Saving black boys

Education

June 04, 2006|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Whenever an issue about race or race relations seizes the news, Ray Winbush is on the media's short list.

Over the past few months, the Morgan State University professor has appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show to discuss race with the cast of the film Crash.

He's discussed whether African-Americans should receive reparations from the American government for the crimes of slavery. He's talked about DNA testing to trace genetic heritage and about the challenges faced by black athletes such as NBA player Carmelo Anthony who try to "play to corporate America" while also "keeping it real."

"Ray Winbush is one of the most important social thinkers we have in this country," says Molefi Kete Asante, the author of Afrocentricity and founder of the Journal of Black Studies. "He has a very clear grasp of the fundamental problems that underline interpersonal relationships in the African-American community as well as intercultural relationships -- and also of what white privilege has done to black self-concept."

Director of the Institute for Urban Research, the 58-year-old Winbush, a psychologist, is increasingly known for working to connect African-American boys to their rich African cultural heritage. It is one way, he says, to help them withstand the damaging effects of the societal racism that continues to limit their opportunities and damage their self-image.

"I try to expand their understanding of who they are as African boys living in America," Winbush says. "On St. Patrick's Day, people do that [pass down culture] with Irish kids and at the Seder, with Jewish kids. Every culture [in America] puts its culture into the child -- except for African-Americans."

He intends to change that with his 2000 book The Warrior Method: A Parents' Guide to Rearing Healthy Black Boys (Amistad / HarperCollins, $13.95). Introduced to teachers in professional development workshops in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, read by parents -- especially single mothers -- and discussed by college students, the book continues to find new audiences, says Dawn Davis, vice president and editorial director of Amistad.

Actress and Baltimore native Jada Pinkett-Smith was so impressed by the book, for instance, that she and her husband, Will Smith, contributed $50,000 to form a Warrior Institute at Morgan to train more educators in the method.

The need for a social support system that can help develop and strengthen young black men could not be more apparent, Winbush says.

"If the current rate of homicidal violence among black males existed in white males, a national crisis would be declared, followed by a White House conference to address the problem," he writes. His book cites U.S. Department of Justice statistics that note that black males die from homicide at a rate 15 times that of white males and also that 28 percent of black men will enter state or federal prisons.

Winbush believes that the self-destructive behavior of black men is linked to "the negative and stereotypical images bombarding them." And, in the 1990s, he set out to find a cultural support system that could provide black youth with weapons of self-respect, dignity and self-reliance.

He found it during his visits to West Africa. There, traditional child-rearing practices and the Poro Society, a secret group that initiates black boys into manhood, connect children to their heritage and furnish a time-honored induction into the adult world that Winbush compares to the Jewish bar mitzvah.

The Warrior Method suggests such traditional systems of group support as a birthing circle, which nourishes a child until he is about 5 years old. Afterward, parents and caretakers can form young-warrior councils, with age-appropriate activities and educational pursuits for boys. Winbush says such councils play a stabilizing role in boys' lives, acting as a sort of extended family, while also providing peer support.

Why does he call this program the Warrior Method?

"I wanted the person who just glances at the book to believe there is a war. A war that's undeclared -- and in some cases declared -- against black males ..." Winbush says. "I could stand on the street corner in Baltimore with my hood up and be arrested for loitering. And that stuff's like being at war."

Growing up in poverty on the east side of Cleveland, Winbush had no concept about his African cultural heritage until he found himself at a historically black school, Oakwood College, in Huntsville Ala.

It was 1966. With a father who was a steelworker and a mother who had not completed high school, he was in foreign territory: the first person in his family to attend college.

Winbush had been bused to an accelerated, predominantly white high school. The experience left him with a profound sense of the capricious nature of opportunity in the lives of young black men in America: His older brother, whom he describes as "much more intelligent," went to jail while Winbush eventually took classes at Harvard and Yale.

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