Thursday, January 21, 2010

Molding Responsible, Educated Black Men

Yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom I mentioned earlier here, published a really thoughtful post, Earning the Temporary Hatred of Your Children, about the sometimes tense, sometimes fulfilling experience of father-son relationships. His subject was actually inter-generational, as Coates discussed hard lessons of being his father's son on the one hand and then the hard lessons of now being a father to his own nine-year-old son.

Coates discusses coming up and receiving really hard physical discipline from his parents, something that was fairly common in the black community of Baltimore where he was raised. The discipline that Coates received, he recognizes now, would be considered child abuse these days. And it's a form of discipline that he and his partner do not practice with their son.

Nonetheless, Coates writes
I sense that me and the boy are entering into that 'I don't like my Dad' phase. He'll be ten this year. He's tall, and smart. He's friendly, big-hearted, charismatic and really passionate. I love all of that about him, and I tell him that all the time. But I basically see my job as it was laid down all those years ago--the molding of a responsible black man. That was my parents mission, and it was dutifully enforced by my Pops.
That mission, as Coates acknowledges, creates all kinds of tensions and father-dislike.

Over the next several years,
There's a lot to learn, and some unavoidable portion of it will hurt. What gives me some hope is that I've retained my respect for my Dad, I like him a great deal now. He's one of my best friends, and my ultimate mentor. God willing, me and the boy will get to that same place.
Coates' post had my mind running in all kinds of directions. On the literary tip, I was reminded of how Colson Whitehead writes about a black father-son relationship in his novel Sag Harbor, and I also thought about Richard Wright's points about father-son issues in his autobiography Black Boy. And then, my younger brother Kenton was just mentioning to me a couple of days ago the links between how father-son issues appear in Langston Hughes' The Big Sea and Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father.

I also thought of the wide-ranging educations I've been receiving and continue to receive from older black men in my life, including folks like my professors Jerry Ward and William Harris, Bernard Bell and Keith Gilyard, and then my older friends and mentors Eugene Redmond and Donald Garcia. And of course, there's my own father, who very likely began conversing with me about politics, history, and the mysteries of the universe when I was still chilling in my mother's belly.

Since those older black men have been so central to my education and intellectual development, I end up thinking about their lessons quite a bit these days now that I work with a large number of young black men here at SIUE. The fellas were not so pleased with me this past Tuesday, as I had to express my disappointment and frustration concerning recent reports I received about their performance (or lack thereof) in some of their classes. I'm quite sure that my "disappointment and frustrated" talks are unpleasant affairs for everyone; they're certainly unpleasant for me.

Participating in the processes of molding responsible, educated young black men is regularly challenging and fulfilling. And I'm definitely looking forward to getting to those places where I am with those friends and former professors where we regularly exchange ideas and notes about what we've been experiencing and witnessing in the world.

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