Opportunity: Caring for African American Young Men

August 7th, 2014

Caregivers must have “ears to hear and eyes to see—the Lord has made them both” (Proverbs 20:12 CEB). But do we see the people who maintain the grounds of our campus, empty the trash at our office building, and operate the cash register at the local fast-food chain? Do we hear the concerns of abused children, battered wives, the youth in the balcony of our church, or the gifted international student reluctant to speak in class? Even more hidden are the concerns of the seemingly powerful. Do we see the wealthy businesswoman who commands respect in the office but is little more than a pinion in the eyes of her family? Do we hear the silent tears of the ever-smiling, positive-minded megachurch pastor, surrounded by beloved parishioners, none of whom he can trust? We need not look only to jails, senior-citizen centers, or inner-city park benches to find the muted and invisible, for the unacknowledged are all around us, but we must sharpen our vision and attune our hearing to care.

From years of learning to see more clearly and hear more acutely, I recognize that having one’s body, voice, and psyche go unnoticed in public space and discourse is a problem that extends beyond race, class, or culture. However, it has also become clear to me that African American males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four are particularly susceptible to the detrimental effects of muteness and invisibility. This population of young men is substantially at risk of being muted and made invisible as a result, in part, of fewer opportunities for higher education, disproportionate rates of incarceration, resistance to counseling and therapeutic introspection, dehumanizing portrayals of African Americans throughout history and in the modern media, and shame-laden interpretations of the physical body and human sexuality in American history and Christian pedagogy.

Ironically, while African American young men are particularly susceptible to muteness and invisibility, an alternate image exists of the hypervisible African American male in modern media. This strange juxtaposition leads to my hypothesis that the intense and exclusive one-dimensional focus on young African American male entertainers and professional athletes further perpetuates the silencing and exclusion of the masses of African American young men. For instance, many young African American athletes in the media are often characterized as lacking the ability to think critically and make educated decisions, while some entertainers are presented as prizing material wealth over communal empowerment. Though these characterizations may be accurate at times, they are not normative, for there are also socially progressive, community-minded African American male athletes and entertainers who receive considerably less attention. Such a monolithic view amplifies the stereotypes that make muteness and invisibility possible, and it leads potential caregivers to speed by persons in crisis with indifference, fear, or scorn.

How we choose to see or not to see, and to hear or not to hear those around us speaks to our ability to identify the presence of God in others. Biblical wisdom tells us that the good Samaritan has been labeled “good” throughout the annals of time because he suspended judgment and left the traffic of his daily routine to see, hear, and care. Caring with unacknowledged and marginalized populations requires altered vision and altered pace. This work is not for the faint of heart.

Fearless dialogue, an interrupting hope, the search for miraculous solutions, and the presence of a community of reliable others represent four primary resources that diminish the ill effects of being unseen and unheard. These resources equip previously unacknowledged African American young men to face difficulties, envision new possibilities, and work proactively toward change. The four primary resources also aid caregivers in navigating between disparate worlds, retaining hope in seemingly hopeless situations, and confronting personal and professional risks.

The paradigm of my book couches caregivers between the center and the margin. Huddled near the circle of young men, caregivers stand in close proximity to carefully making themselves susceptible to receiving unfiltered and unbridled rage. Likewise, these same caregivers buffer these young men from the calloused indifference and scornful gaze of passing traffic, knowing that these outside sources (like the academy, church, or surrounding community) can slaughter the caregiver’s reputation and livelihood for taking such a stance. Yet, you and I, as caregivers, choose to embrace these risks and move between the center circle and the traffic to enliven hope and care with those cut dead but still alive

Excerpted from the Introduction: Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men by Gregory C. Ellison II. Copyright © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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