Rarely does a day pass by that some inquisitive individual does not ask the following question in an indirect half-hesitant manner, “What is wrong with Black men?” The question is so common that it no longer angers me; in fact, it amuses me and causes a slight smile. Seeing my reaction, the inquisitor usually backpedals, an obvious sign that they believe that their question offended me, and follow it up with a declaration of either, “I do know a good Black man at my job” or “do not these atrocities being committed by the police not make your blood boil?” Regarding the actual question of “how does it feel to be a problem” I answer nary a word. My non-response is not due to a belief that an answer would be impolite or inappropriate, rather, out of the realization that the issue they are asking me to provide a solution for is much too dynamic to be answered off the cuff.
I always muse, if people only understood that the African-American male issue has been here for over four-centuries, in fact, it predates this nation, they would pause before posing such an issue. Put simply, African-American men were this nation’s original problem, meaning are they citizens, slaves, workers, marriageable, human, or some sub-species of humanity. Consequently, the answer to why African-American men have lagged behind all others in nearly every socioeconomic and health indicator from this nation’s founding to this very moment is not easily answered; in fact, both the catalyst to their suffering and the solution to their suffering has transformed since their arrival in the Jamestown colony in 1619.
Although it seems strange to pen these words, those who seek to provide a root cause for Black male suffering in America now long for the days of chattel slavery where each and every malady affecting Blacks could be placed at the feet of that demonic institution. However, the institution of chattel slavery receded from this nation 150 years ago and the Black male problem is still in existence. So the question facing us is a simple one, is the contemporary catalyst to African-American males dastardly plight associated with slavery; or have new challenges reared and subdued Black males since the demise of chattel slavery?
Many correctly trace the catalyst to Black Males suffering to the disintegration of the Black family. Data tells us that in the late 19th Century the city of Brother Love, Philadelphia, had a thriving Black community that where at least 75% of the homes were two-parent households; in 1925 nearly 80% of New York City’s Black households were similarly structured. Data highlights that the prevalence of female headed-households is a relatively recent phenomena. Prior to the vaunted 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision only 18% of Black households were headed by a single-parent. Many are shocked to discover that African-Americans married at a rate that exceeded their white counterparts for the one-hundred years following chattel slavery; a serious blow to those who seek to explain away the unprecedented destruction of the Black family as a remnant of chattel slavery.
According to noted scholar Walter Williams, in 1940 the birth of Black children to unwed mothers was approximately 14%. When compared with contemporary rates, such data reminds me of a Biggie Smalls lyric, “Damn, things done changed.” Today, the rate of children born to unwed mothers sits at an average of 75% (it is as high as 90% in many central city areas), nearly half of marriage-age African-Americans will never marry, and 70% of Black households are female-headed. Closely associated with these matters is the reality that Black female-headed households experience poverty at a rate of 47% versus the 8% rate found among married Black households. A study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 25.8% of American children are raised by a single parent, a number high above the 14.9% average seen throughout the industrialized world. Among African-Americans the rate is nearly five times the global average, with 72% of black children relying on a single parent, usually the mother.
It appears that when integration occurred, African-American women and men slowly abandoned traditional principles of familial solidarity in favor of a European system that evaluated their mates worth according to their financial status. The alluded to position betrays the cooperative relationship and collectivist economics that has kept African-American couples afloat during difficult times. Put simply, the intrinsic worth of a father’s presence was dismissed by both Black women and a few segments of the scholarly community. A Johns Hopkins University sociology professor incorrectly argued that “It has yet to be shown that the absence of a father was directly responsible for any of the supposed deficiencies of broken homes… (The real issue) is not the lack of male presence but the lack of male income.” Such foolishness ignores the crucial role that Black fathers play in their children’s lives; roles that extend well beyond being an economic provider.
Despite their protestations, many women have intentionally created a context that has led to the proliferation of female headed households through a host of questionable activities and poor decision making. Many behave as if the male that they produced children with should not have a major role in the rearing of either male or female children. Apparently many of these women did not have father’s in their lives as they routinely fail to understand that it is the father who sets the ground rules and expectations for all of his daughters dealings with future suitors through his interactions with her. Just as importantly, the father models what it means to be a man for his son, how to treat a Lady, and why the qualities of diligence, sacrifice, and commitment are much more valid measures of manhood than the net pay on a paycheck! The father’s absence from his children’s lives, not necessarily the home, leaves a vacuum that is never filled.
The absence of the father figure from his children’s life leads to a situation that the words of Jawanza Kunjufu aptly describe; “Women raise their daughters and love their sons.” I agree with Kunjufu’s construct that Black girls will be socialized by their mother on how to be a woman like her, a socialization that has its own pitfalls if she were not socialized properly; unfortunately, similar manhood training is never taught to Black boys; many women mistakenly believe that the assigning of chores and securing a part-time job is akin to manhood training. Despite their consistent pleadings and childish tantrums, Black women CAN NOT teach Black boys how to be Black men. Unbeknownst to them, they tend to cripple their son’s via love and then wonder why young Black males behave in the anti-social childish manner that we see so often. Ironically, it will be this behavior that will most likely lead to the failure of both their daughter and son’s marriages. Many Black women simply do not understand that a mother’s doting love is a lesser ingredient in building a foundation of manhood. Put simply, when the male is not involved in the rearing of children, girls grow up witnessing their mother attempting to carry the load devoid of any assistance from a male and not demanding much from the one male who is present, her brother. Hence, when it is her turn to seek a mate, she has no prior experience with her father and hence, nothing feels familiar beyond catering to a male who does little of nothing; she will often choose such a male to mate with out of no reason other than its familiarity.
Black males raised without a father in their life often end up having to piece together an understanding of manhood, one that is too often forged in America’s urban jungles. A mere cursory glance of the contemporary state of African-American males verifies the damage that such flawed constructs and bad advice brings into one’s life. Black male’s need appropriate guidance from some male figure, preferably the father, however, if he is not available, some male needs to be there to socialize him into manhood.
So I guess the next time that the question of “What is wrong with Black Men” is posed, I will answer it in the following manner. I believe that many factors led to the contemporary marginalized state of Black men; however, it is at least partially attributable to the disintegration of the family and the haphazard manner in which many, not all, women have destroyed their family and by extension lessen their children’s future opportunities by failing to value the contributions of a man. It is also partially attributable to Black men who have never received, or chose to not adhere to, the proper guidance to being a man. Unfortunately, the sins of the parents are obviously being placed upon the children in the lives that they will eventually live; lives that will invariably closely mimic those of their parents. Although I would love to say otherwise, however, my community has created an efficient cycle of familial destruction that will invariably repeat itself to all those involved in the process, until the end of time.
James Thomas Jones III