Fifty years ago, a group of under-appreciated, underpaid black men who kept the city of Memphis healthy by purging its streets of waste, refuse and trash had to remind elected leaders and city fathers that they were indeed human. They held placards in public calling for basic dignity, stating simply “I Am A Man.”
Four years ago, gatherings of unheard, unseen young people who held the hopes of America’s future by carrying the promise of progeny and reality of our pending racial majorities remixed the earlier assertion shaping my personal affirmation of identity. #BlackLivesMatter echoed and amplified the earlier claim of humanity.
The “Black-ness” they declared is and was more than African-American status on census forms or college applications. Blackness is a sense of being, consciousness and solidarity, which transcends national borders and is rooted in a heritage and culture of struggle and triumph.
I. Am. A. BLACK. Man.
My identity and agency evolved between the articulations of these generations: planted in the 1970s, watered in the eighties, budding in the 1990s and blossoming in professional and family life since 2000.
I was raised on a block called the black community. My family were the folks selling fish and washing cars to raise money for the Black Church. I learned my ABCs at the knee of a black kindergarten teacher with a PhD and basic life skills at a historically black college. Like everybody else in the neighborhood, I listened and looked up to a kid called “Hip-hop,” who was just three years older than me. My heroes were black preachers and lawyers who died before I lived. I vacillated between which I wanted to be.
We. Are. BLACK. Men.
My story reflects and resonates with the realities of many black men and boys in my community, generation and nation. While I’ve benefited from strong Black institutions, my life chances, circumstances, outcomes and opportunities have also been impacted by the facts and (distinct) truths of prevailing narratives and stereotypes about who Black men are before we even show up in a room.
I am in no way alone. Images of the absentee father, fatherless child, criminalized teen and ignorant, oversexualized adult continue to color who the world sees in us.
More than anything else, my life as a black man has been shaped by my memory and response to the loss of two black men: my father and my brother. The former may be lost to me alone. (I really don’t know.) The latter has been lost to history. I offer these memories because most black men know these two black men. The names may be different. But, how we remember them helps to form each of us.
I. Was. A BLACK. Boy.
My last memory of my father was a trip to the corner store near Village Oaks Apartments, where I lived with my mom, brother and sisters. I was about three years old. It was that day outside the store – after he bought me a two-liter lemon-lime soda, some candy and a watermelon – that I felt the guilt of a long good-bye. A farewell that felt final, even though I can’t remember the words. An embrace that was longer than normal because he knew something I didn’t.
Mama says he came around after that. But, I don’t remember. I was only recently reminded of the English white woman he married and tried to make jealous of my mom. Somehow, I blocked her out. I didn’t know that growing up he actually didn’t live very far from me. I knew my mama didn’t want him. Maybe that’s why I never asked about him again. Perhaps if I did nearly 40 years wouldn’t have passed without me seeing him again.
I. Was. A BLACK. Boy.
I was a black boy whose black mama served two terms as the president of my school’s parent-teacher association, went on strike with communications workers, served as the youth director and Baptist Training Union superintendent at my church, and helped start the Citizens Committee to Save Our Children. Mama never went to college, but God’s favor gave her jobs that required college degrees. She’s never owned a home. But she sheltered and nurtured the dreams of two generations.
I was a black boy with a hard-working black mama who I never saw flinch, once. Well, maybe only once. That time my stepdad stepped out of bounds and she yelled for all of us kids to get out of the house and threw the keys to the car out the window for us to lock ourselves in. Then, she handled it like Olivia Pope.
I. Was. A. BLACK. Teen.
I was a black teen whose youngest uncle was murdered when I was in middle school and whose older brother was killed in the same neighborhood when I was in high school. A black teen who saw the real-life image of a body lying in a pool of its own life force during the trial of the two black men who shot my brother, two of his friends and their grandmother in a beef over a woman and a beeper (a 1990s symbol of drug territory).
These experiences opened the doors to both underage drinking and a high school guidance counselor equipped to address my challenges.
I was a black teen presented with options on how to react and respond to my losses. The options were mediated through my mama’s corporate job, our borderline middle-class status and a group of friends who already had college on their lips. I could try to keep up with them or further expose myself to the neighborhood violence that claimed my brother. That neighborhood option became much more likely when I moved in with my granddad to help keep him company after my grandmother died.
I. Am. A. BLACK. Man. Saved by my BLACK MAMA.
Truth be told, this black teen was saved by his black mama from taking the lesser options in life. So, I owe all things to her. The only compensation she has requested is that I give my own children better options. So, my identity is now also rooted in my debt to her, to my wife and to my children (three of whom are black boys). Not titles. Not jobs. Not status.
I. Am. A. BLACK. Father. Above. All. Else.
Rev. Starsky D. Wilson is president & CEO of Deaconess Foundation and pastor of Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community). Follow him at @revstarsky and @deaconessfound.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American.