Tag Archives: Native Son

Steven Stephens: A 20th Century Bigger Thomas? (Black America’s Native Son)

Experience has taught me to expect the inquiry regardless of the venue or situation. Whether while being interviewed or in the aftermath of an exhilarating lecture regarding the dilemmas facing African-American males, someone will ask “What is the greatest issue confronting the black male today?” To the chagrin of interviewers and audience members, my answer to this poignant query is never singular as the foremost problems facing African-American males revolves around mutually reinforcing issues of mental illness and their adoption, due to both socialization and their environs, of what can only be termed a toxic manhood that possesses the ability destroy all that they contact.

The wicked cocktail of mental illness and toxic manhood is the only explanation for the actions of Steven Stephens, the African-American male who not only murdered Robert Goodwin Sr. (74), a defenseless elderly black male on a Cleveland, Ohio, street, but also uploaded his heinous crime onto Facebook. Although Black America reacted with horror to Stephens’ diabolical actions, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us know several black males whose existence mirrors that of Steven Stephens; a personable individual, who on the surface fails to exhibit the wear-and-tear of being black in America publicly, yet is privately straining under the weight of being a have not in the land of plenty. The alluded to frustrations feeds directly into the dawning of a daunting query of “Is life worth living?” Such internal strife has reverberating repercussions for all around them. Unfortunately, it appears that the appropriate motto for disassembled black communities in every inner-city may very well be “A place where life is not worth living.”

Considering the mantra that “you cannot change what you do not acknowledge,” it is past time Black America shed their thread-bare lie of being shocked by regarding the actions and activities of the Steven Stephens found within their environs. If we were serious about improving our community, we would stop feigning ignorance and acknowledge that we have normalized public indecency and uncivilized behavior toward within the black community. It is not accidental that Steven Stephens murdered another black man as a means of expressing his frustrations at the two black women to whom he was closest, his mother and a former fiancé.

It is imperative that we not miss this opportunity to at least examine, if not address the cause of the development of angry, brash, illogical, directionless, socially inappropriate African-American males whose moral compass is a toxic manhood possessing more power to destroy themselves and their community than Hurricane Katrina. We must face facts that figures such as Steven Stephens are a reflection of who we have become as a community; cold, distant, foreign to one another, combustible, and dangerous to ourselves. When considered in this light, it is clear that today’s troubled African-American male is a modern-day Bigger Thomas, meaning Black America’s Native Son. Such individuals reflect the frustrations, contradictions, and sadness that has been comfortably situated in our hearts for so long that we no longer notice its presence. For better or for worse, it is who we have become to each other.

And for that reason, we should all weep.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture 2017.

What Does It Mean When A Room Full of African-American Collegians Have No Idea of Who Richard Wright Is? And What Should We Do About It?

There are moments when I am working with my African-American students that a sudden almost unending sadness overcomes my soul. The only thing that I can liken the feeling to is seeing the children of negligent, drug-addicted, physically abusive parents that from all indications regret the date that their child was born.

I recently experienced such a moment while speaking about the Great Depression, particularly the rise of Communists within America’s borders. I peppered the discussion regarding Herbert Hoover, FDR, and Communist Party USA with references to African-American issues and concerns. I have found this moment to be the perfect opportunity to discuss Richard Wright’s Native Son; a book that I would argue is the quintessential Great Depression era novel.

I was prepared to discuss the nuances’ of Bigger Thomas and draw what to me are innumerable corollaries between the Great Depression and contemporary society in regards to how larger forces often work to shutter opportunities for African-American males throughout the nation. To my shock and horror, not a single student had ever heard of Richard Wright or any of his classic tomes such as: Black Boy, Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Children, White Man, Listen! or Lawd Today.

It would be a gross understatement to say that I was absolutely floored that an entire room of African-American collegians had never heard of one of the greatest writers to put pen-to-paper and discuss the American racial experience.

As I am certain that you can imagine, after the class ended, I retreated to my office and pondered the following queries. What does the fact that every one of my African-American students were ignorant to who Richard Wright was really mean? How far does their collective ignorance extend? Who or what is responsible for what can only be termed comprehensive ignorance of African-American literature, history, politics, culture, etc.?

Quite possibly the most frightening aspect of all is that when one’s life is informed by multiple illiteracies, there is practically no escape from ignorance because the gross lack of understanding of history, extends into politics and of course the two aforementioned illiteracies lead directly to the development of a cultural appetite that voraciously consumes reality-television caricatures of Black life while simultaneously finding legitimate cultural expressions such as an August Wilson play or Terence Blanchard’s Over There unappealing to say the least.

The lack of knowledge of self dooms the vast majority of African-Americans in their pursuit of building what I term a “life worth living”.

So what does it mean that my students have no idea of who Richard Wright is? I am actually uncertain of what it means.

There is a part of me that sides with Malcolm X’s admonishment of ‘only a fool would allow his oppressor to educate his children’ and therefore the blame should be placed before our community as it has allowed our children to become mired in a public education system that has never even pretended to provide a culturally relevant education, while there is another part of me that feels the blame game will only delay our need to address the reality that educating our children is best left to the African-American community.

Ultimately, it matters little what it means and matters much how we address this matter as a community. It was this reality that led me to not only speak about Richard Wright and Native Son in one of my classes, but also assign it to them as an assignment. Such an action may not totally solve their problem of being informed by multiple interlocking illiteracies, however, it is at least a small step toward helping them recover their righteous minds.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III