By NICK CHILES
When I decided to become a journalist about three decades ago as a junior at Yale, I envisioned myself stomping across the land, pointing my laptop (well, at the time I was actually using a typewriter) at our society’s most entrenched and repressive institutions and slaying them on behalf of the most vulnerable and powerless.
Over the years, there were times when I felt close to that journalistic ideal, particularly when I was a reporter at New York Newsday in the early 1990s. That paper was committed to making a difference in the Big Apple, fighting on behalf of poor and non-white communities, “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” to quote the famous phrase.
The series that I just completed in Ebony magazine on black boys, entitled “Saving Our Sons,” is the most recent example of my once again approaching that journalistic ideal. I wrote about the start of the series back in April, when the first installment appeared in the May issue of Ebony with Jill Scott on the cover. In that piece, I said I’ve never been as excited about a journalistic endeavor as this series for Ebony. Now that my third and final installment has hit the streets, I will add the word “proud” to my reaction.
As I said before on MyBrownBaby when the series debuted, “As an education reporter in New York City in the 1990s, the educational plight of black boys was a topic that hung over my head like a storm cloud—and became an even more acute interest when I had a little black male of my own at home. More recently as an author who has written books with high-achieving black men such as Kirk Franklin, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, NBA veteran Etan Thomas and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (coming out in the fall), I find myself returning again and again to the struggles of black males to find a measure of success in a society that seems threatened by their very existence.”
In a series that covered the full expanse of the lives of black boys in America, I think I offered a fresh look at a topic that plagues us and presented not just the problems but many solutions. That last part is vital because we hear so many alarm bells surrounding the state of black boys but we don’t get too many solutions. While the first piece was an overview that looked at education, criminal justice, poverty and family, the next two pieces burrowed down more deeply, turning the various crises around to look at them from several perspectives and discuss what can be done to solve them.
If you haven’t had a chance to pick up the issues, you should do so right away. But as a public service, I will offer here the Cliff Notes version of my Ebony series by telling you the various solutions that were presented.
“Not getting it, not knowing how to ask for it, presenting a pose to the world that makes it appear as if they don’t need it or want it, making the world afraid to give it,” I wrote in Ebony. “It all comes down to love…Without love, they more easily succumb to the destructive forces that swirl around them—bad schools, poor parenting, the lure of the violent streets, the corrosive desperation of poverty and the danger and hopelessness of too many Black communities.”
—When it comes to black boys in school, having high expectations is enormously important. But the negative statistics, the slower development of boys compared to girls, the absence of black fathers and the desperate desire to just keep boys alive and out of jail can combine to lower everyone’s expectations for their academic advancement.
“Many African-American mothers, when you really press them on it, view their sons as mildly retarded girls,” child development expert Jelani Mandara at Northwestern University says in the Ebony piece. “Boys are rarely as advanced as girls from early on. They can catch up eventually, given the right home environment and right parenting, but it’s very rare that a 5-year-old boy is going to be cognitively at the level of a 5-year-old girl. We just don’t come out like that; it takes a little more time with us. But moms don’t think in those terms. What they see is that he can’t do what his sisters could at 5. He can’t hold the pencil at 2 like they did, or can’t start writing his letters as quickly. That’s when the low expectations start to kick in.”
—Though the absence of fathers can have a devastating impact on the development and mental health of black boys, connecting boys with strong, positive black male mentors can go far in keeping them motivated and focused on achievement and help them avoid destructive behaviors.
“When these mentors let them know, ‘I am here for you, I believe in you,’ the young men begin to believe more deeply in themselves,” says David Banks, founder of Eagle Academy for Young Men, a network of schools in New York City and Newark, NJ. “They take a greater level of ownership over their learning. It makes all the difference in the world. One of my young men at Eagle said a few years ago that a young man without a mentor is like an explorer without a map.”
—Children who are taught racial pride and given specific strategies and responses when their intellect is challenged—what University of Pennsylvania researcher Howard Stevenson calls “racial literacy”—will have a much better chance of thriving in a variety of settings.
“In the same way that you would teach math, you need to teach the details of racial politics and how to navigate those politics both emotionally and intellectually,” says Stevenson. “How do you respond if you get called the n-word? What’s a healthy comeback line that allows you to challenge it without getting expelled? And what if somebody doesn’t use the n-word but just doesn’t think you’re smart and doesn’t call on you in class? Children need to be socialized on ways to see and combat that, too.”
—Parents of newborn black boys need to bathe their infants in language, talking them as much as possible to grow their brains and spur their intellectual development. This is especially important in lower-income communities, where researchers have determined that mothers talk much less to their babies—to the point where poor children hear 30 million fewer words by their 3rd birthday than middle-class children. The situation is compounded for boys because mothers generally speak less to their boy babies than their girl babies.
“It’s like trying to grow a flower in a dark basement: Nobody is going to flourish,” says Dr. Dana Suskind, a cochlear implant surgeon and professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago who started a program called the Thirty Million Words Project to teach parents to talk more to their babies. “I’ve been realizing we need to focus much more on this population of boys. We can’t start at preschool—that’s too late. Kids from lower-income communities are already behind when they start school and trying to play a game of catch-up but every year falling further behind.”
—Schools need to use arts, music and sports to keep young black boys active, involved and give them a chance to burn off excess energy and find other realms where they have value and can experience success.
—For adolescent boys, schools and parents should use sports, arts, after-school programs, after-school jobs—any lure they can find—to keep boys interested and focused on school.
“You have to help boys develop other loves, something they can be passionate about so they will discipline themselves,” says Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, the vast $95-million-a-year school reform program in Harlem. “In my graduating class of boys this year, probably 15 percent of those boys are going to graduate and go to college because they loved playing sports. They knew they had to keep a B average to play, so guess what? They kept a B average—not because they wanted to do well in chemistry and biology, which we hope for, but because they wanted to be on a team. The more music, the more arts, the more chess, the more sports, the more employment opportunities you have, the more opportunities these young people have to self-regulate. They know they can’t drink, they can’t smoke marijuana, they can’t fight, they can’t get a girl pregnant, because they will lose this thing they love.”
I came away from the research into black boys with the realization that for every desperate problem that is identified and blasted in headlines, there are programs and educators across the country who have found solutions. As John Jackson, president and CEO of the influential Schott Foundation for Public Education, says in the piece, “We don’t have an innovation challenge, we have an execution challenge and a challenge of public will.”
I’m pleased to report that the response to the series has been staggeringly positive, from parents, educators and child development experts alike. I even got a note of thanks and congratulations from a White House official in the Obama administration.
I just hope that the solutions and thinking explored in the series can be widely shared and disseminated in the black community among parents and educators, where they are desperately needed.
1. A MyBrownBaby Salute to Ebony Magazine for the Cover Story, ‘Saving Our Sons’
2. An Exclusive Interview with NBA Veteran Etan Thomas About His New Book “Fatherhood”
3. Kirk Franklin’s The Blueprint
4. With Catastrophe Looming, Lets Hand African American Boys a Book
5. Good Week for Black Boys—Thanks to Work of Shawn Dove and a White Billionaire
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.