Monday, March 24, 2014

Saving Black Boys

DaJae Coleman, died 9/22/2012
In Jesmyn Ward's bittersweet new memoir, Men We Reaped, she speaks eloquently of the pain of losing 5 young men she loved, including her brother, to drugs and violence. This is a maddeningly familiar scenario for many in the African American community: losses as varied as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and, right here in Evanston, DaJae Coleman, Leslie Calvin, Marcus Davis, Javar Bamberg, and Justin Murray keep us asking: why can't we keep black boys safe?

Dr George Jenkins was a black teen boy from the Newark projects  who made a personal commitment to survive and succeed, despite the odds. He enlisted his two best friends, Sampson Davis and Rameck Hunt, and they formed a pact: that all three would do whatever it took to overcome their challenges and become successful doctors. And they did. They recount their story in The Pact: Three Young Men Make  a Promise and Fulfill a Dream,  our April 15th discussion topic.

Trayvon Martin, died 2/26/2012

The Pact is one of a number of memoirs chronicling the rise of a young black person from inner city poverty. A few months back we read Rosemary Bray McNatt's equally inspiring Unafraid of the Dark, about her journey from the Chicago projects to Francis Parker school and then Yale; and we have also discussed The Other Wes Moore, in which a successful journalist ponders the different circumstances that pointed him on to success, while another young man with the same name and a similar background ended up in prison for murder. Several common themes emerge: the need for strong role models, family support, and the empathy to see beyond bad behavior and recognize potential.

Jordan Davis, died 11/23/2012
It's that empathy that is often lacking in discussions of why black young people go wrong. All of these authors admit to making bad choices as kids: McNatt stole money from her private school classmates, Moore flirted with street gangs, Davis was arrested for shoplifting, Hunt served time in juvie. Yet all had caring, engaged adults who refused to give up  on them: parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches who were willing to give them second, and often third and fourth chances.

Died 11/29/2012
All of these authors were hard working and talented, but they repeatedly stress that they could easily have gone the way of their classmates and friends. They remind an uncomfortable public that there is very little difference between them and the thousands of young black teens who don't make it to successful adulthood,
and that instead of offering judgments about "personal responsibility" we should be reaching out, and affirming our belief that young black lives have value. Rather than trying  to distinguish between the “good” victims and the “bad” boys who got what they had coming, Moore, McNatt, Ward and the Three Doctors urge us to stand up in support of all our young people, and give them what it takes to survive and thrive. To learn about some existing mentoring and support programs see:

The Three Doctors Foundation - Drs Sampson, Hunt and Jenkins foundation.

The "Elevate" Blog -
Wes Moore’s listing of “organizations that answer a call to action everyday and empower those who are less fortunate but equally deserving”

DaJae Coleman Foundation - offers programs that motivate Evanston youth and instill positive values to help guide them.
Leslie Calvin, died 7/4/2010