In a small playground off Park Heights Avenue, a man is pushing his two daughters in a swing. "We're going back, way back, way waaay back!" he shouts, pulling the swing as far up as it can go. Then, "Dowwwwwnnnnn!" as he lets the swing go, laughing along with the delighted squeals of his little girls who are sharing the crazily arching seat.
"You're gonna crash! You're gonna crash!" the man shouts.
"No, daddy, no!" cry the girls.
"Ba-boom!" he cries, slapping one end of the swing so that it rocks and twirls out of control.
"Stop that, Daddy!" cry his daughters, scolding him the way little girls do. And so it goes.
This man is a slightly built man with a thin wisp of a mustache. He is wearing a tank top and shorts and a baseball cap, turned backward. This is early morning, July 4, and hardly anyone else is up and about. It is a muggy and overcast morning -- weather better suited for sitting under the fan with a cup of orange juice than for playing with your kids in the park. But the children's mother is a nurse and works the midnight shift, he explains, so he has taken his daughters out of the house so that she can get some sleep. Later, he says, the family will have a cook-out.
"You do this every morning?" I ask.
"Nah, not every morning," he says. "We usually try to get out and do something, though."
And this is where my story about this man ends. For all I know, he may be an alcoholic or a drug user. He may have a criminal record. He may have fathered other children by other women. He may physically abuse his wife and treat his mother with disrespect. He may even be a man whose soul is warped and twisted by self-hatred.
I suggest these possibilities because he is a young black man. And it is hard to think of young black men these days, except in terms of social pathology.
It was even on the tip of my tongue yesterday to ask this man, "Are you a brute?" or "Which kind of brute are you?" But no, I prefer to accept him at face value -- a father out playing with his daughters on the Fourth of July.
But, I am beginning to feel that I am the only person willing to give black men the benefit of the doubt.
At the Baltimore Arena last week, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam asked some 9,000 black men to love themselves, respect black women, and end black on black violence.
As near as I can tell, most of those present took the pledge. But am I the only black man on Earth who is insulted even to be asked? Am I the only one to question that most black men are depraved animals?
On the one hand, statistics show that black men are accused of half of the violent crimes in the country. Two-thirds of all black children do not live with their fathers. Homicide and AIDS are the leading causes of death for young black men, vying with health complications associated with alcoholism, drug abuse and gluttony.
On the other hand, black men today graduate from high school at almost the same rate as whites and there are more black men in the college and graduate ranks than at any other time in American history. Yet unemployment among black men may be higher today than at any time since the Great Depression. (Employers complain that black men do not have the skills to perform unskilled labor). Our nation continues to maintain two distinct systems of education, justice and health care, separate and unequal.
So, it may be that black men in our society face extraordinary stresses from unemployment, poor schools and bad health care -- this, in a society that tends to judge manhood by profession and income rather than character. Despite this, most of the black men I meet every day are decent, hard-working, ordinary fellows. They have their frustrations. They have had disappointments. But they are trying to do the best they can with what they have.
I am not making excuses for the crime, the violence or the number of women forced to raise their children by themselves. I am trying to explain why I feel the social pathologies do not tell the whole story. Why is this simple truth so hard to accept?