(ThyBlackMan.com) Although I have not conducted a “scientific study” that elitist academicians would consider worthy of being published in some high-brow Academic Journal that approximately six people, and that is being generous, will ever read. I know through face-to-face interaction that many, not all, of the African-American males sitting in my classes, have purposely muted their intellectual gifts due to a desire to fit in with their peers. Unfortunately for my students, acceptance into that world hinges on a most-unfortunate construct of “blackness.”
The most obvious sign of this on-going process is that the public face of my students conflicts with the one that they show within what can be termed the safe confines of my office.
To my chagrin, it is common to hear critics place the voluminous centuries-long problems affecting Black America at the feet of Black men. The most familiar form that the alluded to criticism arrives is the charge that contemporary Black males do not understand what it means to be a Black man in America. This tired refrain is a clumsy assertion that avoids impactful matters such as discrimination, racial bigotry, and institutional racism. According to critics, it is the shortcomings of Black males, not structural problems that are the root cause of Black male misery.
From my post as an African-American Studies Professor, I have mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of African-American males. This frontline experience has taught me that the vast majority of my students carry an unnecessary burden that erodes essential portions of their being that will be needed to confront a hostile unsympathetic White world. Richard Majors characterized the referenced burden as “the cool”.
According to Majors, the most pernicious portions of “the cool” are found in its ability to cause Black males to secretly lock away their intellectual curiosity in a dark place where no one, including themselves, will ever find it. Despite what critics may choose to believe, anyone who has raised or interacted with Black boys can attest to the fact that they enter this world overflowing with curiosity. Evidence suggests that in time, these natural inclinations are muted by external factors. By the time Black males reach my classroom, they have done everything in their power to avoid being labeled a “nerd”; a descriptor that is diametrically opposed to Majors’ “cool”.
Now I do understand that much of what is shared with me flows from the fact that many Black males consider my office a “safe space” where they can expound on hidden interests and goals. The repetition of this situation convinces me that many of my Black male students’ are afraid to display their intellectual curiosities in public spaces. They are apparently paralyzed by a fear that a coalition of friends, strangers, and family members would persecute them for harboring such interests.
I view these young men as kinsmen as I also harbored intellectual curiosities that I am certain caused my “outsiders” status among my peers. Fortunately, I was oblivious to such matters as I was too busy pursuing my intellectual interests.
Somewhere along this path called life, I learned that it was crucial that I developed “knowledge of self”; meaning, an examination of what has occurred to me. Experience has taught me that the process of knowing thyself is an arduous one that forced me to closely examine success, failures, likes, dislikes, trials, and tribulations. This particularly difficult process led me to view my environs and those that populated them in a less than favorable light.
The pain associated with my examination of life pivoted along a dangerous rail that led me to an examination of from whence my feelings of inadequacy emanated. I know that I am not alone in such matters. If you are a Black man born and raised in a nation that enslaved your ancestors and maligned you merely due to your physical appearance, rest assured that something and I mean something significant, happened to you. Your failure to examine and address what occurred is akin to a death sentence.
I’ve learned that a breakthrough that allows you to escape from the hangman’s noose can occur at any moment. For many Black men, the stay of execution never arrives.
My stay of execution arrived while reading the writings of noted intellectual James Baldwin. It was Baldwin’s generosity to allow me to view his rocky relationship with his father that illuminated crucial portions of my relationship with my father, grandfather, uncles, cousins, and associates. In the referenced commentary, Baldwin penned the following.
I am not so much my father’s son as he was his father’s son.
I have yet to find a more poignant line that illuminates the unspoken uneasiness and angst that I developed regarding Black men.
In time, I understood that many of my issues with the Black men surrounding me were due to the fact that we viewed the same world through vastly different lenses. I am a portion of the first non-Southern generation in my family. Therefore, my interests were formed by an urban setting, while my father and grandfather (the foremost influences on my understanding of manhood) hailed from an undeveloped, rural Stone Mountain, Georgia. I am certain that their love for fishing and hunting was partially born from necessity; I never developed the love. My compulsions flowed from likes, not needs forced on be due to survival purposes. I learned that for the sake of camaraderie the need to suppress my interests and engage in fishing.
I, like many of my students, learned that my likes and dislikes were a double-edged sword that simultaneously provided enjoyment and a distancing from those that I desperately desired approval from.
This situation was exacerbated by the fact that my peers’ favorite pastime of socializing was a true allergen for me. While others busied themselves socializing, I spent my time with a “who’s who” of Black intellectual thought.
Richard Wright became a friend.
Huey P. Newton a comrade.
W.E.B. Du Bois an advisor.
Alice Walker taught me what a man ought to be and ought to do via Grange Copeland.
I relished the fact that books provided endless opportunities to avoid social settings. Yet, my experience was markedly different from my students.
Unlike many of the male students that I advise, I never felt “peer pressures” as I was too busy pursuing my intellectual interests to be bothered with such triviality. The ability to pursue my interests without restraint is one of the most reverberating gifts I received from my beloved mother. She created a safe space for me to pursue my intellectual endeavors at every moment. There is little room to argue against the notion that I was what others termed a “nerd” and even less room to question if such a characterization affect me at all.
I am not an overly optimistic person; however, I do recognize that many of the young black men I speak to regarding this matter are suppressing genius inside of them. In many ways, the suppression of genius that would undoubtedly benefit themselves, their family, their community, their Race, their nation, and the world is an unbelievably selfish act. I have found that so many of these young men need permission to unveil their true identity.
Black America could help the activation of this latent genius by seizing and reversing a daunting narrative that has denigrated Black people for centuries. The lies regarding Black inferiority and inefficiency have been repeated so often that even Blacks have joined others in denouncing their own. This psychosis reminds one of the infamous “Black and White baby doll test” performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark that proved pivotal in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) case.
The maligning of African-American males intellectual capacities and lack of intellectual curiosity has created a public discourse that suffocates their intellectual interests. Black America must busy itself altering this narrative. Such is the only purposeful path capable of positioning African-American males on a path to success.
It is time that an environment that encourages Black males to venture beyond typical expectations such as sports and music emerges with the force of a Hurricane. Although difficult for many to comprehend, the seizing of a tired narrative that disenfranchises Black males is the most reliable path for them to both discover their purpose while securing success against formidable odds. At least that is what two decades of teaching has taught me.
And, I am willing to bet that I am not wrong.
Staff Writer; Dr. James Thomas Jones III
One may also connect with this brother via Twitter; DrJamestJones.