I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Black man in America. As circumstance would have it, I am a Black man in America, so I suppose that makes sense. However, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, I’m not alone; the rest of the country, at least temporarily, appears to be interested in the lives of Black men, particularly young Black men. Out of that tragedy has arisen the need to explain the story of Black men on a national scale.
Of course, there isn’t a single narrative, one that will definitively place all the experiences of Black men into a neat package for a curious public. However, there are commonalities, uniting factors that can help those who will never be Black men or will come into scant contact with Black men to get a general sense of what shapes the lives of Black men. There’s the hope that, perhaps, the more the world knows about us, the fewer Trayvons there will be. A prayer set out into the darkness, no doubt, but that in itself is a part of the Black male experience.
It occurs to me, reflecting more in this moment about the lives of young brothers, that it’s a familiar enough story. It’s as human as it gets, despite the best attempts to deny us our humanity. I have found that Black men experience this world in ways that are quite similar to the widely known Kubler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief” model:
1. Denial. In his life, every Black man is afforded a period of unburdened optimism. The length varies for each individual, and some may not remember it. Whether it lasts until they turn five or 50, there’s at least a moment where a Black man can look out into the world and see it as full of opportunity. There exists no limits in his mind as to who or what he can become. It’s a time free of history’s lessons and society’s prejudices.
But there also comes a moment, an internal realization generally prompted by an outside force, where Black men have to confront their reality as “the other.” If you’re lucky, it could be something seemingly innocuous, like being told “you speak so well.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be potentially deadly, like being pulled over by a police officer for “looking suspicious.” It very well could be purposeful, as in an elder handing down to you a dog-eared copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Black male anger isn’t an anomaly, it’s a consequence of breathing.
Again, the timing and form of this message will vary from person to person, but eventually something pushes a previously dormant voice in the mind of every Black man to say “wake up, you’re Black” and he doesn’t want to believe it.
This isn’t so much about the denial of one’s Blackness as it is a denial about world’s reaction to that Blackness. No one wants to believe their mere existence is a problem, that the fact of their skin color will be an impediment to their goals. Everyone wants to be judged fairly based on who they are. No one wants to believe the worst in people. For a while, a Black man may choose to say to themselves that it simply isn’t true, that the world can see their humanity just fine. A few get stuck there, either by choice or delusion. Even those who make it past this stage may continue to long for the days of well-meaning ignorance and optimism.
2. Anger. Who can blame Black men for being angry? You’re born into a legacy that includes slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, marches, protests, and riots. From the moment you’re old enough to know what it is, you’re told that it’s likely you’ll end up in prison, and you start to believe it as you watch fathers/uncles/brothers/cousins be hauled off. Everywhere you go, you’re viewed as a problem that needs to be solved.
How can you not be angry when it seems like every other week you’re learning the name of another brother you’ll never meet, for all the wrong reasons? Trayvon Martin. Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Ramarley Graham. Oscar Grant. James Byrd. Troy Davis. James Anderson. Their names make it into the news and a familiar sense of pain and rage settles in, because the story never changes.