Is it harder to grow up male in the inner city than female?
The question arises in the wake of the Detroit school district's recent attempt to create schools for black boys. The idea was ultimately subverted by lawsuits brought by the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, which insisted that girls not be excluded from such institutions.
Here's what I think: When I was a girl in junior high school, I had to walk through apartment complexes notorious for violence and drugs just to get to school. A walk of less than 200 yards was one thing for me as a girl. I clutched my books tight to my chest; I kept my eyes focused on the red, white and blue flag that waved across the street. I didn't slow down to view the dead body that might be in the Dumpster. I averted my eyes from people exchanging money for marijuana laced with LSD. I said hello to the men hovering in the parking lots, maybe still drunk from the previous night. And I prayed that they would recognize me as the little girl who boarded the Sunday school bus -- not the woman who didn't "act right" last night.
For my brother and male cousins, however, the journey to school was not so simple. For them, being a "man" (even at 12 years of age) meant that they had to stop and talk when rumor had it that so-and-so's cousin had been shot last night. Being male meant they were supposed to know how to deal with drugs. And being male meant that it was cool to stay away from church or Sunday School.
I do not mean to suggest that life was easier for little girls than for little boys. Rather, I think that our problems are different. Sexual abuse by those in and outside our communities is a threat we learn to fear at an early age. Whether we want to or not, we are often the ones left alone in the house who must raise the younger children and even hold the family together. We face greater hardships as we grow older -- often fending for ourselves as single parents while our mates lose themselves to gang violence, prison, drugs.
But by burying our heads in our books or busying ourselves in church, we find different ways to create our personas, or to adjust to those imposed on us. To those outside the home, we have little else to prove except that we either are or aren't "fast" or "easy."
Little boys, however, in addition to whatever else they have to prove to their families or their teachers, also have to prove that they are tough. For an African American boy, proving one's manhood all too often proves fatal.
If a black boy grows into manhood without succumbing to drug abuse, alcoholism or crime, the community feels relieved at having produced "a fine young man." On the other hand, girls are not only expected to survive, but to cook, clean, pray and study. "We love our sons but raise our daughters," is a common saying in African American communities. Because girls make it through childhood, the myth is that our "rise," to use Maya Angelou's word, is somehow inevitable; it can be taken for granted.
In the recent argument over sexually segregated schools in Detroit, it seems to me both sides were right -- and both sides were wrong. The Detroit school officials were correct in thinking that boys need schools specifically designed to meet the pressures imposed on black males in the inner city. On the other hand I think that the civil libertarian groups such as NOW and the ACLU were right to object that black girls, too, need special attention.
The solution, however, is not to go back to the co-ed schools we have already had. The answer is to offer our youth schools designed for each sex. Boys should have the option to attend a school which is designed for them; girls should be given the same opportunity to attend schools which prepare us for the hardships and problems of being women in the inner city.
This is not a time for us to pit one group against the other. This is not the time for one side to claim that boys need more or that girls need more. The fact is that it is not easy for either little boys or for little girls. Our survival as a race depends on educators who are willing to confront that reality.
Lillian Broadous, an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, grew up in a black urban neighborhood in Southern California. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.