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Social Studies

Man Talk

By Vincent Williams | Posted 12/2/2009

Gospel superstar Donnie McClurkin spoke at a church conference a few weeks ago on the state of young black manhood, and though I honestly believe he's trying to help, he missed the point. McClurkin has bravely been forthright about the years of molestation and abuse he was the victim of as a child and has advocated for parents, and the community in general, to be more vigilant with kids. Regrettably, like a lot of black folks--and a lot of other kind of folks, too--McClurkin delivered a muddled message because of the way he conflates sexual abuse with homosexuality and the concept of black manhood. For the singer, softness in young men goes hand-in-hand with homosexuality and molestation, which is obviously wrong. And it's frustrating, because this is yet another a missed opportunity for a conversation the black community needs to have about the state of our young men that gets hampered by our unwillingness to let go of our own bigotry.

I'm sure some of the administration at Morehouse College just sighed and shook their heads when they heard McClurkin. The all-male historically black college has been embroiled in its own controversy over the past few months because of the implementation of a dress code. While that code encompasses details that you might expect from the conservative Southern institution--a moratorium on grills, saggy jeans, etc.--it's the new code's prohibition on cross-dressing that has garnered the most attention. Some believe the ban on cross-dressing is aimed at some gay students, but Morehouse says it's just trying to continue its mission of making black leaders and sexual orientation has nothing to do with it. The college tried to engage Safe Space, the gay student union at Morehouse, in the conversation, and based on its 100-year-plus track record shaping young black men, I want to take the school at its word.

Still, I'm never going to be mad at gay black men citing homophobia as a factor in decisions that affect them, because of the long and disgraceful history of anti-gay bigotry in the black community. If you continually get beat over the head with something, you tend to be sensitive. Whether we're talking about the sweaty upper lips of multitudes of churchgoers who get worked up over Leviticus, the unfortunate tendencies of my beloved hip-hop to engage in hateful language, or the hysterical handwringing over the Menace of the Down-Low (dun, dun, dun), my people don't really have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to being reasonable about anything that can even tangentially be related to homosexuality. It's especially frustrating, because I think there is a real need to address the state of young black manhood.

It used to be so easy in the late '80s and early '90s. When the crack epidemic exploded, we could point to overtly violent and overall deviant behavior and say, "Yes, there is a crisis among young black men." And we talked about community standards and the lack of fathers, and we were all on the same page. Whether or not anything got solved varies, depending on your perspective, but there was solidarity in the fact that we needed to watch the situation.

Now, the problem--assuming you grant there is one--is more subtle. What I hear more and more, in many whispers and a few shouts, is anxiety over, for lack of a more elegant term, soft-ass boys. Folks seem to be concerned that no one is teaching young black boys how to become men. It has nothing to do with braggadocio or aggression or machismo. No, this is about strength of character.

And I'm inclined to agree with the sentiment. At the risk of always sounding like a crotchety old man, I'm thinking it's more of an issue of substance not style. I could care less about how skinny the jeans are, but I am disturbed by the lack of fortitude and strength I see in young brothers. Rarely do I meet young men under the age of 25 who stand up straight, look me in the eye when we meet, know how to shake my hand properly, and speak in full, clear voices. More often than I care to admit, I understand the anxiety a place like Morehouse would feel.

Now, the question is why is this so? How's this for an answer: I don't know. As I hope I've made painfully clear, I think it's a mistake, as well as unproductive, to blame this on sexuality. All that does is continue the long history of bigotry in the black community without any resolution. And, for the record, I'm a little ambivalent about completely blaming the phenomenon on some type of "mama's boy" thing gone wrong. Black women have been raising black boys by themselves for hundreds of years. No, like most things in life, I'm sure there are much more complicated and multilayered reasons that socially, generationally, and culturally explain what's happening. But we need to actually discuss them and not just preach.

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