It's time for men to act like men

July 16, 2001|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI - The first thing we see is a black man curled up in a womb. The first thing we hear is a voice-over explaining a psychologist's theory that black men are babies. That because of racism, the African-American man remains an unformed person - infantilized, immature and incapable of exploiting his own fullest potential.

Thus begins the new movie, Baby Boy. In it, we are introduced to Jody, a jobless, aimless 20-year-old from South-Central L.A. Though he has fathered two children by two women, he flees commitment, whether that means marriage or just cohabitation. Instead, Jody lives with his mother, who's in her middle 30s. Apparently, he would be content to do that forever, except that mom has begun keeping company with a hulking ex-con whose very presence makes plain that it's time for Jody to grow up and get out.

That he seems unable to do this, we are asked to believe, is ultimately because of the white man. Which brings me to the following conclusion:

Everybody should have a white man. Even white men should have a white man.

Because when you have a white man, nothing is ever your fault. You're never required to account for your own failings or take the reins of your own destiny. The boss says, "Why haven't you finished those reports, Bob?" and you say, "Because of the white man, sir."

I'm not here to sell you some naive nonsense that racism no longer exists. One has only to look around with open eyes to see that it continues to diminish the fiscal, physical and emotional health of African-American people. All of us are obligated to raise our voices in protest of this awful reality.

But black folks are also obligated to live the fullest lives possible in the face of that reality. To live without excuses.

Instead, director John Singleton begins with an excuse. He will demur that Baby Boy is a movie, not a message, and that he intended nothing higher than a summer diversion. And he will be full of crap.

The theory he cites - and explores uncritically - is by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, a black psychiatrist who has espoused black supremacy. According to one published account, she believes black men are inadvertently emasculated by their mothers, often single women, who coddle them in fear of what their fate will be in a hostile world.

Yet the world is full of white men, too, who refuse to grow up, white men for whom the avoidance of commitment is their prime directive. And surely there are also profound psychological reasons those men remain boys.

At some point, though, a problem ought to be defined less by our ability to explain why it happens than by our willingness to demand that it happen no more. Meaning, I don't care why some white men are infantile. They should grow up, regardless. And similarly, it only makes me impatient to be told that racism has supposedly left some black men in the same boat, as if that means they themselves bear no responsibility.

Frankly, I know too many hard-working black men to believe the "baby boy" phenomenon is as widespread as Mr. Singleton seems to suggest. To the degree it exists at all, there's something offensive about his attempt to pin it upon racial animus. There's never been a time that animus didn't exist, and no such moment is on the near horizon.

Meantime, black women, children and communities are dying, spiritually and literally, for the lack of fully formed, grown-up black men. So I have limited tolerance for the idea of Jody as helpless victim. Racism doesn't excuse weakness - it demands strength.

And forgive me for being simplistic, but maybe if we were less eager to rationalize personal failure like Jody's, we would see less of it. Maybe if we required men to be men, more of them would.

It's telling that in the movie, Jody never encounters a white man. I might sympathize if I had seen him turned away from school or turned down for a job because of his skin color. Truth is, getting an education and doing honest work never seem to occur to him.

Maybe you think that means the white man is keeping him down. Me, I think it means he has saved the white man the trouble.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may reach him via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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