“Be Careful Out There”: Why this Daily Advice to My African-American Male Students is So Much More than a Mere Pleasantry

My most consistent refrain for the droves of black and brown students at the end of every class is for them to “Be careful out there.” The response that I invariably receive from my students is either a mundane “O.K.” or a more meaningful directive of “You be careful out there as well.”

Although I would love to think that my students believe that my admonishment to “Be careful out there” is merely a nicety that emanates from similar statements such as “Hello” or “Goodbye.” However, I am confident that they realize my words are emanating from a space of significant concern, if not sizable fear.

I am sure that you are wondering, “Concern and fear of what?” Concern and fear that this may be our last time together. The fleeting nature of my association with any African-American male was once again driven home for me while I was inputting my final grades for our expired semester and noticed the words “deceased” written next to one of my most charming African-American male students. A brilliant brother who I am certain would continue his trajectory of success and make the world a better place for those around him.

Anyone with even a scant association with African-American males will tell you that the ‘grim reaper’ often arrives way too early for them. In many ways, the sorrow that reverberates from the premature death of African-American males is the most common tie that binds our community together. Put simply; early death is the chief hazard of being young, black, and male in America. In fact, the great Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey consistently highlighted in his speeches and writings that wherever you go on planet Earth, you will find that persons of African descent are positioned at the bottom of every measurable from economics to death.

As mentioned above, the issues and matters surrounding the premature death of African-American males is the tie that binds so many disassociated elements of our community together, so it is not at all surprising that this matter has created a point of convergence for Conservative pundit Juan Williams and famed rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur. The alluded to point of consensus is the early deaths of African-American men. According to Juan Williams, the “Number one cause of death of young black men (between the ages of) 15 to 34 is murder. Who’s committing the murder? Not the police, other black men.” Tupac Amaru Shakur offered similar commentary in his classic song, Only God Can Judge Me, by commenting “And they say that it’s the white man that I should fear, but it’s my own kind doing all the killing here.”

Tupac’s lyrical exegesis is validated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data that highlights that 93% of murder victims were killed by someone of like race. Additional data relates that for African-American males between the ages of 15 and 34, the three leading causes of death are:

  • Homicide
  • Accidents
  • Suicide

For slightly older African-American men (ages 35 – 44), the causes of death are slightly different, yet daunting nevertheless.

  • Diseases of the Heart
  • Accidents
  • Homicide

In 2011, homicide accounted for 40% of the African-American males between the ages of 15 – 34 who met an untimely death. The fact that less than 4% of their white male counterparts within the same demographic met a similar fate magnifies these matters. According to CDC data, homicide was not even in the top 15 causes of death for whites between the ages of 15 – 34.

Many experts such as Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, consider the exorbitant homicide rates within Black America to be a perfect storm where a history of injustice due to an inconsistent justice system meets social adaptations aimed at securing some semblance of justice. According to Silverman, “The (homicide) numbers highlight the condition in minority areas, where a lot of violence occurs and the whole way of life is further intensified because police surveillance is always trying to track down people. People have heightened survival instincts, will do anything to survive, and they’ll seek retribution for anything…because they don’t trust law enforcement.”

Although difficult to accept, the African-American male existence is analogous to being a soldier involved in a war with an undefined enemy. For African-American males, death could come in a host of ways, the majority of them from a familiar face. In time, black men learn that even a basic disagreement could crescendo into the extinguishing of their life. Particularly troubling is the reality that there is little that anyone within our community can do to eradicate the stated dangers.

From my perch as a professor, I remind my students on a daily basis to “be careful out there” because I realize that there is little that I can do to disrupt the impromptu dangers that will arise. So it is with a bit of sadness that I tell them to “Be careful out there” because I realize that once they exit my classroom, there is little that I can do for them beyond hoping and praying for their safety. Each day that I walk to my class, I say a short prayer that communicates my fervent hope that they survived their interactions with what is invariably a hostile world that cares little for black ingenuity and promise.

Although they rarely notice it, I do exhale when we come together for more reasons than the sharing of knowledge.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2017

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