Friday, February 17, 2006

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

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A lapse into cowardice this morning has left me in desperate need of some intellectual feedback. I had the misfortune of being forced to listen to a group of three young brothers this morning. I say forced because their pitch was boisterous and the profanities they uttered not only saddened me, but also had me so shocked that any attempt to make them cognizant of their actions seemed futile. As these thoughts were going through my head, I noticed that onlookers were trying to steal glances in the direction of the cacophony; they were all trying to put a face to the ungentlemanly and offensive banter. While they looked I wondered, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

I had the strongest urge to say something and yet I could not. The last thing I wanted was to start the day off with some 16-year-olds telling me off. Any street credibility I could have possibly possessed on account of my skin color quickly diminished when I looked at my reflection in the subway car window. The Brother Smartness that once rocked the all black fitted cap with the burgundy and gray Puma throwback was no more; in his place stood a pink shirt wearing, trench coat toting self-proclaimed hustler. In that reflection I saw a man concerned with making cash instead of a brother concerned with how he would make sense. The man I saw wore an elaborate mask, and for some reason, that mask created a chasm between these brothers and himself that was as wide as it was deep. To make matters worse, that man was 22 years of age but didn't look a day older than 19. Imagine, if you will, a spruced up nineteen year old approaching three 17-year-olds and asking them to refrain from yelling profanities. Four words come to mind: Not a good look!

Now I know there are/were ways to be discreet in telling these brothers to be easy, but for the life of me I found it difficult to believe this group of brothers would have taken any words of wisdom to heart. Had I walked over and hit them with the street vernacular, they’d have seen right through me. Had I spoken to them like I speak with all my friends, they would have thought I was “acting white.” When I put the cuff links on it’s as though I’m cuffing myself to one world and being torn away from another. It’s not so much that I’ve lost touch, but that I can see that their immediate reaction to my attire and speech is to think, this spruced up cat and I have nothing in common.

Somehow, the street credibility I had when I lived in the hood diminished exponentially when I went off to college. Now that I'm back, what was left of my street cred, which already suffered exponential diminishment, was further reduced when I took a job in the corporate world and moved into an affluent neighborhood. In short, my withdrawal from the environment that connected me with the younger and impressionable brothers of today has left me desperately seeking the credibility to qualify myself to them.

I chose to associate myself with brothers and sisters whose drive for success mirrored my own. And although I’ve created a new community of sorts with these progressive minds, I can’t help but to be reminded of the Allegory of the Cave. The former cave dweller who has fervently sought out the light returns to the cave to assist those who are ready to commence their own journey out of darkness. And so the journey comes full circle when one is called to give as abundantly as one has received. Now I know I’ve said a lot here, but I’m anxious to hear all of your thoughts. I think the overarching question, however, is whether one should feel the need and responsibility to talk to these young men in the first place. In short, am I my brother’s keeper?

Although I failed to answer this question for myself today, I’m quite certain my brothers here and a few of you readers will encounter the same question and situation in the near future. Hopefully this post will provide the venue for you to decide what that answer will be for yourselves.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

in this great future, you cant forget your past
bob marley

Lamo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lamo said...

Great post.

I think the mere fact that you attended a real college automatically discredits any affiliation with street life unless you went to school just to help your athletic career.

With you specifically, though I don't know you, but I assume that the reason why you can't talk to these young men in the way you desire is due to your path which is leading you away from their lifestyle. There are college educated men who still embrace the street culture. They may have real jobs, but once they get home they drink, smoke, and hang out in the hood. This is from what I have seen in cali, I don't know how things work in the tri-state area.

It's hard to be accepted when you are an outsider. You are an enemy for one reason or another. It is a defense mechanism, especially in blacks (whose descendants were taken by strangers and enslaved).
So even though you are black, if you don't have connections with the hood and if you don't embrace it like those young men do, then it will be tough to get them to accept you as a peer or as a role model.

I'm sure there are ways of bridging the connection especially since all of us have families in the inner-city, and some of you might have even been raised in the hood. As for now, I don't have any answers for you. I know that dialogue can only help. If those young men hear enough times how important it is to do something positive, then they will soon believe it. Right now they are receiving 1000 negative messages everyday through film, tv, media, school, peers, etc. I feel that the best way to counter that is to either eliminate the majority of those negative messages by attacking the source, or countering by offering them just as many positive messages.

Spend some time with these brothers and they will have to accept you, but I have no doubt that you are a busy man and that your schedule does not allow for such a thing. That is the problem with trying to do well for yourself, it leaves you less time to do well for others. Think about what is more important for you, making a good and happy life for yourself, or sacrificing so that brothers (like the ones you encountered) have the chance of achieving, learning, and succeeding in life?

As black men, we are encouraged to do well for ourselves and our familes, to be bread-winners, and to be successful. There has been a conflict in black America for as long as I can remember between doing well for yourself and giving back to the community. The community is actually resentful of those who try to do well for themselves, and that leaves us contemplating different alternatives. We were brought up to achieve, learn, persevere, and succeed, but do we owe something to those who weren't brought up the same way as ourselves?

Last note: Why were you wearing a pink shirt?

SenSagius RemiDii said...

Hmmm the Allegory of the Cave...is definitely a motif that's worth having as a pressure in 1's life to remember where you've come from. I found myself in a similar situation as yours where a group of girls where yelling profanities...in the presence of a group of young black kids. They went on and on and I as I sat there I thought, "what would the scenario look like if I decided to tell them my peice of mind on behalf of young impressionable kids of the next generation"...I sat there lol pensing HARD...of what I could say that could reach them...and all of a sudden black man with sitting across from his son asked them if they would stop cursing...whew...what a scene...

They two girls and this grown man went at it back and forth...cursing more and more and more...and the man continued to point out the kid-like immature behavior they were displaying...CONFIDENTLY...these girls had absolutely NO REGARD for this guy...no regard...

How do you strategically reach people...that's all I could think after this situation...I figure that, as embarassing as it may seem for me...it would have been worth my while...to stimulate thought in the girls of what they were doing...whether or not it insighted a confrontation....because at the very least my opposing response would resonate in their minds at some point...

we've gotta be brave and step out of our comfort zones...

Anonymous said...

In hearing a recent poem on Def Poetry:"Duality Duel" I have come to realize that many educated black people get a feeling of disconnect with the "hood" and its inhabitants. In the poem this Ivy league educated black man has to forces at war inside of him. "His nerd and his nigger". The nerd tries to get the nigger to realize that he no longer needs to be so angry and reactive because that will only keep him trapped within the many cylcles of oppression in the ghetto. The nigger tells the nerd that if not for the nigger in him, he would not have been able to make it through Ivy league because of the pressure academically, economically, and racially that we Williams men/women can attest to going through while in college. Thus our nigger is the basis of our strength to deal with this world which does not want to see us prosper. Also the nigger tells the nerd that the younger niggers in the ghetto feel like they cannot relate because he acts as if he's so removed. So, I think that, to answer your question, yes you are your brother's keeper. We as educated black people cannot be afraid of our own people. So afraid that we will not help. I am two years in at Williams College and no doubt I have changed in some ways, evidence of that is my uncle making fun of the way I speak now. However, I spent two years away from the "hood" the other 18 were spent there day and night. So I don't feel like I cannot relate to those younger brothers/sisters who find it difficult to see past their environment. I think if approached in the right manner, you could have gotten your point across to these young men. There's no guarantee that they would have changed their behavior, but I think that someone pointing out to them that there is a different way, whether it's their speech or any other aspect of their life that needs some changing, would have done more than everyone in the vicinity, with silence, telling these young men that there was no need to change the way they were acting. The point is, as educated and privileged black men/women we have to at least try to reach back to our people in the "hood", if no one takes your hand you cannot do anything about that, but I know from personal experience that more than a few will GRAB your hand. Black people everyone else is afraid of us, we can't be afraid of ourselves.

Brother Lightness said...

Brother Smartness, the difficult situation you offer is one that I have come across far too frequently to dismiss. Piggybacking off the last post, this scenario from my adolescence might provide some inspiration before the next time--as it only seems to be a matter of time-- we find ourselves in a similar situation:

At the age of 9 or 10 I sat with my mother and two younger brothers in a local (urban) Burger King establishment for a fast food meal I took especial delight in at such a young age. We didn’t eat out too often, so any time we did made the occasion that much more special.

As we ate in the dining area of the establishment none of the patrons present could ignore the boisterous and inconsiderate group of loud, black teenagers who sat in the corner. This group hurled profanities back and forth with seemingly reckless abandon. This was not the first time I heard this language used in public, but to hear it used so carelessly in the presence of my mother and two younger brothers was absolutely embarrassing for myself and every other customer. While it was obvious that everyone present outside this group of teenagers felt uncomfortable, for one reason or another, no one took the courageous step to intervene.

After being subjected to the insensitivity and ignorance of this group for about 10 minutes, my mother abruptly stood up and walked over to their table. Politely, she explained that she had three young children and she didn’t particularly appreciate the fact that this type of language was being used in their presence. Upon a simple and gracious request for the group of teenagers to curb their language, she turned to begin walking back to my dining area. At that moment I was absolutely embarrassed by my mother’s bravery, frightened that the group of teenagers might respond to her by hurling that very same language they felt so comfortable using.

The response of the group only escalated the situation: As my mother proceeded back to our table she was chastised by a loud and disrespectful, “Anyway!” followed by insolent group laughter. My adolescent frame sunk into the Burger King booth when I realized the situation had gone from bad to worse. My mother was one whose principles always overrode her emotions and her principles certainly wouldn’t dissuade her from approaching the group again. I hoped to God that no altercation would ensue. While this average age of this group was a few years older than me, it goes against all human nature to let anyone disrespect your mother.

As she turned around to walk back towards the group and address them, it seemed like every person in the restaurant stopped eating because they understood that confrontation was imminent. Clearly, this woman was far too virtuous for her own good and these teenagers fed off of each other’s condescending energy. What good could come of this?

Sternly, my mother looked the culprit in the eye who had uttered the wise response and asked him, “Is there a problem with what I said?” Absolutely alarmed that she would even dare to confront them on the issue again, the group was silent. After a few minutes they cleared off their plastic trays, left the establishment, and my mother was met by approving handshakes and thank you’s from every other person in the restaurant who seemed to be thinking the same thing but were too intimidated to actually say something.

Admittedly, it was one of the prouder moments of my adolescence. I remember my emotions fluctuating from absolute terror and embarrassment to absolute pride. Why, my mother was the equivalent of a contemporary Rosa Parks!

I don’t offer the example of my mother’s valor in this situation to boast of her bravery or my pride, rather, it is offered as an example to demonstrate that these situations do not always end up with embarrassing results for the individual that chooses to intervene. I’m sure the teenagers my mother confronted actually did reflect on the situation after they left Burger King that night and I’d like to think that if they used profanity in a public place again they were at least aware that other people might not enjoy listening to their exchange.

Unplanned efforts of righteous confrontation are certainly intimidating, but if the intent of the brave individual is genuine and for the common good, the results are lasting. My keen awareness of the use of profanity in public, coupled with my clear memory of this situation, is proof of these lasting results.

So yes, I suppose I am my brother’s keeper.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, young Black men helping one another to do better is a very "good luck".(previously anonymous)
_Shy-City