I first began to pen this missive after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I started again after the beginning of the trial for Jordan Davis. I called myself finishing it after the grand jury failed to indict in the Michael Brown case, and here we are again: Eric Garner. I decided to write this article so that I could share my perspective on this broad issue of the perception and treatment of black men in America.
I am a 25-year resident of Atlanta Georgia. However, prior to coming to Atlanta, I spent my life in my native state of Missouri – the show me state. It’s a posture that, to a large degree, incentivized me to leave Missouri and go further south to seek better economic opportunity. After leaving another small town in Missouri in pursuit of better opportunities, my parents moved to St. Louis. We moved to an area called Florissant, which is only a few moments away from the city of Ferguson. I recall many instances of walking to the corner store to buy my daily supply of candy, cookies and other treats – a store probably not much unlike the one that Michael Brown patronized.
Are We Any Different?
I’ve always believed in the power of mentoring young men and have devoted a good portion of my life to this pursuit. I’ve been married for 12 years, and I have two daughters and a nice home in one of Atlanta’s growing in-town neighborhoods. By all accounts, many people would consider me a successful and positive citizen.
But I write this article today as a black man who was once a young black man living in America. I would like to think that because I’ve been afforded better opportunities by my parents, I did not end up in the vicious cycle of violence that so many of our young black men are caught up in. I would like to think that, despite our limited financial means, their exposing me to so much in some way played a role in helping to make me the responsible corporate citizen I’m viewed as today. However, if I’m honest with myself, I know that little of this is true. While I do give a great deal of credit to my parents for the values that they instilled in me, I know in my heart, as the elders say, it was nothing but the grace of God that has sustained me. What do I mean?
As I look at the footage of the citizens of Ferguson and how some of them have chosen to express their anger in violence, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of compassion and empathy for them. Absent of education and resources, how would you expect people to express their frustrations? If I’m not educated, how can I give an educated response to what I perceive as an unjust situation?
What have we enlightened people done?
What analogous stones will we throw?
What metaphorical structures will we destroy?
In the spring of 1992, I was a junior at Morehouse College. It was May 1 – only a couple of days after the Rodney King verdict in which four officers were acquitted of a brutal, videotaped beating of Rodney King.
As I stood there on Fair Street in the middle of the Atlanta University Center, surrounded by at least 100 or so other AUC students, approximately 200 yards down the street were an equal number of law enforcement personnel in riot gear. There we stood: young, educated African-American men and women angered and frustrated by what we perceived as a gross injustice. Even though we had been afforded the opportunity to do more and be more, we somehow felt a connection to this man on the other side of the country – so much so that we were willing to put ourselves in harm’s way to express our discontent.
As I recalled the past three years, it seemed like every year has had its young black male story that has captivated America and spurred fear, frustration, ire (and, sometimes, idleness). My heart was saddened as I thought about who I am and how I am perceived. Do I see myself as different from these young men? At their age, was I really any different fundamentally from the countless number of young black men in the most depressed areas of our urban centers? If I were to change my clothes, perhaps my vernacular, or maybe even my hair style, would my treatment have been any different?
The issue we deal with is of perception.
As a black man, I have lived a great deal of my life being assessed and categorized: If I put on a suit, wear a tie and sport my Morehouse Alumni lapel pin, I am viewed as a contributor to society; but, if you were to catch me on a weekend in my hooded sweatshirt, listening to T.I, Lil’ Wayne, or Jay Z, am I a different person?
Legislation may help things, but without a change in how we perceive ourselves and others – a real shift in what we assume about people based on what we SEE – change is likely to be simply cosmetic.
This article may actually pose more questions than it addresses, but I would like to leave you with one parting thought: Those of us who would call ourselves educated and enlightened have a duty and responsibility to become mentors to this nation of young black men. We have a duty to help not only our community, but also other communities to distinguish the rhetoric from the truth. Let’s speak life to our young black men.
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