First, let them speak hear what they have to say

February 20, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the O.J. Simpson verdict, the Million Man March and endless consternation over escalating violence and incarceration rates among black youths, Darrell Dawsey's ''Living to Tell About It: Young Black Men in America Speak Their Piece'' comes right on time.

While much has been written, spoken and agonized about the condition of young black men in the post-'60s era, we hear too little from the young males who are the subjects of all the talk.

In one recent, particularly telling episode, Kweisi Mfume, president-elect of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, observed near the end of a day-long conference in Washington on youth troubles that the conferees had heard from just about everyone of note but the members of the generation that was being discussed.

Voices of young men

Mr. Dawsey's book sets out to fill that gap with the voices of young black men, age 15 to 24, that he gathered during six months of travels around the country. It does not succeed as well as it should, but as current literature on the subject goes, it benefits from a dismaying absence of competition.

The voices the 27-year-old former reporter for the Detroit News gathers are worth reading. Some of the young men he interviews are at risk. Some have tumbled over the edge. Some have fallen to the bottom and lifted themselves back up enough to rise above their previous circumstances and become community leaders and mentors.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dawsey sweepingly blames so much abhorrent behavior on racism -- ''from which all of our other problems spring'' -- that he fails to adequately address or explain the personal assets that prevent most black youths from sinking into criminal activity, despite the white supremacy the writer paints as so powerful and omnipresent.

Particularly poignant is an 18-year-old who has seen his father only twice since he was 7, until the father joins him in prison. Asked if the father has tried to reconnect with him, the son responds, ''Nothing. He ain't said nothing yet.''

Unanswered question

Here is a case that could be mightily addressed by a little fatherly love. What is holding this father back? Unfortunately, the book leaves this question unanswered.

But even in its endless white-supremacist conspiracy theories, this book expresses a voice that is quite common among black youths.

Like virtually all youths, they are rebellious. Alienated from white America, estranged from the black middle class, ill-informed as to the ways power really works in America, they resist assimilation into a success stream that has been defined in their eyes by people who don't look or talk like them.

They also need love, whether their machismo will allow them to admit it or not. When they can't find enough love at home, many seek it from their ''homies'' on the street. When the ''homies'' are the wrong kind of kids, disaster can result.

Someone to blame

A pervasive sense of helplessness and vulnerability often fuels a need to excuse one's own shortcomings by finding an outside culprit, some ''other'' to blame.

For black youths, this sense of insecurity also can fuel negative peer pressures, including the ridiculing of academic achievers as ''talkin' white'' or ''actin' white,'' an ironically disastrous inversion of the ''black is beautiful'' movement my generation promoted during the '60s.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Dawsey said he thought the ''actin' white'' critique was more complicated than some observers, including me, might think.

Sometimes, he said, it is not a face-saving reaction to achievement itself but to those achievers who have lost touch with the ''walk'' and ''talk'' of their peers.

It is not that good grades are ''white,'' he said, but that the student being ridiculed has moved ''outside the context of the standards and protocols of the community.''

Never lost touch

Recalling his own adolescence in the economically depressed east side of Detroit, Mr. Dawsey said he made good grades but never lost touch with the ''walk'' and the ''talk'' of his neighborhood friends.

''I participated in the rites of passage in my community, some good or not so good,'' he said. ''Like, we played chess in our community. I had a buddy, Lance, who could beat Boris Spassky. We never saw chess as a white boy's game.

''Too often our society tends to single out . . . young people who make good grades and treat them as though they are different,'' he said. ''Instead of being encouraged to be a part of the fabric of the community around them, they are told, no, that's a bad group, don't hang out with them.''

Maybe so. Nobody likes to be told their experience counts for nothing.

Fabric of the community

But one teen's ''fabric of the community'' can be another teen's quicksand pit. In their need for strong role models, young black people, like other youths, need to be taught that the greatest strength comes from within, from personal fortitude, tenacity and responsibility for one's own fate.

To teach them, we, their elders, need to reconnect with them. Darrell Dawsey has helped to give them a voice. But the conversation is only beginning.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.