Five things Black people need to leave in 2019

Limiting our history to the slave narrative

Popular culture and the media have centered much of the historical Black experience around the institution of slavery. While important, it is only one chapter in the rich history of individuals from the African continent. Additionally, by only focusing on the slave narrative, the experience of Black people is reduced to that of a victim, being helpless, or inferior. However, the history of Black people predating slavery spans multiple continents, thousands of years, and numerous generations. In 2020, lets truly embrace the concept of Sankofa and learn from our past. A past that not only includes slavery but stories of innovation, exploration, and affirmation.

Seeking approval and validation from White people

In 2019, we sought to soften the White gaze on Black bodies through acts of forgiveness and calls to bear witness to our humanity. However, this effort has compromised our voice, reduced our desire to act, and has made us complicit in our own oppression.  In 2020, we must look from within our communities for affirmation, support, and validation. The cost will be less, the benefits will be more, and our search will not end in compromise or conflict.  We cannot seek from others what we first must receive from within.

The “crabs in a bucket” mentality

2019 saw many of our brothers and sisters achieve significant economic, educational, and career success. However, for each rung that they climbed up the ladder towards greater achievement, there were ten people seeking to pull them back down via the greatest tools of haters, manipulation, gossip, and sabotage. Robert Ingersoll once said that, “We rise by lifting others.” In 2020, we must return to our collectivist roots and seek to rise together in the face of prejudice, racism, and discrimination. Another brother or sister’s success should not be a judgement of our own failures. Success does not have to be an either/or perspective. Instead we can both celebrate each other’s successes AND lift each other up during times of trouble.

Internalized racism

From skin complexion to hair texture many of our brothers and sisters have bought into White norms for beauty, intelligence, speech, behavior, and gender performance/expectations. Furthermore, we have a created a significant in group/out group effect where we attempt to police those who adhere or do not adhere to White norms. This phenomenon has contributed to self-hatred, increased vulnerability to racial trauma, and cultural isolation from one another. Not realizing that we are fighting each other based on someone else’s rules using standards not designed for us in the first place to keep us distracted from the various systemic challenges facing our communities. In 2020, we must conquer the enemy within in regard to our internalizing and subsequent gatekeeping of White norms and behaviors that has manifested in the form of internalized racism.

Stigma about seeking mental health services

2019 saw a rise in suicides and depression for Black individuals that was exacerbated by racial trauma, financial difficulties, housing insecurity, education challenges, and chronic loss. However, during a time when more and more of our brothers and sisters should be reaching out for social and emotional support, the stigma associated with seeking help has continued it’s prominence in our communities. In 2020, we must reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health services by naming and addressing the mistrust of mental health professionals, increasing access by networking and sharing our list of Black providers, and sharing accurate information about the therapy process.  

Unforgiven: The price of a felony for Black males in America

There is a dark cloud hanging over the experience of many Black males in the US in the form of a felony conviction. These Black males are drenched in the rain of disenfranchisement, underemployment, negative stereotypes, and un-forgiveness. Additionally, Black males who have repaid what was deemed owed of them through sentencing, restitution, and probation are regulated only to being the bringers of darkness and cold rain. This is an all too common experience for Black males who do not have the ability to access redemption under societal gaze. According to a study by Shannon and colleagues (2017), 8% of all adults in the US have a felony conviction. This number rises to 33% for Black adult males. Furthermore, one half of Black males are at risk of arrest at least once by the age of 23 (Brame et al., 2014). These studies suggest an increasing vulnerability for criminal justice involvement by young Black male adults within a society determined to criminalize the Black male body.   

It has been widely indicated that Black males disproportionate interaction with the criminal justice system is influenced by the negative narratives associated with the Black male body such as being dangerous, deviant, and dumb. However, these negative messages continue to follow Black males once their period of incarceration has ended and they begin their re-entry back into society. Specifically, two central messages are cynicism concerning the rehabilitative capacity of Black males and the belief that Black males are not worthy of redemptive status. There have been several studies to suggest that the imposition of these messages on the Black male experience as well as the internalization of these messages by the Black male himself can have significant negative physical and mental health consequences (Dill et al., 2015).

The criminal justice system disproportionately affects Black males from arrest to reentry. Additionally, due to society’s negative perception of their rehabilitative capacity and access to redemption, Black males experience a perpetual “double punishment” where they receive a “life” sentence of disenfranchisement, underemployment, negative stereotypes and un-forgiveness upon reentry. We must do better by those that have earned the right to a second chance by serving their time, paying restitution, and navigating the system of probation. Specifically we can: (1) reduce barriers to accessing appropriate physical and mental health treatment, (2) increase access to affordable, safe, and consistent housing, (3) provide training for translatable job skills, (4) provide training and financial support for worthwhile entrepreneurial efforts, (5) facilitate access to social support systems, (6) eradicate barriers for individuals with felonies to exercise their voice in the political process, and (7) remove the life sentence of stigma imposed upon individuals at reentry.       

The top ten reasons I’m thankful for Black people

Our resilience 

We have literally created an often emulated culture from memory 

It is in our nature to see the God in others 

Our ability to turn pain/suffering and joy/happiness into soulful songs and spoken word 

Our innovation and entrepreneurial efforts 

Our spiritual centeredness

Our commitment and leadership related to social justice issues  

Our sense of family and kinship 

Our commitment to honoring and preserving the memory of our ancestors 

Our uncanny ability to turn obstacles into opportunities

Kicking the Back Door Down

Carter G Woodson once said, “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”  Many people have sought to describe how they see the experience of Black males as reflected in film, music, and print media. However, society has fallen woefully short in adequately defining the varying lived experiences of Black males. Instead, Black males have been reduced to stereotypical caricatures such as Sambo, Mandingo, or the magical negro. These ways of thinking about Black males has led to the perpetuation of false narratives such as (1) we have no history prior to colonization or slavery, (2) all roads lead to prison for males of color, (3) males of color are absentee fathers, and that (4) we are apathetic and unmotivated to succeed.

As reflected in Carter G. Woodson’s quote, the constant exposure to these narratives is intentional and designed to communicate an inferior status. Furthermore, due to internalized racism, conflict with societal expectations, rigid masculinity, and peer groups with low standards for acceptance but high standards for maintenance of group membership many Black males are seeking the vary back door built to oppress us. However, we can kick the back down by (1) defining the backdoor, (2) reclaiming our narrative, and (3) sharing the message with other Black males.

Defining the back door

 What’s waiting at the back door for Black males is a limited narrative that suggests that we should see ourselves as struggling mentally and physically too afraid to step into the conditions that have traumatized Black males in the form of institutional, cultural, and individual racism. That we are undereducated and underemployed. And that everyday is just another step closer to our inevitable fate of taking up residence in one of the fine suites by the prison industrial complex. However, we are more and have accomplished more, and have had to overcome more than what the statistics indicate. But to fully realize this, we must reclaim our narrative, conquer the enemy within, and strengthen our connections with other Black males.

Reclaiming our narrative

Three steps must be taken in an effort to reclaim the Black male narrative back from the oppressive and harmful clutches of society. First, we must expose ourselves and other Black males to the varying ways that Black masculinity is performed and expressed as well as differential experiences of Black male “success.” Secondly, Black males must reflect inward in regard to the experience of internalized racism and “conquer the enemy within” so that we will no longer be harmed by stereotypes and negative societal expectations. Lastly, we must work to help other Black males to be seen for the world changing, family raising, innovative, courageous, leaders they are capable of being.   

Sharing the message

We must teach our Black males more about the back door that has been built for them with the materials of racism, stereotypes, and conflicting expectations. As they work to reclaim their narrative, it will be important for Black males to share their message of Black male self-determination. Specifically, Black males must communicate that Woodson’s proverbial back door is socially constructed and Black males can stop the building of the door. Additionally, Black males have the power to reclaim their narrative and the ability to tell their story of being seen and conquering the socially constructed enemy within. Lastly, Black males have a collective responsibility to help other Black males (especially our youth) to be seen, to de-stigmatize asking for help, and caution against a rigid adherence to traditional masculine norms.

Four false narratives about the Black male experience

We have no history predating slavery 

Within the DNA of each Black male lies the spirit of innovation, critical thinking, self-determination, connectivity and leadership. These are the foundational building blocks of creativity. Even though we have used these building blocks to develop Black American culture, our access to these components predates our bondage here in the US. Before Black slaves built the White House, the pharaohs built the pyramids in Egypt. Before 1920’s Harlem, Timbuktu was the center of Black cultural thought and learning. And before Garvey sought to liberate the minds of Black Americans, Shaka Zulu fought against colonization. Black history is world history and began before the first African set foot on the North American continent.

All roads lead to prison for Black males 

An ongoing narrative concerning the Black male experience is that due to a biologically predisposed criminality that is reinforced via challenging environments, Black males are essentially guaranteed an extended stay at the suites by prison industrial complex. This false narrative is reflected in our misled belief that more black males are in prison than college. Most Black males have not been involved in the criminal justice system. However, this message conflicts with the social and material profit that can be made by creating a fear of the Black male body and to reduce his existence to that of criminality.  

Blacks males are absent fathers or emotionally distant financial providers at best 

There is a persistent narrative related to the Black male experience that suggests that Black males are absent and distant fathers. However, the psychological literature suggests that Black males are more likely to be more egalitarian with their partners and emotionally supportive to their children compared to men from other racial backgrounds. Despite these findings the constant absence of a positive Black father narrative continues due to media portrayals, powerful but anecdotal experiences of black father absentism, and a lack of awareness and analysis of “adopted” father figures within Black households. 

Black males are apathetic and unmotivated to succeed 

Two values that are central to the Black male identity are purpose and relevance. Throughout the life of a Black male, he is on a constant search to uncover the purpose that connects him to the humanity of others. Additionally he is seeking to engage in meaningful action related to fulfilling this purpose. Because our definition of living a purpose driven life is rooted in western ideology (e.g. material gain, individual notoriety and achievement) there often times exists conflict between society’s perception of moving with purpose compared to the Black males. Acceptance into the collective Black identity, peer support, and the validation of ones racialized masculinity are extremely valuable to the motivated Black male. However, our current mechanisms of motivation do not tap into these values areas. This is a reflection of a disconnect between the Black males experience and societal expectations not an inherent lack of motivation on the part of Black males. 

Using Hip Hop to empower Black males in the face of F.E.A.R.

Born out of the intense desire to communicate the struggle of Black Americans, hip hop has served as a vehicle to bring into focus the oftentimes invisibility of oppressed individuals. As hip hop artist Chuck D once noted, “Rap comes from humble beginnings of rebelling against the status quo.” Represented as both an art form and a general way of being in regards to posture and style, hip hop offers an outlet for one’s emotional, relational, and spiritual experience. For Black male specifically, it has provided an opportunity for re-definition and self-determination. Grappling with the injurious posture of being the perpetual Other, hip hop allows these Black males to loosen the shackles of negative stereotyping and predetermined cultural expectations as well as assert his reality related to racism and discrimination. In addition, hip hop provides an avenue for healing via the processing of challenging experiences, emotions, and relational conflicts. There are  three ways that hip hop can be utilized to address the psychological conflict experienced as part of the “Othering” construct: elevation of consciousness, therapeutic healing, and self-definition.

Hip hop artist, Common, once noted that, “Hip Hop is supposed to help you elevate, or go higher”(Hip Hop, n.d.). As Black males seek to overcome the psychological impact of being the perpetual other, hip hop provides a mechanism for consciousness elevation. Instead of a general acceptance of the negative characteristics associated with Black masculinity, hip hop engages Black males in a conscious raising process by offering alternatives to quantifying and expressing the Black male experience. By sharing their experience in written, oral, or musical form, Black males are able to expose other Black males as well as society as a whole to the overlooked components of the Black male experience such as spiritual connectedness, interpersonal synergy, and emotional attunement. By exposing Black males to these concepts, an awareness of the complexity of their experience is raised by contributing to increased flexibility in the expression and performance of Black masculinity. Hip hop empowers Black men to promote this cultural awareness by providing the platform and the necessary tools for effective communication. Another area where Hip Hop has been used is as an avenue for therapeutic healing.

            There is an African proverb that states, “There can be no peace without understanding.”   Due to the challenges in reconciling their lived experience with that of being the perpetual “Other,” Black male identity represents a “warring soul” struggling with denial, acceptance, and unintegration [disintegration}At the root of this struggle is a lack of understanding for the Black male about who he is, his capabilities, and potential contributions to society. Without this understanding, these Black males are unable to live in a space of identity reconciliation and are instead regulated to a posture of integration and F.E.A.R. Hip hop provides an opportunity for the Black male to process and give voice to his struggle. As noted by McPhail (1998), as Black males recover from the consequences of chronic racism and discrimination, they must engage in a holistic integrative process of their racialized masculinity. Given the stigma around the use of mental health services by Black males, Hip Hop allows the Black male to take on the role of a pseudo-therapist as he externalizes his inner dialogue and negotiates his lived experience with his community and society (Scott et al., 2011).    

            From the rise of negative Black male archetypes such as Buck, Sambo, and Mandingo, to their current manifestation in the media, Black males have been chronically regulated to the posture of the “Other” through the medium of attributed identity. Attributed identity here refers to the imposition of society’s perception of Black masculinity and the subsequent belief by society, as well as other Black males, that this perception is fact (Parker & Moore, 2014). This phenomenon has the dual impact of reinforcing societal perceptions as well as limiting the Black male’s ability to self-define. For example, it is a common misperception that young Black males in the school system are only capable of deviant behavior. Given this perception, teachers and administrators are primed to look for confirming evidence of deviancy as opposed to the cultivation of a positive scholastic identity. With the continual reinforcement of this perception through generalization and limited cultural competency, the idea of the deviant Black male comes to be seen as fact. There are significant consequences for Black males in regards to the imposition and internalization of an attributed identity (e.g., low-self-esteem, learned helplessness). Within this context, hip hop can be utilized to empower Black males to providing a space for self-definition.

            Through the adoption of a new name and persona, Black males directly challenge society’s misperceptions of Black masculinity by telling the story of their lived experience from their perspective. Furthermore, by having the opportunity to retreat into the storyline of their music, Black males experience a brief reprieve from the chronic culturally assaults to their racialized masculinity. As they engage in intricate wordsmithing, these Black males relocate their social positioning from that of the marginalized “Other” to a place of agency and affirmation. Furthermore, through a self-constructed narrative via the content of Hip hop lyrics, Black males experience an integration of consciousness that challenges rigid or unstructured expressions of Black masculinity (exacerbated by the presence of F.E.A.R). Inherent, in this integration is a resolution of the double consciousness as identified by W.E.B. Dubois, where these individuals acknowledge the “Othering” experience facilitated by society but successfully negotiate a self-defined performance and expression of racialized masculinity.  Given the challenges facing Black males in regards to the ability to self-define their experience and potential, Hip Hop can offer a mechanism through which Black males can transcend the stereotypical chains designed to limit their existence. Within the narratives generated through Hip Hop music, Black males can reclaim the essence of their racialized masculinity and offer an alternative to the pre-prepared Black masculinity story generated by society. Break the chains Black male, reclaim your essence, and let Hip Hop be your tool for self-determination.    

Black males and the experience of F.E.A.R. (Frustration Expressed as Anger and Rage)

Due to the cultural expectations of Black masculinity, Black males receive conflicting social messages about the expression of emotions (Jackson, 2011; Powell-Hammond & Mattis, 2005). With the perpetuation of the “Big Scary Black man” narrative, Black males are led to believe that they are emotionally invulnerable and that the display of “weak” emotions such as sadness is not safe (Jackson, 2006). Through their various interpersonal relationships with loved ones however, these Black males are also asked to engage emotionally and to find adaptive ways to cope with emotionally challenging situations. This conflict between the expectations of demonstrating some emotional vulnerability while maintaining a posture of emotional restriction as a protective factor against cultural assaults can contribute to feelings of frustration. According to Kniffley (2014), this frustration stems from feelings of guilt and shame related to a perceived inability to fulfill cultural expectations of masculinity as well as feeling defenseless against negative stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture. Because it is consider a sign of weakness in traditional masculine ideology to acknowledge feelings of guilt and shame, Black males utilize their default emotional coping strategies of anger and rage.

The Black male’s experience of anger and rage is multi-dimensional in nature with a focus on institutionally reinforced racism, communities of origin, and other Black men as well as against the Black male himself. Take, for example, a 19 year-old Black male who is in the beginning stages of emerging adulthood. Traditional masculine expectations for this Black male include engaging in a process of self-determination, securing training or education to enhance his economic opportunities, and developing his relational skill-set through dating and the formation of close friendships.  However, prior to this time period, this Black male has experienced a number of barriers related to poverty and a poor education. In addition, due to growing up in a single home, he has the looming expectation of “not turning out like his father” with few males figures to offer an alternative perspective.

As the Black male attempts to further himself economically and relationally, he is faced with the consequences of these barriers and their subsequent maintenance via the experience of racism and discrimination (e.g., the reason he can’t pass the college entrance exam is because Black people are inherently intellectually inferior not due to poor schooling). Experiencing rejection after rejection, the Black male feels guilt and shame because he is not living up to the cultural expectations associated with his “maleness.” Unable to cope effectively due to a variety of challenges related to an emotionally restrictive posture (e.g. poor emotional awareness, passive coping style), the Black male lashes out in “F.E.A.R.” F.E.A.R. of failing. F.E.A.R. of turning out like his father. F.E.A.R. of repeating the generational cycle. And F.E.A.R. of being swallowed up in the quicksand of poverty, racism, low achievement, and loneliness with no hope of getting out.