The New Black Manhood

Imagine how black boys must see their futures now. Imagine how the dire statistics might change.

Read the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion on THE NEW BLACK MANHOOD with The Root‘s Marjorie Valbrun.

Many Americans have undoubtedly had an Obama Meltdown Moment by now. It’s that instance when the unimaginable hugeness of the past year, the past few months and the past few days suddenly hits you and you say to yourself, “Oh my God, we have a black president.”

Unlike my friends who cried while watching Barack Obama give his acceptance speech on Nov. 4, or while watching him give his inaugural address last week, my meltdown occurred while I was watching CNN a day after the election. On the screen was a grade-school classroom of black boys discussing Obama’s victory. One after another, each student stood up to speak—backs straight, crisp white shirts tucked neatly in their belted pants—to tell their classmates what Obama’s election meant to them.

One boy tried three times to put his feelings into words, but he just could not get a full sentence out. On the fourth try, he put his head down on his desk and began to cry. His classmates crowded around to comfort him. Some put their arms around his shoulders; others patted his back.

It’s OK, they gently told him. It’s OK, man.

Tears welled in the eyes of their teacher, a young white man clearly proud of his young charges at this all-black, all-boy, public charter school. The CNN correspondent reporting the story was also visibly moved. I cried, too.

I wanted to hug those boys and was grateful to have witnessed such a poignant moment. And each time I recounted the story to friends and family, I cried again, not just for the boys at the school but for every black boy in this country, because I knew that as wonderful as Obama’s election was for all Americans, it was a special gift to them.

That scene in the classroom was compelling not just because it was so moving, but because it was so telling. It spoke volumes about how black boys—this supposed endangered species, these future men whose futures, we are repeatedly told, have a better chance of being marred by bleak social realities than graced by educational and economic opportunities—will now see themselves.

The boy who cried about Obama’s election may not have been able to articulate this, but he had to understand on some level the significance of the moment: If Obama can become president, maybe I can do something big with my life, too. I wonder how many black boys, and black girls, too, are now thinking along those lines.

A man who is a father and husband, a scholar and a statesman, a striver and achiever, an orator and an inspiration, a man who looks just like them, is now president of the United States. Wow.

It’s not that black boys have no other positive black male role models. Many have male mentors, teachers and neighbors, brothers, uncles and cousins, pastors and Boy Scout troop leaders, and yes—despite the sobering statistics on black absentee dads—fathers to guide them. Good, strong, hard-working, emotionally present black fathers. Still, there are too many black boys who don’t have men in their lives, and they are lesser for it.

Boys without positive male role models run a serious risk of becoming the same kind of men who fathered them, abandoned them and are unaccountable to them. I can’t help but believe, and pray, that Obama’s election will make these boys think they can be different. And I can’t help but believe, and pray, that last week’s inauguration—that the daily global presence of President Barack Obama—will have some bearing on some of those missing fathers. Men who want to be engaged in their children’s lives, but don’t know how, men who are too ashamed to face their children or their children’s mothers; men who feel they have little materially or financially to offer but don’t realize the emotional and spiritual dividends of simply giving their children love and attention.

Last Father’s Day, in a somewhat-controversial speech in the pulpit of a black church, Obama called on absentee fathers to stand up and be accountable.

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