Endangered lives

June 16, 1994|By Salim Muwakkil

MY GRANDMOTHER survived two husbands and two sons. Had a .38-caliber bullet tracked a little differently when it entered my abdomen in 1968, she would have outlived at least one of her grandsons. A longtime resident of Harlem, she's watched that beloved black community change from a poor but elegant outpost in the African Diaspora into New Jack City.

Her tale is all too typical. The United States has seldom been a pleasant place for black men, but the past few decades have been particularly deadly. Not only do we rank lowest on most indexes of social status, but also black men are burdened by a notion of masculinity that is literally self-destructive: Young black men are 10 times more likely to be murdered (or to murder) than comparable white men.

But a trio of recent autobiographies by African-American males shows that, with the requisite wherewithal, we have more access to mainstream America than ever before. Brent Staples' "Parallel Time," for example, tells the story of his climb out of the ghetto to the editorial board of the New York Times. One of nine children born to a poor housewife and an alcoholic truck driver, Mr. Staples is the only college graduate in the family. The death of his drug-dealing brother in a revenge shooting triggered his desire to take account of his life's incongruities.

As a reporter for the Washington Post, Nathan McCall occupies a perch nearly as prestigious as Staples' -- though the path he walks in "Makes Me Wanna Holler" was far less direct. Mr. McCall hungrily sought the popularity of "the older dudes, the thugs, who ran the school and hung in the streets." Drawn to the hard-boiled, fratricidal subculture of the street, he lived a life of petty criminality and routine sexual assaults.

Mr. McCall spent three years in prison for armed robbery before he found the strength to overcome those socialized patterns of self-sabotage. After his release he attended Norfolk State University in Virginia and eventually became an accomplished journalist. His story of redemption and rehabilitation is a moving account of human growth.

Sanyika Shakur's book, "Monster," offers a West Coast version of this coming-of-age story. A member of Los Angeles' notorious Crips street gang, Mr. Shakur (a.k.a Monster Kody Scott) introduces us to a world horribly contorted by economic deprivation and cruelty and to a cold, ruthless lifestyle in which murder has become routine.

"I had no idea of peace and tranquillity," he writes of his life at age 16. "From my earliest recollections there has been struggle, strife and the ubiquity of violence." His life's journey moved "from one man-made hell to another. So I didn't care one way or another about living or dying -- and I cared less than that about killing someone."

Through the stories of these three men we can catch a glimpse of the progressively stronger negative inertia gripping the lives of urban black males. The men's differing responses to similar circumstances demonstrate the complexity of our plight and the futility of easy answers.

While "Monster" is filled with hyperbolic and grotesque violence, Mr. Shakur's sober, assured prose gives it a terrifying authenticity. But Mr. Shakur's willingness to recount even the most barbaric aspects of his gangbanging past -- and his publisher's eagerness to print it -- has triggered a good deal of criticism.

One such attack came from Mr. Staples, who slammed "Monster" as an example of exploitative publishing. Mr. Staples is concerned that focusing on black America's ghetto poor -- from gangsta rap to Hollywood's slew of "ghettocentric" movies -- distorts the portrait of a diverse and mostly law-abiding people.

The lives of these three black men transcend the "ghetto story," and reveal a dynamic ushering of this country toward a racial crisis. While Mr. Staples sprinted to the mainstream, Mr. McCall has taken cautious, tentative steps. Mr. Shakur remains incarcerated.

From the separatist black nationalism of Mr. Shakur, to the dignified assimilation of Mr. Staples, to the middle route of Mr. McCall, these lives are the products of America's racist history. In newsrooms, neighborhoods and prisons, much will have to change in order for more African-American men to be able to make it -- or even to be able to outlive their grandmothers.

Salim Muwakkil is a contributing columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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