Models Monday: On Black Boys in American History (Part 1)

Though it is usually unwise to make broad, sweeping generalizations, I’m going to risk being foolhardy in making this claim about black boys in American history: It is impossible to mark a single decade in American history where your entry point into it remains unblemished by some gross injustice carried out against black boys; the Central Park Five marked mine. I don’t quite remember understanding the race and gender narratives involved, but the key terms that stood out for me were: wilding and Central Park jogger. In the years following the 1989 story of five black teenagers who where charged with raping a white jogger in Central Park, I read articles and bought books about the case. Earlier today, I finally watched the Ken Burns documentary about the miscarriage of justice against these boys most clearly demonstrated after Matias Reyes’s confession.

According to journalists interviewed in the film, neither the police nor the former district attorney for the case, could admit to their mistakes–or what I prefer to think of as their lies and their abuse of power. The documentary recalls the venom shamelessly directed at the accused without recognizing that the politicians calling for blood and the prominent citizens, like Donald Trump, who were calling for the return of the death penalty recalled the lynch mobs that formed whenever black boys or black men were accused of raping a white woman. While I found the film interesting in some ways, it was trite in its focus on this case as representing a discreet moment in American history. The story of the Central Park Five is the story of the Scottsboro boys (1931-1937), George Stinney (1944), The Groveland Boys (1949)Emmett Till (1955), James Hanover Thompson and David Simpson (1958), Bobby Hutton (1968), Jonathan and George Jackson (1970/1971). The tragedy of their stories make for engrossing, compelling drama, but what about the story of those who cried “crucify him?” To that end, The Central Park Five might have been more interesting if those same people who shamelessly called for blood and the death penalty were asked to reflect on how they understood themselves in relationship to this story in light of the truth. What is that story like? How does it sound?

In light of this history, here are some of the ground rules that I have established for contributing to my son’s view of himself as a free human being:

1.) When I can control it, I will not allow him to speak to figures of authority without my presence; thus, no police officers and no guidance counselors. These two forces have been detrimental to black boys (and girls, for that matter) flourishing. As long as my son is enrolled in compulsory education, I will make a note in his file that no guidance counselor is allowed to speak to him without one of his parent’s present. If he is ever taken to a police station for the very likely crimes of collecting the mail from our mailbox, using his key to enter our home, or buying clothes from any place other than Goodwill, I will teach him to say, “I would like to speak to my attorney.” I will prepare him to recognize all the tricks they will use to compel him to deny his own truth, be on his own side. I will teach him that they will tell him that calling for an attorney will only make him look more guilty; how they will tell him that if he’s innocent, there’s no need for an attorney.

2.) Just as I will tell my son to know his own name, his identity, I pledge to also know it. To most people, black boys are thugs and that includes the sweet boy that I know I have raised. If ever I recognize that my son is being represented to me as some vicious stereotype of black male identity, I will immediately plan for his escape from that environment.

3.) If my son tells me that someone in a position of authority is cruel to him, I will believe him and takeover. If he is in school, I will tell him to ask to visit the Principal’s Office so that he can call his parents.

4.) I will not allow my son to believe that some notion of “institutional prestige” is worth his life. Enrolling at The Dalton School, Harvard, or Yale, working at Salomon Brothers or at the Cleveland Clinic, and living along the contours of Central Park is not worth his dignity, integrity, sanity, or health.

5.) I will teach him that as far as he’s concerned, there is no right place or right time already made for him. Thus, I will encourage his creativity and his development of a rich interior life, for without this skill or this careful cultivation he might be without sanctuary.

To be continued…

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