MEN'S DAY is a tradition that causes a big to-do at any church. Programs are planned. Fund-raising targets are set and met. Exhorters are brought in to rouse the faithful.
Haki R. Madhubuti, poet, civil-rights activist and businessman, never pretended to the mantle of a prelate. He is an exhorter nonetheless, as he proved Saturday before a riveted Men's Day audience at Bethel A.M.E. Church. He came to talk about his latest book, ''Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Afrikan Families in Transition,'' and the unnamed poem in the introduction illustrates his tone:
This book is a call for serious
Afrikan American men to
stand tall and dare to be great,
dare to move beyond the limited
ideas of others,
dare to think for yourselves
for the future.
dare to conceive a world where
are more than a consumer,
a clown in purple
wearing odd clothes finding glory
in not being
dare to stretch your imagination
beauty is the norm
rather than an ignorant accident
stomped upon in the stupor of
highs and lies masquerading as
dare to be beauty,
dare to be creative fire,
dare to be fathers, husbands,
dare to be quiet life fighters with
dare . . .
Men's Day activities in the average black church these days speak of fear. It is not a fear of trouble in the hereafter, but of damnation in this life. Black progress was a given when the economy was expanding and the federal government was putting muscle behind civil rights, but Ronald Reagan reversed the political course. Competition from offshore has shut down U.S. industries that once employed large numbers of black bread-winners, recession now threatens many others' livelihoods, and drugs and the crime they spawn have spread like a plague.
Will we lose an entire generation of young blacks to crime and despair? The question resounds in churches, community centers and institutions of all kinds. Haki R. Madhubuti, who as a boy watched his own mother become a drug addict, rails with special anger at the degradation this society can mete out to its downtrodden:
''Welcome to America. This is the land where genocide was committed against nations of indigenous people; where New York was purchased with beads; where the abnormal defines normality; and where young people live and breathe on the words of burnt-out rock stars with their noses cut off.''
Such anger is a reaction. Haki Madhubuti, Don L. Lee when hwas writing ''Think Black'' and ''Don't Cry, Scream,'' joined civil-rights campaigns during the Sixties and developed a following among black college students during the Seventies. The passion he brings to his poetry, to his two-decade push to build a black publishing house and to his marathon speaking tours is echoed by the rising indignation of a new generation of young blacks.
Civil rights was the story of old battles won and old ideas no longer needed, this generation thought, until Howard Beach, Bensonhurst and Virginia Beach brought home the reality of white resentment. Willie Horton helped George Bush win the White House, but his revelation of the continuing potency of prejudice in America reignited blacks' awareness of the need for vigilance on civil rights.
David Duke's racist politics in Louisiana and Jesse Helms' last-minute, racist hurrah in North Carolina have shaken many white politicians. Blacks note society's response to such bigotry, and Mr. Bush's recent civil-rights veto, and see in the country a mood to push backward. In black churches all over, people debate the planned obsolescence of the next generation of blacks even as the demographers point to their growing bulk in the labor force.
The opportunities forecast for young blacks as a generation leaves the American work force will never be fully realized if the nation does not get a handle on its prejudices. This time the pain will spread far beyond the blacks' neighborhoods, for the truncating of black ambitions also will deny a good work force to many companies and institutions. Look around Baltimore, and it is apparent that it already denies a solid tax base to the city. Thank God for the poets, exhorters who demand to keep on pointing it out.