Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, on changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis.
I grew up in a two-parent, two-income household in Jennings. I would say I had it pretty good. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Jennings was a great place to be. I can remember my dad taking me to Northland or River Roads to shop. I had white classmates and white neighbors. I understood that I was black, but in my limited view of the world there was nothing wrong with that.
From an early age, my father taught me that a man should always work and provide for his family. This is something I carry with me to this day.
With all my fathers' great attributes, there was still something missing that I now see I needed: emotional support. Most black boys are taught to grow up tough, to man up, not to cry, and that showing their nurturing side makes them weak. Black boys often must go to extreme measures to prove how tough they are.
There was also little encouragement growing up. I didn't hear how great I was or that I could do anything I set my mind to. My father would often tell me that getting good grades was a requirement and that's the only job I had. Countless rejection after countless rejection would define me as a person.
When it was time for me to step out and face the world, I had a lot of insecurities. I struggled with communicating because holding a conversation wasn't something done too often in my home.
While in high school I joined the U.S. Army to prove to my father I was tough. I didn't imagine I would go to Iraq, but a few months after high school graduation, there I was – fighting for my life. This was one of the darkest periods of my life.
This was also the first time I experienced racism. Even in Iraq, the white soldiers made us feel like second-class citizens. Many nights I cried wanting to go home. I was only 19, and I didn't know what it meant to be a man. I didn't have a grasp on what I wanted in life. I wanted to go home to my father because I knew he would help me figure out a path.
On a cold day in February after a long deployment in Iraq, the bus finally pulled up to the Army Reserve building on Goodfellow Boulevard. Unexpectedly, my father was the first person I saw when I got off the bus. His embrace gave me the best feeling in the world; I felt safe in his arms.
I didn't know then that it would be the last time I would hug him. He passed away a couple of months later from cancer. We talked and laughed in the months leading up to his passing, trying to make up for lost time.
After his passing, I received a box from his long-time employer. To my surprise, my father had saved every medal I had earned, and my high school diploma was displayed on his desk. The father whose love I grew up questioning had always loved me; he just didn't know how to show it. The more I learned about him, the more I respected him. He didn't grow up in a loving household, so he loved me the best way that he knew how.
I was 25, had just lost my dad, and was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. I was living for the moment. I started attending Ward Chapel AME, where I was surrounded by men who didn't have problems opening up, telling me about their mistakes in life, and reassuring me that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
Around the same time, I started working at the Fathers' Support Center. I was able to work with strong men like Halbert Sullivan and Charles Barnes, who would often challenge me to make me a better man. I worked with some wonderful clients, which taught me to have compassion for other men. One of my mentors would tell me to "do what you're supposed to do, don't worry about others.” To this day, when I find myself in a tricky situation, I think of him saying that to me.
I left the Fathers' Support Center and went to teach a Kindergarten class of 30 black children. I got to be their dad, brother, uncle, motivator, comforter, and teacher. I loved those kids like they were my own.
In my current position at Ready By 21 St. Louis, my focus is working on a grant to reduce youth gun and gang violence, specifically among black males ages 11-24. It's time for all of us to stop complaining about black boys and help them to heal and heal ourselves in the process. We all must find the time to plant seeds of faith in them and be that stern yet nurturing voice they need, just as I did.
Marcel Scaife is the manager of Safe and Thriving Communities for Ready by 21 St. Louis at United Way of Greater St. Louis.
“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, in memory of Michael Brown.