Like many, I was heartbroken when first hearing of the death of the Florida teen, Trayvon Martin. His death at the hands of a 29-year-old George Zimmerman was tragic on a number of levels.
First, it is not safe to be a black boy anywhere – not on the south and west sides of Chicago, throughout the city of St. Louis, and apparently not in the gated communities of central Florida. In all those spaces black young men fell dead from gunfire.
On another level, the death of Martin (like the death of yet another Florida teen, Jordan Davis) signals the all-out assault on the image of black youth and particularly males. Zimmerman did not believe he was shooting a potential U.S. president or supreme court justice, but rather a menace to society.
The conjured image of the youthful black menace has historical roots (see Emmett Till and the Scottsboro Boys). Today, of course, the invocation of the image is not exclusive to neighborhood watch captains and legal defense teams in Florida.
Closer to home, one of the arguments St. Charles residents are currently making –that the bussing Normandy students to Francis Howell would introduce a culture of violence – smacks of the fear of the black menace.
What can we do to go on the offensive against this? On major news networks, black commentators regularly try to defend the character of black youth and the race in general. While I greatly value defense (as it won a championship for the Miami Heat), it will take offense to win this battle for the identity of young black males.
I call for all who read this to take a page from the rap world and “stunt.”
Some rappers, who have provided an image that people like Zimmerman envision when they see young black men, do well to flaunt their material possessions and ability to hustle. To the dismay of elders, many young black rappers magnify some of the imagery and stereotypes associated with the black community regarding drugs and violence.
It is time that we use the tools that have worked so well for rappers to reclaim the identity of young black men as achievers and models of excellence.
We must boast about the positive accomplishments of black youth. This is counterintuitive, as many black people from an earlier era were taught to be humble about their achievements. That is the wrong approach in this new era.
So, let me begin by stunting about some young black men. They are participants in the Saint Louis University African American Male Scholars (AAMS) Initiative that is overseen by the Cross Cultural Center and the African American Studies program.
These undergraduates work with faculty, staff and alumni mentors to design ways to achieve success at the university and in life. In 2008, several young brothers formed a group to encourage each other on the predominately white campus, and since then, these young scholars have shone brightly. The average grade point average of the participants for this past school year was 3.0.
That would be impressive enough, but our young men are leaders on campus and within the community, serving as resident advisors in university housing, officers in student organizations, and ambassadors of the university when they travel to conferences out of town. Our young men have earned internships at Fortune 500 corporations like Anheuser-Busch and Boeing, and work to improve the community by mentoring local middle school children.
St. Louis Community College, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and institutions throughout the region have similar initiatives and projects. Let us loudly and proudly take the lead in redefining the image of young black males by inundating the newspapers, websites, television and radio stations with the stories of those who are most positively representing the community. Stunt!
Stefan M. Bradley is director of the African American Studies Program at
Saint Louis University.