Freeing young men from the trap of aggression

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of students at a youth arts program in West Baltimore. I was given carte blanche to hold forth on the topic of my choice, so I chose personal narratives — specifically, the benefits of effectively communicating who you are, where you come from and where you'd like to go. It's a skill that's useful during a range of interactions, from first dates to job interviews, enlisting others to help you reach your destination.

Most of the students were very attentive, but before we began, one boy made it clear that he had a grudge with one of the girls and left before they could trade blows. Shortly after I started, I stopped momentarily to point out how disruptive a student holding up the wall was, before asking his name, making it clear he could join us, and shaking his hand after he took a seat. And later, during the workshop portion of our session, the smallest kid in the room said he wanted to become a boxer, "because I like to hurt people." People often underestimated him, he explained, and he needed to protect himself.

It was a choppy start, but I was definitely in the right room. Like some of the boys I met that day, I grew up with a limited vocabulary with which to explain how difficult it is to follow a harsh, unwritten code. The news is filled with proof that machismo, among many other things, is killing us, so I needed to show them other options.

The programming begins at an early age. Even if, as a child, you're told not to fight, on TV a lot of the good guys are rewarded for solving problems with violence. By the time you're 6 or so, if you tear up too often after a scrape or fall, you might be told to "toughen up." Before long, we've learned enough to police our own behavior. As a boy, one of the last things you want to hear from a peer is "Quit acting like a girl," whatever that means.

The fewer positive influences you have helping you push back against this, the more likely you are to embrace some pretty self-destructive tendencies. Growing up in East Baltimore, by the time I was 11, I heard stories of children not much older than me having sex. Some of these kids just got a head start acting out the caricatured gender roles we already knew very well.

I actually had a great support system, and by my mid-20s, it looked like I'd escaped the worst of what could happen to any kid from a troubled neighborhood. I was, essentially, being paid to attend graduate school in a foreign country. I should have been happy. But being that far away helped me put my past in focus and appreciate how stressful it had been to be on guard constantly, how I still carried a lot of that anxiety with me, and why I turned small, perceived insults into a very big deal. I was often angry and tense but couldn't fully explain why.

It took many conversations with family and friends and a few specialists to work through this, but eventually, I became pretty good at owning up to what I felt, even when it wasn't pretty. That's why, today, I'm grateful to know a number of men who are helping boys in Baltimore be responsive — not reactive — to their surroundings, and think critically about the type of man they'd like to become. There's Rod Carter of Black Professional Men, Inc.; LaMarr Darnell Shields of the Urban Leadership Institute; and New York Times bestselling author Wes Moore, to name just a few. Wes' book "The Other Wes Moore" is the true story of two young men who happened to share a name. One let his anger lead to murder, while another was able to face it, harness it and overcome it. Wes literally wrote his own story. I sometimes cite him as proof that others can do the same.

My workshop ended well. The kid I invited to sit down soon left, but the boxer stayed, and I'll never forget the boy who wore a green hoodie. The program director said he doesn't often think much of strangers. He was reluctant to speak early on but, by the end, he was eager to know when I'd be back.

You hear a lot about young, angry, black men. But what you may not know is how much love there is waiting for those of us fortunate enough to return from the long, hard journey to find ourselves.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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