashes of academic brilliance to avoid being labeled: student, nerd, white!
It seems to be an idea they've thought of themselves. It came out of the blue, embedded itself in their young, impressionable minds, and nothing short of a major lobotomy seems capable of dislodging it. Excellence in scholarship is considered a "white thing," as are speaking standard English and aspiring to a professional career.
Dennis Green says his stepson's grades had started to improve. Unfortunately, young Simmont's choice of friends did not. He couldn't cut loose his "homeys" -- those who liked to go out weekly and steal cars. With his grades taking an upward turn, Simmont had decided he wanted to be a narcotics cop. He hadn't realized that running with his homeys and stealing cars jeopardized his chances of becoming a police officer. The Greens have a theory about why Simmont chose to go on that final run. "He probably didn't want to be thought of as a punk or a chump," said his mother.
In other words, joining his homeys in stealing cars was a test of manhood for Simmont, some sort of perverse rite of passage. Anyone who presumes to judge Simmont Thomas harshly and suggest that he was unwise or stupid to fall for such a challenge to his manhood simply underestimates how difficult it is to resist at 14.
When I was 22 -- much older, wiser and more mature than Simmont Thomas -- I fell in the same way. It was my second day of basic training in the Air Force. I had just come out of the latrine when the drill sergeant stopped me. "I want to see you in my office," he commanded.
Wondering what I had done to screw up after only two days, I went anxiously. Three other guys were there. The sarge needed squad leaders, and he'd selected us. He gave us a brief description of a squad leader's duties. I was thinking of the couple of dozen things I'd rather do than be a squad leader, and I was all set to decline the offer. But when he'd finished his speech, the sergeant didn't ask, "Who wants the job?" Instead, he asked, "Does anybody feel he's not man enough for the job?"
There it was, the manhood challenge. I don't know what the others were thinking, but I said to myself, "I can't punk out and admit I'm not man enough for the job. Looks like sarge has himself a squad leader."
If I could be beguiled that way at the age of 22, think of how Simmont Thomas must have felt at 14. The prickly issue of manhood in black urban America can sometimes have deadly consequences. There are drug dealers, thugs and gunslingers who hold themselves up as models of black manhood. Simmont Thomas may well have been thinking, "They're asking me to take a little ride in a stolen car." He may even have concluded, as I did that day back in basic training, "I can't punk out."
As I have learned since and Simmont Thomas might have learned had he lived, there are times when it is wise, honorable and even manly to punk out. Young black men today need a legitimate rite of passage, not one that involves car theft, joy rides, gun fights and death. Developing one will require a radical overhaul of the black urban subculture.
Which black leaders and organizations are up to the task?
Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.