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Identity

Dreams Deferred: Fostering Healing in Black Men and Boys

Let’s take a peek at the Black male over time:

[1903] W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

[1940] Richard Writing in Native Son:

But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in the back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness. Sometimes, in his room or on the sidewalk, the world seemed to him a strange labyrinth even when the streets were straight and the walls were square; a chaos which made him feel that something in him should be able to understand it, divide it, focus it. But only under the stress of hate was the conflict resolved.

[1992] Richard Majors & Janet Mancini Billson in Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America:

He struggles toward manhood with a sense that he lacks something; he is manqué. His schools place him in lower achievement groups; teachers speak of language deficits; economists call him disadvantaged; and psychologists refer to him as disordered…”Having been denied a natural development of his sense of manliness, he must constantly prove to himself that he is a man.” This “masculine protest” can become the constant thread woven throughout the black male’s daily interaction: “1 am worthy, I am powerful, I am a man.”… The humiliating double bind of having to prove manhood while being denied access to the legitimate tools with which to do so creates emotional drudgery for black males. Like other men, black males want to be productive and responsible citizens– but can they? Do they have real choices? Sitting on the margins of American society makes those choices distressingly narrow.

[2008] A friend in his unpublished work The Black Man’s Ultimatum:

At this current moment, an American black man is undeniably at war with himself – fighting the same war that “niggers”, “Coloreds”, “Negroes”, “African Americans”, and Blacks have been fighting for centuries. Deep down, he sees internal warfare as means to locate his most genuine self, because warfare is all that he has ever known. Yet, he must somehow realize that this internal war is not winnable, for winning will sacrifice an intrinsic part of his innate being. He must come to embrace both warring, oxymoronic identities that make him who he is. Only then, will he be able to conjure the courage to acknowledge and effectively address the extrinsic war that is being directed at him. Only then will he have the capacity to seek true self-redemption and true freedom.

[2016] Victor Scotti (the author) in response to the recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of policemen:

I’m sad today because we’re forced to raise Bigger Thomases. We’re forced to strip our Black boys of their youth because they have to learn how to make their way in the world; they have to learn to temper the inner war waging inside of them in learning how to ‘be’. We have to teach them that there will be days you will be forced to choose to fight for your dignity or to fight to stay alive. How do we teach our boys to love themselves, love God, and love their families fervently, but society doesn’t have a modicum of respect and care for their Black bodies? How do you tell your son, your little brother, your nephew, or your cousin that the world fears them and that fear is manifested in hate?

Each of these voices tell the exact same story; the story of a Black man who feels powerless, rejected, and confused. A Black man who cannot, for the life of him, figure out why his Black skin is synonymous with inferiority. A Black man who is forced to pick his poison: death by a fear-induced bullet or the anguish that inevitably comes from not being able to simply be. We are forced to prove the value of our existence each day, no matter what privileges we carry. I come from a middle-class, two-parent household. I was educated in Chicago by an internationally-recognized curriculum, and then graduated from an Ivy League university. I am a member of a Black fraternal organization with a rich legacy. I work at one of the best and most profitable companies in the world. Yet I am plagued with the same terrible weight that all Black men are: the realization that the very things that define me can lead to my death.

This truth can lead to self-loathing, low self-esteem, and a sometimes dangerous quest of figuring out who you are. Right now, we are expecting our Black males—by not providing counter-narratives, affirming language, and useful, practical tools to reconcile the force-fed societal definitions of us versus the ones we create for themselves—to silently sort through a labyrinth of emotions that can manifest themselves in irreparably damaging ways. But, how do we provide our boys with a blueprint we did not have ourselves?

We can start by giving ourselves permission to feel, to share, to teach, and to heal. We can decide to open up to our fathers, our brothers, our sons, and our mentees about joys and concerns, triumphs and mistakes, and our ever-present challenges living as Black men in America. In turn, we give the next generation, through our example, the agency to express themselves, no matter what society tells them that outlook should be. By encouraging their personal journeys, we are giving ourselves the interrelated power to accept our own. Our openness with each other reworks the monolithic narrative of Black masculinity; it unleashes our innate power and strength that society has attempted to suppress since slavery.

The beauty of life is that everything we need to thrive, not just survive, is inside of us waiting to be expressed. The voices of Du Bois, Wright, and Baldwin let us know that we are not to blame for the internal wars waging inside of us. The deferred dreams of Grant, Martin, Sterling, and Castile are unfortunate reality checks that the fight for equity and justice for Black men are far from won. Let each of our Black male bodies reject silent suffering; instead, let us create a balm for healing: an intergenerational healing that makes self-acceptance permissible and creates an unshakable foundation for the rejection of fear. In the words of Keith Boykin, “once you realize that the thing you fear is not the end of the world, you begin to understand that your defiance of fear gives you the power to change the world.” My brothers, let’s change the world.

By Victor Scotti

Victor Anthony Scotti, Jr. is a New York-based diversity specialist at a major tech company. He’s now a proud Harlemite, and you can usually find him having brunch or at a street festival in the city. Born and raised in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Sociology, Urban Education and Africana Studies. Victor is passionate about creating institutional safe spaces for Black men and boys.