Wednesday, January 19, 2011


             My feeling is that not enough has changed in the lives of black males since John
 McCluskey Jr. and I published Black Men Speaking in 1997. (See that book as basically a transcript of the souls of black men as they speak about and describe their lives, hopes, and dreams.) In fact, in some ways things have worsened.  Like the narrator of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, we might say that for many black men, “It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.” Beyonce Knowles last December gave her husband Jay-Z, whose fortune is worth $450 million, the most expensive car in the world, a Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport priced at $2 million;  Kanye West just spent $180,000 for a watch in his own image, which is only slightly less than the $250,000 that rapper Usher paid a New York luxury watch company to create a timepiece with his face on it.  More black American men are rich and famous today than at any previous time in American history.          

But I am profoundly troubled by a report published last November by the Council of the Great City Schools, entitled “A Call for Change. ” It states that “the nation’s young black males are in a state of crisis,” and describes their condition as “a national catastrophe.” This report shows that “black boys on average fall behind from their earliest years. Black mothers have a higher infant mortality rate and black children are twice as likely as whites to live in a home where no parent has a job. In high school, black American boys drop out at nearly twice the rate of white boys, and their SAT scores are on average 104 points lower. In college, black men represented just 5 percent of students in 2008.”  Commenting on this situation, Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, said, “There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten. They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”

Syndicated columnist Bob Herbert, writing recently about this alarming report,  described our current situation in the post-civil rights period as a “raging fire that is consuming the life prospects of so many young blacks….Cultural change comes hard,” he said, “and takes a long time, but nothing short of profound cultural change is essential.” This feeling that a new way of thinking is necessary was expressed even earlier by one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis. “If King could speak to us today,” Congressman Lewis said in 1994, “he would say, in addition to doing something about guns, he would say there needs to be a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas in the black community. He would say we need to accept non-violence not simply as a technique or as a means to bring about social justice, but we need to make it a way of life, a way of living. 
We can take the first small steps toward this revolution called for by Congressman Lewis by mindfully changing the way we talk to each other, by eliminating the violence and disrespect in our speech. (And, yes, I am talking about that anger-provoking cultural ritual called Playing the Dozens that every young black male is exposed to before he’s ten years old.)  I would like to suggest a simple test for whatever you want to say before you say it. Think of this test as being three questions---or three doors---your speech must pass through before you make it public. The first door is, Is it true? The second door is, Is it necessary? And the third door is, Will it cause no harm?

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