Manhood Unflinching

March 15, 1995|By LEONARD PITTS Jr.

MIAMI — Miami. -- Mike Tyson scowled from behind the iron bars, his face tight with menace. You got the sense that your safety was an illusion, your faith in the power of iron sorely misplaced. ''I'll be back,'' he said. You shuddered and had no doubt that he would.

That T-shirt seemed to be selling at a brisk pace when I saw it on a street vendor's table in Harlem a couple of years ago. Most of the buyers, not surprisingly, were young, black and male.

Now the T-shirt's prophecy is about to come true. Mike Tyson is supposed to walk free from an Indiana prison this month, three years after being jailed for rape. And the boxing community has been buzzing with speculation about his first post-prison fight. And I find myself musing about the nature of heroes.

Because Mike Tyson is apparently a hero. Not to me, and maybe not to you, but definitely to those young men in the T-shirts. It's a measure of their mood that neither his rape conviction, his wife-beating nor his difficulty passing his high school equivalency exam tarnishes his ''heroism.'' If anything, they add to it.

I'm only telling you what they've told me: Mike is the bad nigger, the demon of white America's nightmares who refused to play their games and made them respect him on his own terms. And Mike is the victim, too, the latest trophy of a white America's insidious plot to destroy strong black males.

It all bespeaks a creepy paranoia worthy of ''The X-Files,'' yet this line of thinking does have currency in certain corners. That's troubling and sad -- and telling. You have to wonder how far we've fallen that anyone would take this man into their hearts. What do they see in him?

Easy. They see manhood unflinching. Manhood unchallenged. Manhood that is Alaska-cold and slumlord-mean, hard like a brick, unconquered as a mountaintop. Manhood, at a time when theirs is under constant assault. Tyson is that one bad black man white folks could bring down, maybe, but keep down, never.

You might wonder how anyone could admire such harsh virtues. That too is no mystery. Because it's all too easy as a young black man to feel defined and circumscribed by a world that hates you, fears you and ascribes to you a savage inhumanity. All too easy to trap yourself into playing out that proscribed role, living down to that expectation, becoming what they have told you you are.

And finally, it's all too easy, looking out from the confines of that narrow life, to admire a man who lived that role, became that thing, and threw it back in their faces, laughing all the way to the bank.

The lucky ones will learn sooner rather than later that there are nobler virtues to aspire to than hardness. Higher things to be than just another bad nigger.

The other ones, the ones that leave me sad, will continue confined in that airless place long after their Tyson shirts have grown discolored and frayed and forgotten. And they will, indeed, be like Mike.

Out of jail, but never free.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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