I love you. I love him. I love us. No, I really do. I had to say that because we may not hear that enough. And let me be very clear, we aren’t owed anything; we are not given much, outside of the love of a mother and a father (sometimes, not even that). We have to go out, learn it, earn it, create it, invest it, provide it, protect it, and then share it. The world expects a great deal from us and for good reason; while we may not believe and achieve all the time, we, as Black boys and Black men, do know we can be great, excellent, inspiring, scholars, fathers, leaders.
I know that it frequently feels like the world wants us to be everything and nothing at the same time. Conflicting? Contradictory? Confusing? Right. News flash, Black women, likewise, feel as though they have to become Okoye (from Black Panther), Michelle Obama, and Nicki Minaj (all in one) just to survive let alone be accepted or loved. I hope that we are non-judgmentally aware of the challenging choreography between role-play and role-taking; between our public personas and our private selves; between the individual and the institutions; between the self-love and the systemic hate. It is not easy to become my best self while trying to make sense of my splintered, disordered, hyphenated existence in this country. I mean they call(ed) us "slaves." They call(ed) us "Ni***rs." Now, they say "African-American," while still (mis)treating and removing us like both domestic and foreign threats. And apologies, I know I am no therapist or psychologist, just someone curious and concerned about our individual and collective physical, social, and mental health as Black peoples. In this letter, I intend there to be no challenge, no critique, no condemnation, or no consternation; just a check-in, with my brothers.
How are you? No, really, how are you doing? Have you ate, slept, meditated, went out for a walk? Called your brother(s)? Sister(s)? Have you taken a moment to remember three things that you are grateful for? I mean, do you even have that moment, with all of the stuff on TV, the stuff happening in our streets, and all the stuff on your mind (i.e., the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright) ? Have you had a chance to slow down and consider your personal and professional goals? Have you shared a smile or a good laugh with your best friend, partner, or child? I ask because so many people think that they know us, and we sometimes think we know everything and everyone else. Just for the next 10 minutes or so, I just want to focus on us—us Black boys and Black men.
************************STOP READING. TAKE THAT MOMENT.*************************
I come to you as a curious Black man in his early 30s wondering about the public and private portrayals, perceptions, plans, and progress of Black boys and Black men. I don’t mean to be gray, ambivalent, or overly complex, but I do want to be thoughtful, empathetic, and welcoming. Because so many upstanding Black men have given me so much light and life, from my brothers and step-father to my coaches and friends, I have to honor him, them, you in my writing. And I am not lost or seeking external validation but rather looking to see Black boys and Black men eye to eye and heart to heart in this check-in.
Context: After thirty or so years in this Black body and a few hours on the Clubhouse app, I was almost in tears, listening to Black men and Black women verbally blast, blame, and belie one other for the unhealthy state of our community. In hearing both Black men and Black women express their tragic experiences and hard-learned self-truths, all I could think about was the amount of pain, trauma, and disconnect in these echo chambers or these virtual forums for public humiliation. Not all Black people are suffering nor are Black people a monolith, thus we do not all have the same experiences, yet we can be subjected to the same problematic prejudices, policies, and punishments in America just for the colors of our skin.
While on the app, I felt a range of emotions from shock and shame to bewilderment and compassion. At times, I felt validated in my confirmation bias but then other times, I found myself rolling my eyes and becoming defensive. Then the constant interrupting, instigating, and “trolling” in the chatroom made me fling my phone across the room as I felt myself sinking into a quicksand of emotions or feeling lost in the midst of people’s frustration, distrust, and vitriol. And in a matter of a few hours, I had gotten beside myself, out of character, and out of my sober mind as I struggled to get off that emotional rollercoaster and sign out of the app. Talk about social media literacy and conscious content curation. And I call myself a teacher!
After showering that night to collect myself, I jotted a few notes and reflected on my own unhealthy and harmful thoughts and actions from various lenses: personal, professional, intellectual, emotional, institutional, historical, academic. It took a few days of checking out different rooms to filter through the peacocking, flexing, bravado, hubris, delusion, and honestly, the toxicity. Initially, I frequented these particular chatrooms just to listen to respond, not necessarily to understand--something that I teach (listening to understand) yet failed to do once I was outside of the classroom and in those chatrooms.
Black boys and Black men, in a series of letters, I just want to share my experiences as an invitation to turn inward, reflect, recalibrate, re-charge, and then rise.
“Let me lace you, young blood.”: For the most part of my life, I have been quite the talker. My momma thought I was special because I used to point and gesture instead of literally opening my mouth and talking. That was me as a toddler, dancing and singing to Michael Jackson yet quiet and vigilant once the music stopped. Now, no one can shut me up whether in person or online. I know how to run my mouth. I know that I have a big mouth. I know that I have a smart mouth, as my momma would say. My mouth has gotten me into trouble in classrooms, relationships, and boardrooms. My mouth has also gotten me fed, paid, and plenty of opportunities. As a boy growing up with three brothers, no sisters, I learned real fast that a closed mouth don’t get fed. I was taught to speak and greet my people as well as speak when spoken to as a child. I had no business eavesdropping or meddling in grown folks business.
Knowing that I am a highly sociable person when I want to be, I have learned to listen more and listen better. I usually had some witty, back-handed retort, response, or rebuttal when conversing with other people, especially any critics; probably still do, just in my head or maybe under my breath. In my teenage years, as I was socially-referencing other black and brown classmates to learn the terms and conditions of private school, I soon realized that I had to humble myself, meaning sometimes closing my mouth and opening my ears. This practice originally came out of survival and then emerged as a pretty useful skill. I had to learn the game. I had to be open to being “put on game.” As my big homie Fahim would say, I needed someone to “lace me with game.” I thought I knew it all. I had excellent grades, a strong command of the English language, and a bit of charisma. I was totally full of myself. Once a vigilant boy walking in a sea of white prep-school kids, I never became an asshole but I did develop a bit of hubris as a defense mechanism against bullying. I could talk my way out of a bad situation if necessary. The problem was I should have never put myself in bad situations to begin with. One small convo with my step-father, big brother, or other men whose words I respect and trust could have saved me from some big problems along the way.
Besides white supremacy, patriarchy, white feminism, crony capitalism and the litany of other social ills, I have proven that I could be my own worst enemy, from my banter to my beliefs and behaviors. Self-accountability can be both painful and liberating, depending on when I decide to look in that mirror. Even with my love-hate relationship with this damn country, I can't blame everything on everything else; I am ultimately the author of my life, the creator of my own reality. And some of the best authors and creators are the ones who can look and listen closely, carefully, and critically.
Black boys and Black men, we have a lot of catching up to do. We have a lot of love to give. We have a lot of laughter to be had. I am glad to be in your company.
So, let’s continue to engage. Let’s continue to educate. Let’s continue to elevate.
Let’s continue to account for one another. Let’s continue to affirm one another. Let's continue to rely, relay, respond, reflect, and rejoice with one another.
More letters to come...
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