The mask of the hip-hop generation

April 02, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

HE'S A kid who wears a mask.

If you saw him walking toward you late at night in a dark place, you'd watch him warily and sigh in relief when he allowed you to pass unmolested. You wouldn't dream of saying a word to him.

So you'd never know that he's 16 and lives in my neighborhood with both his parents or that he has a job and is on the honor roll in school. He's a good kid.

A mean swagger

You'd never know because he hides who he is behind that mask. Behind baggy pants, two or three oversize T-shirts and a bandanna. Behind braids and a gold chain with a cross dangling from it. Behind a hard stare and a swagger.

It makes him look like the gang boys from South Central Los Angeles. Or, perhaps more tellingly, the rap boys from BET. In that, he's like a lot of black kids his age -- a walking cliche, a living projection of hot-button fears both racial and generational.

But then, he'd say that I'm reading too much into it. That it's just style. Just fashion.

He'd have a point, of course. Like pierced body parts and purple hair, kids use the outlandish to make statements older people aren't supposed to understand.

But my problem is that where black boys are concerned, I understand all too well why they choose as they do. I'm reminded of an old friend who, in the days of mid-'60s militancy, would comb his hair out into a towering Afro. Most of us weren't wearing big Afros then -- they were still associated only with strident revolutionaries. So my friend's hairstyle frightened people who saw him, whether they were black or white.

He says that was precisely the point. "That was the only way we knew how to get respect," he once told me. "Through fear."

Gangsta apparel

Come forward three and a half decades to black boys dressing in thug finery, and it's hard not to see the disturbing parallel: respect through fear.

Of course, the problem with that equation is that any respect won through fear is counterfeit. It quickly curdles and becomes simply resentment. You wonder if the boys get the distinction. You wonder if they'd care -- or if they're not so desperate to be seen that they'll take what they can get any way they can and to hell with the consequences.

That would help explain some things, such as why the leading cause of death for young black men is murder. Or why a third of black men ages 20 to 29 are under control of the justice system. It might also help explain the grim conclusion reached by one Jerome Miller, founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit prison-reform group in Alexandria, Va. After reviewing Justice Department data, he speculates that by the year 2010, the majority of black men ages 18 to 39 will be in jail.

We're losing black boys and men. Losing them to death and dysfunction. Losing them to the maw of the criminal justice system. Losing them to a limiting self-image, which says that the only thing of value they have to offer is the ability to be hard.

And though the loss diminishes us all, it strikes hardest at black women and children.

A headline on a recent cover of Essence magazine puts their plight into a single, plaintive word: "Manless."

The pain of young black women makes me impatient for young black men to stop defining themselves by standards that leave no room for the embrace of loved ones, stop seeking respect in all the wrong places, stop hiding who they are.

I know why they do it, know all about protecting softness by projecting invincibility.

I also know a kid who writes stories and quotes the Bible and does chores. He's someone you might like if you met him.

But he wears a mask. So he could walk right by and you'd never even know.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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