Black men's group stresses spirituality to save youngsters

August 23, 1991|By Diane Winston

When Richard Rowe was growing up, his father tried to teach him how to be a man. The lessons, woven through the fabric of life, took place at the fishing hole, the playing field and the dinner table.

Richard Rowe's father didn't complain or make excuses. He worked two jobs and sent six children through college. The example of his life made plain that being a man meant being responsible.

Richard Rowe was lucky.

"My father taught me the essence of manhood," said Mr. Rowe, 40, an administrator for the Baltimore Mentoring Institute. "He taught me responsibility and accountability. If you make a baby, you take care of the baby."

Unlike Mr. Rowe, a growing number of today's young black men do not have a positive male presence in their lives. Others lack a spiritual center that would provide a sense of purpose and meaning.

These young men, without hope or direction, frequently fall into trouble. Almost one-fourth of black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole. Their rates of unemployment and illiteracy are high, and their educational level and life expectancy are low.

This grim situation is fodder for a continuing national discussion, but Mr. Rowe says he is tired of talking. Four years ago he organized a Baltimore group, the Afrikan American Men's Leadership Council, to take action.

Eager to safeguard children, the council started a local unit that became part of the National Rites of Passage Collective, a loose network of 12 to 20 groups nationwide that strives to teach responsible manhood to inner-city youths.

"We are at war. Desert Storm isn't anything compared to Urban Storm," Mr. Rowe told 400 youths and adults at the fifth annual National Rites of Passage Conference at Baltimore's Dunbar High School in mid-July. "Last year we lost 8,000 brothers in Urban Storm. Our children are dying in the streets, and we are more preoccupied with 'isms' than their future."

The groups, run by community organizers, educators and social workers, are centered in churches, community centers and schools. At the heart of the movement is African spirituality -- the belief that something greater than oneself gives meaning and purpose to life and that each person's life should benefit this greater good.

These beliefs, which can encompass Christian, Muslim and even agnostic participants, combine a life-affirming spirituality with messages of black power and national liberation. Using rhetoric that mixes Malcolm X with Robert Bly, Rites of Passage leaders call for strong but sensitive black men who can also take care of the children.

Rites of Passage leaders, dressed for a gathering of the tribes, wore orange-black-green --ikis and red-yellow-blue crowns at the Baltimore meeting. Their young charges favored T-shirts and the popular "fade" haircut, with the sides and back of the head shaved.

But all ages seemed to agree that anything African was better than its European counterpart. Instead of "amen," affirming crowds cried in Swahili "ashe" (pronounced AH-shay); instead of a benediction, the leader poured water on the ground and asked for the blessings of ancestors.

It's a question of identity.

"The buzzword in the community is self-esteem," said Carl Hampton, a clinical psychologist at the Progressive Life Center in Washington. "Indigenous to that is identity. If we have children who are walking around who are African, we teach them to accept it and to utilize it. We see being African as a point of pride."

The Baltimore group, which is beginning its third year, is made up of 17 youths 9 to 16 years old. They meet Saturday mornings at Hilton Elementary School on the city's west side.

Young people are recruited through schools, referrals and word of mouth. Nearly 30 start each year, but almost half drop out. The program is rigorous. On the path from boyhood to adolescence, participants are expected to keep journals, do chores, volunteer for community service, start entrepreneurial projects, adopt an older person and participate in physical activities.

"They teach us to be responsible men," said John Miller, 12, who is going into the eighth grade at Hamilton Middle School. "The reason why we are doing this is we see a lot of problems in our communities when we don't have responsible men."

John said that he didn't want to be in the program but that his mother required it. Other boys said their parents encouraged them to participate.

They say that the curriculum is interesting, that they talk about everything from African history to sex and drugs. But it is obvious that their favorite pastimes include push-ups, drill teams and camping trips.

Darryl Kennon, a sinewy man with three thick plaits of hair down his back, is one of the Baltimore group's leaders. Like the others in the Afrikan American Men's Leadership Council, his work in the Rites of Passage program is a labor of love. The boys' families are asked to contribute $20 a month, but the men on the council come up with funds as needed.

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