A Story for My African-American Sons


Plopped on his belly, hands under his chin, my son giggled uproariously at my father's umpteenth telling of the story about the stubborn mule who wouldn't pull the plow.

It was an afternoon during my father's recent visit. I passed quietly, headed for the laundry room, not wanting to interrupt this bonding session.

Though just inches separated them on the family-room carpet, I couldn't help thinking of the vast differences between their lives.

My father was born in Mississippi in 1919 to poor farmers, the offspring of slaves. Black men were routinely lynched during his childhood.

My 6-year-old, the son of a lawyer and a journalist, is told constantly that opportunities await him. Want to be an astronaut? Sure, just study hard and go for it.

That chasm between the lives of grandfather and grandson closes and traps my psyche when I think of how in one way their lives are similar -- being a black man in America still means a life fraught with peril.

As the mother of two African-American males in Baltimore in 1994, I shudder when I read such headlines as: "The Black Male: an Endangered Species." The news is chilling: A leading cause of death for black males is AIDS. Young black men are 10 times more likely to be murdered than comparable white men. Most young black men in the city have been involved with the criminal-justice system.

As a journalist, I am by training skeptical of such statistics. For instance, all of those men involved in the justice system aren't necessarily guilty. Such numbers include those charged with first-time, petty offenses, too. Some of those men may have been picked up by police who associate skin color with guilt. So should I teach my sons to be wary of the police just when they are learning "the policeman is your friend?"

Besides, I consider myself involved in a social inoculation against such trouble. My sons are from a two-parent household where they're taught that violence is not the way to resolve disputes.

Nevertheless, I am wordly enough to know that social status and the number of parents at home don't necessarily keep your children out of trouble.

Remember Len and Jay Bias? They came from a middle-class, two-parent family. Len, a University of Maryland basketball star, died from an overdose of cocaine shortly after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. A few years later, Jay, Len's younger brother, was shot to death outside a Prince George's County shopping mall. By a stranger. Another young black male.

The Biases felt they had provided a solid home life bolstered by religious training. But, apparently, events overtook them.

At a writers forum last weekend during Artscape, Marita Golden, author of a book due out early next year on the plight of young black men, advised relatives and friends of young black males to share the wonderful African-American legends and our history with our youth to help them learn to cope with the current crisis in black America. We must search for solutions in the rich history of black America's struggles and triumphs, she said. Otherwise, the only alternative is panic, which leaves us with the status quo.

Black men have been an endangered species since being brought to these shores, she reminded the audience. It is just that today's pervasive media accounts of the criminal element among young black men make it appear to be a new problem, she said.

History shows that black-on-black crime isn't new, particularly among young, unattached men. The noted sociologist and civil-rights leader W.E.B. DuBois in part of his landmark study, "The Philadelphia Negro," examined the causes of Saturday-night knifings in the black community in the late 1800s. He found poor education and joblessness were the root causes.

"It was white racism that made the black experience different and increasingly dysfunctional," writes DuBois biographer David Levering Lewis of DuBois' seminal study.

So even 100 years ago DuBois was telling America that the young black male's problem was society's problem.

As for my sons, I'll remember Ms. Golden's suggestion to keep the wonderful old stories -- that highlight triumph over adversity -- alive in our family.

I think I'll call daddy and ask for more details on that stubborn mule.

Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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