We were sitting silently in the living room of a friend’s home. A group of my peers had gathered somberly on the evening of July 5, 2005. We had all just lost a friend, mentor, advocate and family member. This was someone – for most of us, the only one – who gave us hope, resources and an outlet away from the circumstances that terrorized us daily.
Through the obscured space of grief, I heard it so subtle and clear: “All I have left is death or jail.”
This was the narrative for every young man in that room that night and most of the men from my neighborhood. What brought us together was the components of our lived experiences that we held in common. Most of our fathers had been absent due to incarceration, death, regulations to gain access to systematic assistance, and/or parental conflict. Many of our mothers had been victimized by the overwhelmingly copious access to the reality-escaping substances that masked their pain and suffering.
We had learned to make a way for ourselves, when there was nowhere to go. We developed a means to living without knowing what we were living for. We had created a purpose for ourselves when no one was giving us any opportunities. The world had shown us how much it valued us, and we were determined to live up to that expectation.
We were failing. The hope and admiration had left our souls. The very reason for engaging in these activities – to create a better means of living – had made us consciously numb. In that room that evening, we all ranged between the ages of 19 to 22 yet believed that life had run its course at a time when most people are just beginning to live. Society shunned us, our community did not have solutions for us, and elders distanced themselves from us.
Personally, I felt abandoned. But, unlike the other gentlemen in the room that evening, I believed in the power of resilience. We still had options – not placed along a path of upward mobility, but options nevertheless.
The next month I enrolled in the local community college and begin to listen to messages in the lectures rather than the content in the lessons. I began to realize that most people would never have the capacity to understand the depth of the dynamics we faced on a daily basis.
For me, higher education became a platform for debate. Here, my people had a voice and you could not shun us. I began taking courses in sociology and psychology to learn more about why things were the way they were, and why we think the way we think. I started to create an understanding for social constructs and mental wellness.
We were hurting and tired of fighting a battle we would inevitably lose. Our parents were hurt and defeated by trying to fight the same battle. Our children would one day have the same outcomes if something in this paradigm did not change.
Reluctant to believe anyone at a university could comprehend the discourse I had endured, I brought myself to meet with instructors. I wanted to discuss their understanding of life and theories to explain how we made it to this particular moment in history.
I began to be impaled by research around the functionality of society. I looked at the complexity of stereotypes played out in classic Disney films targeted to children to shape their expectations. I read the lectures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and compared similarities of desired outcomes while given through very dissimilar dialogue.
I was brought to the conclusion that it was a system that had no intent of allowing us to flourish. It was designed to either keep us complacent or consume us. It had no intentions of allowing us to grow individually or as a subgroup of people, but also wanted no direct dealings with us where we were not second-class citizens. I realized we had to be the ones leading the dialogue to change the narrative.
We must be the common denominator that contributes to our outcomes. We have to be leaders on the forefront and not spectators from the balcony. We must hold ourselves accountable in every facet. Our youth need to know that they have a safe space in this world to develop, learn and grow into flourishing young men. But we must create the haven that will allow for such growth and welcome them with opportunities that harvest visions.
Chauncey Nelson is a graduate of the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and a former research assistant for the Race and Opportunity Lab. He currently works on an initiative with Saint Louis University, “Shut It Down: Plug the School to Prison Pipeline,” and leads cognitive life skills groups for youth throughout the region to increase resilience and potential outcomes.
“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.