From the genocidal elimination of indigenous peoples in the Americas; to the enslavement of tens of millions of African peoples and their parallel sub-human bondage in the 20th century Jim/Jane Crow; to the internment of tens of thousands of people of Japanese heritage during World War II, the dominant unspoken, un-debated and therefore unacknowledged narrative in the nation is race. This state terrorism still lives with us today and determines the daily existence of black men and boys in the United States.
I am no stranger to these realities, to this life and death struggle, this slow, sometimes fast drowning in one of the richest, most economically, scientifically, technologically and militarily developed nation in the world. Twenty-five years ago, I published one of the first books to honestly assess the condition of black men in the United States: Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The Afrikan American Family in Transition. I tried to bring clarity to the state of black men from an insider's point of view, and I believe it is a relevant starting point today.
As the sun sets on President Barack Obama's tenure as the first black president, we find ourselves entering one of the most polarizing periods since the 1960s. The black presence in the United States remains precarious, highly questionable, misunderstood, largely unwanted and not needed at any level of national importance other than entertainment, sports or military service. Our 40 million-plus population is not significant to the continued development of the United States with the minor exception of fighting in foreign and domestic wars. We are not needed to pick cotton, vegetables or fruit, and we are no longer needed as skilled labor to rebuild the nation's infrastructure.
As the sun sets on President Barack Obama's tenure as the first black president, we find ourselves entering one of the most polarizing periods since the 1960s.
The whole-sale criminalization and incarceration of black youth has effectively removed many black men from the electoral, employment, education and functional family-building process. Many caught up in the criminal justice system can read only at a fourth-grade level, restricting their prospects for work upon release to their neighborhood streets. And most "street" work in the black community is in the underground economy.
If one can't read, write, think or do math above high school levels, it is impossible to make a "livable" wage in any highly advanced, knowledge-based technological society. But that is, like it or not, the status of the majority of black folks in America, who most often have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. That the black population's collective "wealth" is one-eleventh of the wealth of American whites is not an insignificant fact in our struggle for economic development.
However, since these crises facing black men and boys are the result of local, state and national white supremacist policies, to bring about real, lasting, life-sustaining change in our lives and communities it is clear that we need "independent black institutions" at every level of human existence. Our focus should not be to copy white institutions, but rather, to function as advocates, support and direction givers to a population that has been written off the political, cultural and economic map of this country and world.
Those black men and boys who have not already begun the journey toward a much needed self-transformation that will impact the collective black condition can start by taking notes from exceptional men among us who took their young years, most against great odds, to prepare themselves to be the best in their chosen fields. Most of these outstanding men understood early how racism and white supremacy worked, and therefore resisted its traps and temptations and fortified their bodies, minds and spirits to rise against its evils. These men are in the tradition of Martin Delaney, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Arthur Ashe, Romare Bearden, Thurgood Marshall, A.G. Gaston, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. They include many of your fathers, grandfathers, uncles, teachers, ministers, coaches, friends and mentors.
To join the ranks of those who would change the equation, at a bare minimum, black men and boys must commit themselves to the following survival strategies:
1. Have regular conversations with someone you trust, preferably an older man such as your father, grandfather, uncle or close male friend.
2. Participate in activities that build self-esteem, especially your education; if you have a high school education, consider community colleges, which are one of the most democratic institutions of higher education.
3. Work in an area that gives you satisfaction, joy and brings out the best in you.
4. Nurture special, understanding and loving relationships.
5. If you are not being challenged, find a new environment or a new community that can aid your growth potential.
6. Maintain a frame of mind that insists that you are not a victim but rather an adult experiencing temporary problems that you can fix.
7. Listen to your own life-affirming spirit and locate a spiritual and faith community that complements your own words and needs.
8. Exercise and eat properly. If you look good and feel good about yourself, you will radiate a positive aura.
9. Study, study, study. The more you understand the intricacies of life — personal and public — the better you will be able to handle life's challenges that come your way. Consider making the public library a regular stop during your week. An active library card is a must for people seeking to build their minds with current and up-to-date information and knowledge.
10. Self-cultural definition is critical. Knowing who you are in reference to your people and family is a must. This can lead to self-control, which leads to ownership not only of self, but to the ownership of businesses, institutions, political and social organizations and movements. You must not be afraid to take charge of our lives and community, which in many cases function as a nation within a nation.
Those who love life and beauty, those who smile daily at the beautiful laughter of children of all cultures and understand the power of breath, family, love, sharing and beneficial production will be an example of the direction we need to go. And, this is the determining fact: if we don't do it, it will not be done.
This essay is part of the "Shifting Perceptions: Being Black in America" series commissioned by the Perception Institute.