Being a Black Man
Being a Black Man: It’s a Full Time Job
Black men in America face enduring and discouraging stereotypes. Has anything really changed since the civil rights movement of the 1960s? Storytellers discuss how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.
Image: Phil Bradshaw
Jamie J’s father murdered her mother. Hear how Jamie J’s relationships with her father and grandfather – one tragic, one loving – shaped her interactions with other black men in her life.
The power of preachers reaches beyond the pulpit, and into their communities.
Read the transcript
BEING A BLACK MAN IS A FULL TIME JOB
Mike Villers: From WHYY in Philadelphia this is Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY.
Jamie J: Welcome to Commonspace, I’m Jamie J, Executive Director of First Person Arts, and this is a place where real life stories speak to the pressing issues of our times.
Ozell Ueall: “You need respect like everybody else, you know…like any other man, any white man, black man, whatever, you know…I’m a man, treat me right.”
Jamie: I'm Jamie J, and you know, recently I came across a photo from the civil rights movement of the late sixties. It’s iconic. It shows a demonstration with a large group of black men, standing in dignified silence, and holding signs that simply say, “I am a man.”
As I look across this photo – it’s of sanitation workers in Memphis - I see working men of all ages. Men not unlike my grandfather, or my uncle, on strike for better working conditions. Stone-eyed, determined men holding signs that tell the world what it should have been able to see with its own eyes: "I am a man."
So we dug into the archives to find the voices of this moving event, which took place in the spring of 1968. A minute ago, we heard Sanitation worker Ozell Ueall asking for simple respect as a man, and to be treated right. Now we’ll hear from fellow striker Elmore Nickelberry, followed by the Reverend James Lawson.
Elmore Nickelberry: “Most of the time they just called us old stinkin’ garbage men. That’s all they called us. You had people on the street calling you that. But I know I wasn’t no garbage man, I was a man. And that’s why I went on strike, ’cause I..I was a man.”
Rev James Lawson: “When a public official orders a group of men, to get back to work, and then we’ll talk, and treats them as though they are not men, that’s a racist point of view. And no matter how you dress it up in terms of whether or not a union could organize, it’s still racism. For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man.”
Jamie J: Just one week after the sanitation workers’ march, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. stood for a lot of things in his lifetime. But I can’t help but feel like the timing of his assassination, in Memphis, when he was there to offer sanitation workers his support…I can’t help but wonder what impact that had on the struggle. What impact did his assassination at that time, have on the movement, have on the work that would have to be done for years and years and years by black men. So I started wondering, what does it mean to be a black man today?
Russell Walker: "Being black is…it's a job, it's a calling. It’s a calling, and I don’t think a lot of the people who look down on African Americans could walk a day in our shoes.”
Jamie J: That's Russell Walker, and he and a group of friends joined me for a roundtable at WHYY's studios to explore this business of being an African American man today. Around the table was a doctor, an educator, an athlete, and a veteran.
Jaime J: So, on that same theme, here’s the question I have: what was the moment, the first moment that you realized that you were an African American male, and that meant something, good or bad? What was that moment for you guys?
Mike Green: I think my first experience started off when I was about 9 years old.
Jamie J: That’s educator Mike Green.
Mike Green: I was born and raised in the city, and I would end up moving into the suburbs with my grandmother. And transferring to this school I ended up being the only African American male in my class. And I just remember just kinda being shocked. I mean, and it wasn’t like there were conversations that you know my family was having, and kinda breaking it down, and I may have not even understood at that time, but I understood at that point, that, you know, I couldn’t articulate it, but I’m like wow, man, there’s something funny about this, or not even funny, but just uncomfortable just being you know…I wasn’t ashamed of being African American, but it’s just like being in an environment where you don’t have anyone that looks like you, and then having to deal with, you know, the socialization, in terms of, you know, playing with certain friends, and not being able to do certain things…because it’s a lot different playing with my African American buddies in the city, as opposed to being in the suburbs and playing with some of my white buddies…you know I really started to pick up on things and I think at that point, I really started to understand race a little bit. And you know, my great-grandmother, my grandmother at the time, they were alive, so…and I would hear them talk about certain things, and I’m like, wow…it became apparent to me that there was something going on that kinda had me really looking at race.
Dr. Evans: The first time I became race conscious, or was conscious of race, I remember very distinctly, I was in first grade, so you have to know I grew up in the sixties.
Jamie J: That’s Dr. Arthur C Evans, and he has a huge title: Commissioner of the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.
Dr. Evans: I grew up in Florida, so the south. I was in a segregated school. It was segregated 1 through 12. This was before busing had happened, in Florida, at least this part of Florida. And I remember being in a first grade class, and the classroom that I was assigned to was too large, and so they had to separate the kids, and they were separating the kids that were a little smarter, I guess, from the kids that were gonna be, I guess the normal kids, or the average kids. And I remember seeing a bright skinned person get moved to the slower class, or the average class, and it was jarring, because at that point, at that age, I believed that if you were of brighter skin, you were automatically a brighter person, because that was sort of ingrained. And a lot of those images, even in the movies today, you still see that kind of imagery. But in the 1960s that was very much engrained, and so even at the age of 6 that had gotten in somehow. So I think the whole idea of race, and race superiority and inferiority is very insidious, and it happens in ways that we’re not even aware of, and it’s one of those things that gets in our minds, and we know from studies that even really small kids understand and can distinguish race, at age of 2 - 3.
Jamie J: Russell Walker – What was your experience?
I can't remember a time where I didn't know that I was a black male. My grandmom, who was one of the brightest black people you could ever meet she was racist as I don’t know what, she can’t stand white people. And it may be because she came from that time that you did, so…they have a different experience with white people than I had. But, as I said, I’ve always known I was a black man, I’ve always known that there’s kind of a fine line of me being arrested, me being killed, me being treated less than in someway. But then my father moved us to South Philly. The school I went to, which was Abigail Elementary, was like, America was supposed to be a melting pot. This school had every…black, white, Hispanic, Asian…we had everything in the school. So it was like that school, like it showed me something else, it showed me that there’s a world where everything didn’t have to be about color. That was the early years of that school. Later on, it was a K thru 8 school. So in about 5th grade my best friend, who happened to be white, called me a n*****. So at that moment, it was kind of like, it’s always there. Not that you can’t trust people, but racism is never completely gone from people, you know, it’s learned…he may not really dislike you, but he may have heard people use that word when they’re mad at other people, or when they think another person is beneath them. So yeah I’ve always known who I was and that I was a black male and that in this world there are certain things that I gotta look out for more than other people, other males.
Jamie J: You know, children don’t ask to come here. They don’t control their environment. Not who they’re born to, nor who raises ‘em. And we know from real life storytelling and testimonials that the road to manhood for an African American teen, even in the most stable of families, is sometimes filled with sometimes ominous twists and turns. But sometimes just one experience can be so profound, that it changes everything. Journalist Mister Mann Frisby told his story of one such experience, at a First Person Arts live event.
Mister Mann Frisbee: My story begins on a very cold day in the winter of 1991. I lived in Richard Allen Projects. Richard Allen Projects, North Philly…I lived in Richard Allen Projects when it was THE PROJECTS. Now it’s manicured lawns and cars in driveways, and it’s public housing. I lived in Richard Allen when it was the projects and I went to a high school called Bodine at 4th and George. And you know, you try to be fly back in the day, this is 1991…I thought I was real fly, I had Red K Swiss, I had Hammer pants, I was fly. But on this day it was too cold for cute. This was one of the coldest days of the winter, like, the hawk is out.
So the little yellow puff that I normally wore, couldn’t rock the yellow puff. But the only problem was that, my only other coat, you know, I kinda like jacked it up in a little project accident, and pushed the fur against a light bulb, so I was a little bit too vain to be rockin’ a triple fat goose to Bodine all jacked up, so I didn’t wear it for about a year. But the hawk on that day called for the triple fat goose, right? So I put on my goose, and I’m rockin’, I’m walkin’, this is back when we had walkmen, before the iPads and all, so I got my MC Lite, my Big Daddy Kane, I’m rockin’, it’s 19 degrees it’s freezin’, I’m hawkin’ in my goose, my ankle goose, it was the trench…like Self Destruction video trench. To all the young bucks Google it, Self Destruction, Dee-Nice.
So I get to school, I get to Bodine, you know I go to my locker, I put my triple fat goose in my locker, go to my first class. Everything’s going well. Mr. Larocca, the vice principal comes, and he says “Listen, I need to take you out of class. Your godfather is here,” he says, “It’s an emergency involving your godmother. You need to come right now, get your stuff and you’re going to have an early dismissal, right?”
So I grabbed the goose, grabbed my book bag, I come down to the first floor and I see him, and I say “Snells?” we called him Snells…”What’s up, what’s going on, like what’s going on with…”
“C’mon, you gotta go, it’s an emergency.”
We walk out of the school and we go to the car, which is parked right in front of the principal’s window. So I’m looking up and see Mr. LaRocca’s still checking us out, right? I get in the car and I say, “What’s the problem?”
“You don’t never wear that triple fat goose.”
“It’s hawkin! I wore the goose. I know I normally wear the yellow puff, I wore the goose what’s up?”
So he grabs my sleeve and he pulls the coat off, pulls me out of it that way, at which time he pulls open the inside of the coat and it is totally and completely lined with cocaine. From the collar of the goose all the way down to the bottom of the goose on both sides.
When I tell you that like my heart stopped because I’m just like yo, what if this came out while I was stuffing it in my locker? And to take you all back, you know I lived in what they call now, and they glamorize it and glorify it and they call it a trap house. And they make songs about it and make it seem like it was fly. There was nothing fly about it. That was my reality. My godfather was a drug dealer, and his friends were drug dealers. They used the kitchen table, where I made turkey and cheese sandwiches, to package drugs.
So, because I didn’t wear the coat in a year, they basically used my coat to stash the drugs. They wasn’t thinking about me or the goose. So now I’m sitting in this car, I’m furious, because he was not the type of person who would have taken the rap for me had I got busted in school with all this cocaine, right? And he says, “You all right now, I brought your yellow coat, you can go back in the building.”
I said, “Dude, Mr. Larocca is in the window right now he’s lookin’ I’m not getting out this car, because what emergency did we resolve in thirty seconds?”
So I got out the car as cold as it was, I remember being furious like lava heat. And I got out and I slammed the door, I put my yellow puff on, I got my book bag, I just start walkin’ back to the projects, I was furious.
And the epiphany that day was like yo, dude, you got all these book smarts and you get A’s and B’s, and you know how to talk and what to do, but you’re really not paying attention. This situation that you’re in is serious.
Not long after that, you know, we were raided…he wasn’t there that day, his partner was. And I remember, you know, because I did run track, I ran down the hall at my bedroom slammed the door, the ironing board fell…and I remember the cop like trying to get through the door, and he was talking to me through the door. Of course I’m paralyzed with fear. And I’m like listen, I can’t move, ‘cause you’re gonna shoot me…he said “Don’t worry…don’t worry bro, I know who you are, we been watching this apartment for a long time you come and go every day to school, you ain’t hustlin’. I just need you to get out that closet.”
So not long after that you know I made a life decision. I transferred to Overbrook High School…mighty mighty Overbrook, the home of the Panthers, because I had been a runner since eight years old, and I said you know what, I have to get back to that, because this drug life, this trap life is not for me. I want to increase my chances of getting out of these Richard Allen projects, and making it, so I said maybe if I run fast enough I’ll get an athletic scholarship. And when I transferred to Overbrook I was literally running for my life. Putting those miles in, running the hills doing the workouts, doing the stairs…to try to get out. But what happened, young bucks, is in the course of doing that, all of the time management skills and all that kind of stuff that comes along with being a student athlete, I was able to earn an academic scholarship – a full scholarship to Penn State.
So my letter came to the project mailroom, saying that you have a full scholarship. And even then, you know, with all that I had been through, and everything that I was pushing to do, it was like, yo, something has to give. I still have to figure out you know, I’m in this situation, I gotta think ahead of myself. So as a result, I went to my counselor at Overbrook and said how can I become a journalist, how can I make this happen? She put me in a program called Urban Journalism Workshop, that was taught by reporters at the Philadelphia Daily News, so at 17 years old, I’m in this workshop, after that they had a program called fresh ink where we wrote every week. Every Thursday we had an article, so I was a published journalist in twelfth grade, right? Livin’ in the projects, comin’ from the projects, to the Daily News, writing, and it helped me, because all of those essays I wrote for college, got the scholarship. When I graduated Penn State I had an internship at the Daily News, I was the only intern they kept in the history of the news paper – immediately following my internship, so I was hired, 22 years old, running around the streets, covering homicides, murder, entertainment, you know, trials, like crazy crazy stuff, and I’m just like, yo, I was just in Richard Allen like five minutes ago…and now I’m running to these scenes. And one of the things that I always take with me, I learned a lot from my mentors. I learned a lot from them that you know what, it’s not about just academic stuff. It’s not about what you’re going to accomplish on paper…what kind of person are you going to be? And they said whatever you do, all that stuff can fade away, jobs can change. But you wanna be a good person. You wanna be a decent person, and you don’t wanna leave the people that come behind you hanging the way you were. Thank you very much for having me.
Jamie J: You know, a crossroads in life offers more than one way through. Mister chose to take control of the things he could, and in doing so, he changed the trajectory of his entire life.
Zack Gelp, WIP Sports: “Let’s go out to the hotline, right now and welcome in a Temple University Hall-Of-Famer, played with the Owls from 1998 to 2001. And oh, yes, and he won a Super Bowl championship with the Indianapolis Colts, and that is Raheem Brock…Raheem, Zack Gelp here on Temple’s campus, thanks for a few minutes, how are you?”
Raheem Brock: “I’m doing pretty good…”
Jaime J: Raheem Brock is sitting across from me in the studio, nodding his head in recognition. His road to becoming a Super Bowl champion, a brilliant defensive end for Indianapolis Colts and the Seattle Seahawks was paved with all sorts of "interferences".
Raheem Brock: Growing up in Germantown and having to deal with living around the projects, and trying to get to school and getting into fights…my mom would work morning to night, get home at 11:00…so, you know, the streets pretty much was raising me, you know, I just sat on the corner with the older guys, I was in fourth grade, drinking 40s, just chilling at the corner until one of my friends got shot at the corner in a drive by, it was like right in front of my house, so it kinda changed things for me. So I was trying to get a little bit more focused, and tried to stay out of trouble, and uh, went to high school. Played football pretty well in high school, but the teachers would constantly tell me like, if you’re not getting straight A’s you’re not gonna make it in college, so at some point I was just like I was gonna be at McDonalds. So that was my…my mind just changed, like, I’m just trying to be a manager at McDonalds now, and I was about to start my family, I had my daughter, and I thought after high school, that was it. And then I started getting letters in, from colleges, and I got offers from different schools…Michigan, and Syracuse, and Rutgers…and I decided to stay at Temple because of my daughter who was still here. And especially that they had a great business program, so I decided to stay in Philly. And I was working like two jobs, playing football, did mentoring, and going to school, and tryin’ to - managing all that, which you know, while I was in high school they said I wouldn’t even be able to make it in college without having straight A’s, which mentally just made me focus on other stuff, but when I got there I was making the Dean’s List, and still being able to manage working and football, and everything like that. So I was kinda upset at the whole situation in high school with the teachers telling me that you’re not going to be able to make it and making me think that I’m not going to be able to go to college, so, and uh…they got these entry level classes they try to get you to take, and I didn’t take any of those classes I took all advanced classes just to see, where I’m at, I did good in those classes, so instantly I just had a whole different mindset of things, like my mind started thinking, you know, I could do it. I was still trying to take care of my kids, so I was working at, you know, clubs, had the guys try to rob me from leaving the clubs and stuff like that so I was still trying fight through Philly to make my way out, which was tough for me. I was doing good in college. The team we didn’t do that great, so we would go to the classes, so the professors would talk bad about us, so you didn’t even wanna go to class any more. If you’re in a lecture hall full of 200 people, and you got a professor in there that’s making fun of you every time you come in the class room, so you sat in the back in the corner, and you know, it’s frustrating, but I still had to stay focused and I was working hard, and I had a goal that I wanted to achieve, and I was able to, even though we didn’t have that much success at Temple, I was able to get drafted seventh round. And I ended up going to Indianapolis, and you know, growing up in Philly, and being at Temple just gave me tough skin, and that hard work ethic, that blue collar work ethic that you know, I wasn’t gonna be denied, I was gonna do whatever I could, and if I didn’t make it, I’m not gonna be one of those guys that say I shoulda did this or I shoulda did that or I wish I woulda…I wasn’t gonna be that guy, so…I pushed myself to the limit. When I was at Indianapolis, I had seven guys in front of me, including the first round draft pick, which I beat everybody out that got drafted before me that year, and ended up starting my rookie year at Indianapolis, and had some great successful seasons playing with a bunch of Hall of Fame guys, just beating out the odds of a seventh round draft pick from Temple, which, um, they don’t expect anyone from Temple to make it.
Jamie J: Dr. Evans…you look ready to chime in on that…
Dr. Evans: Something that is a result of the experiences that we have, I think one of them is tenacity.
I just see so many guys who are just tenacious, they’re just hungry, whether its - they wanna be a rapper, or they wanna be a physician, or they wanna be a lawyer, or they wanna drive a bus. I’ve just seen so many guys who, they just have that hunger, because of the experiences that they’ve had. And I think that’s good, that’s a positive. It’s like in sports, teams that are viewed as an underdog in a game, they really go after it. And I think when you’re viewed as an underdog, I think it makes you more tenacious, I think it makes you more hungry.
One of the things I like, I guess there’s no other way to say it, I just think guys are cool, I think black men are cool, you think about people like Sidney Poitier, you think about Barack Obama, they’re just cool, despite of all of the things these men go through, and there some are universal experiences that you have as a man of color, despite all of that at the end of the day you still can love people, you can still have great relationships, you can still work, and wanna be a good father and all those kinds of things. I kinda marvel at that…you know, there’s an African psychologist named Na’im Akbar, and he says rather than thinking about all of the negativity, and all of the things that are wrong with African Americans, we really ought to celebrating all of the things that are right. You know, despite a history of slavery and Jim Crow and modern day discrimination, a majority of folks get up and go to work everyday, they take care of their kids every day, they go to school. I mean most people, are still, despite all of the things we’ve talked about are doing well, and are doing the right thing.
You know I didn’t have a tough childhood. I didn’t, I had a good childhood. But I marvel at guys who have had really difficult childhoods, things that most people would never go through, even as adults. And despite all of that they still come out doing incredible things. I just think that’s very inspiring.
Jamie J: It is inspiring, and it led to one of my favorite moments in our conversation, when I asked if there was a song that brings that feeling to life…check this out…
Dr. Evans: Denise Williams did a song called Black Butterfly. It was a very inspirational song. It just talks about Black Butterly, you know, sort of the beauty in the black butterfly and really using that as an analogy in terms of someone’s life. So I think for me that’s a very inspirational song.
Jamie J: “Black butterfly, sail across the waters (panelists join in) tell you sons and daughters what the struggle brings”…I can’t remember the next line…
-SONG- Denise Williams “Black Butterfly”
Jaime J: I love another lyric from that same song – it goes - “A dream conceived in truth will never die.” Brings me right back to that photo of the sanitation workers, holding signs that say, “I am a man.” And their dream that American would someday see them for who they really are, men.
This is WHYY’s Commonspace, a place where real life stories speak to the pressing issues of our time. And we’ve supported by the PEW Center For Arts And Heritage.
Jamie J: In the stories we shared, here in the studio or at First Person Arts story slams, men young and old spoke of the exhausting need to always be vigilant - on your guard, if you will. It seems that success, fame, visibility, awards, being a good worker and family man doesn’t make you immune to double standards. Dr. Evans, you describe this as sort of a tax.
Dr. Evans: …and the best example for me is, I remember my wife is from the Bahamas, and I remember going to the Bahamas, and spending probably over a week, maybe 10 days in the Bahamas. And first of all, when you go to the Bahamas, it takes me about 2 or 3 days just to get to that pace, you know, YAH MAN, the YAH MAN space…so when I get down to that pace, I’m coming back, I remember flying into Miami, and I can feel myself tensing up...and at this point I’m in psychology programs, I’m having a little bit of insight about that, and I thought what is that about, why am I tensing up, on the airplane? And I was starting to think about what I was going to do when I got to the airport, and who I was going to have to interact with. And the filters were starting to come back into play and I think that’s what you mean when you were talking about it’s work…there’s a level of filters that you have to have all the time, level of screening of information, that I didn’t have to have in an environment where if someone slighted me I didn’t have to try to figure out well, why did they slight me? What could that been about? You know, it could have been ok, this person is a jerk and I keep moving. In the US, you have to kinda like ok, maybe it’s not that, it’s something else, and so you have to go thru that process, and I do think that can be taxing for a lot of people.
Jamie J: Mike Green …
Mike Green: It kinda makes me think about a few different things, now we’re living in this age where you have to be careful. I kind of have gotten used to just kinda watching myself, it’s like second nature, you don’t even know that you’re doing it, but you’re kinda watching people. But then I kinda, I’ll have this moment where I think well, I can’t live like this every day and just be worried about so and so…you know, if it’s my time it’s my time. But you can’t be naïve about it. But it definitely forces you growing up in the city, in terms of going out, even into other communities, you kinda take that out into other communities…so like if I’m in the suburbs I know that a certain mile per hour that I have to drive, and it’s almost like within every environment you really have guard yourself and be careful what you do and in some ways I guess you’re hyper sensitive to everything.
Jamie J: Raheem, as a celebrity football player I would think you have a unique perspective around this concept of double standards.
Raheem Brock: If I go into a restaurant I’ll get treated a certain way, until they find out who I am. Once they find out who I am, like I play ball, I’m playing for the Colts, everybody changes, everybody’s attitude changes. So that kinda made me feel a certain way. Some of the things I saw on TV in Indianapolis…it was like Martin Luther King Blvd in the hood, but once it got to the suburbs it changed to Michigan road. So, on the news, they were talking about changing this road to Martin Luther King all the way up into the suburbs, and there were all these white people on TV, talking about Martin Luther King already has a day, that’s all he needs, and just going in on Martin Luther King, like it was crazy to see that on TV out there. There were people still getting hung out there, and getting drug down the street, and all this racial stuff going on in Indianapolis…well Indiana period. Which was totally different than being in Philadelphia, coming from the city, and then going out to Indianapolis, and have to deal with something like that, and being in a restaurant where they won’t seat you. I was in South Bend and we were sitting there for like two hours, and all the white people were coming in getting sat and I was with my son’s mom at the time, her dad like just spazzed out, and I’m like, I can’t believe this, I’m stuck in the 50s or something like that, it was crazy I couldn’t believe anything like that was going on still, but it’s still going on and it’s crazy to me…I mean it’s just…I don’t know…I don’t know.
Jamie J: Raheem, Now here you are in Indianapolis, facing all of this racism, yet you’re supposed to get on the field and bring home a Super Bowl championship ring for this place, that is treating you that way...What is that about, how does that feel?
Raheem Brock: - It’s frustrating, to see stuff like that still going on, because I’d never experienced anything to that aspect. I seen it all out there, it was totally different from what I’ve experienced all my life, and I only saw on TV and in movies. Even when now I still get people acting a certain way, I live in a certain area where I know the white people may not like me, or anything like that, but I’m going to be overly friendly just to try to break it and try to get them to be, like you’re going to talk to me. You know what I’m saying, I don’t care “what’s up, how you doin’, hi!” I’m gonna force it and be overly friendly and try to get them out of it. I don’t know what they’re going through with their life or what their family has taught them as they grew up. But all I can do is be positive with me, ‘cause all the negative is inflated with the social media and everything like that, so that’s why I try to push like all the good that’s going on in the world.
Jaime J: Russell Walker…
Russell Walker: Something I read in one of the sociology classes is called code switching. Which I think that’s really stressful on people of color, not just black men, just on people of color, because you have to carry yourself a certain way, in certain places, because you don’t want people to look at you, you know, think something about you, you don’t want to be looked down. So I think that’s kind of a stressful to always have to do also.
Jamie J: This “code switching”? It’s nothing new…in fact Mike Green reminded us of what the scholar WEB Dubois said about it in 1903, in his seminal work “The Souls Of Black Folk.” First here’s Dubois himself, speaking in a vintage recording:
W.E.B. Dubois: It is a peculiar sensation this ‘double consciousness’, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. Of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
Mike Green: W.E.B. DuBois, I guess there’s a term that he refers to “double consciousness.” So if you work in predominantly white institution being a black male or a black female, there’s a certain way you have to carry yourself, and you don’t wanna be over-aggressive because historically black men have been interpreted or looked at as being aggressive in certain situations, so…it’s kind of hard and then when you get back into the city you have to kinda change into a whole ‘nother person. So you’re wearing all these different hats…
Jamie J: Right, one hat when you are in the neighborhood, and another hat when you’re in society in general. And a crucial part of it is to also be acutely aware of the threats that might surround you. Now remember earlier, Mister Mann Frisbee told us in his story about how a police officer shielded him from arrest during a drug raid on his family’s house. But sadly, history -- very recent history even -- has taught us that police violence is an all too common threat to African American males. And it’s hardly a new thing. Richard Pryor talked about “Driving While Black” -- way back in 1974.
Richard Pryor: Cops put a hurtin’ on your ass, man, you know. See, white folks get a ticket, they pull over, hey officer, yes, glad to be of help. N***** got to be talkin’ ‘bout, I am reaching into my pocket for my license…’cause I don’t wanna be no mother****in’ accident.
Jamie J: We also know the presence of violence goes beyond interaction with police. We do need to take a moment here to shout out some of the names of recent victims of that sad roster…Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Mike Brown – but there are others – other victims of non-police racial incidents. Like Trayvon Martin, Joe McNight, Jordan Davis, worshipers at Mother Emmanuel church…and the list goes on and on and on…
Memorial Rally: “Tyrone Randall. 50, Louisiana. Lafayette Evans, 37, Iowa. Sherman Adams, 63, DC. Jermichael Kennedy, 22…”
Jamie J: I’m Jamie J, and this is WHYY's Commonspace, a place where real-life stories speak to the pressing issues of out time. We’re supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.
Jamie J: We’re in the studio sharing some stories with fellows about their experiences growing up as black men. Now, no one wants to generalize but it seems like confrontation and aggression are often just too close - even when some people don't really want to be violent or confrontational. This brings to mind a story told to us by Billy Smith at a First Person Arts event, about when he was a young African American student attending Temple University. Here’s Billy.
Billy Smith: Lest you believe I came here dressed up for this occasion, it’s not true. I’m an attorney by trade; I’m a criminal attorney. Yeah, you boo me now, but when you need me you love me. But this story isn’t about my criminal practice; it’s about how me and a would-be criminal saved each other’s lives. Let’s take you back to 1992. I’m a freshman at Temple University…it’s hey, go Owls! It’s not the bucolic well-lit environment that it is today. It was dark…the squirrels had crack. It is midterms, I am trying to keep my scholarship…I’m at the library…it’s one in the morning. And yeah, there’s a shuttle, and yeah, my girlfriend lives on campus. But I’m tired, and I just need to walk. I decide to leave. I walk out of the library…I saw it coming. I walk past the bell tour, what’s now Liacorus Walk, I’m walking down there, it’s brick, there’s trees…and I see one guy sitting on one academic building, and another guy sitting on another academic building. Now, I’m from Colorado originally…I’d been in Philadelphia for about four years prior to that, so my Spidey sense was a little off, and I realize a little too late that I was in a little bit of trouble.
So as I‘m walking down the mall, I see a kid walking toward me, no older than fourteen or fifteen. I couldn’t do nothing about it. He walks toward me…he gets about five feet away. He holds a nickel plated forty-four, like this. I stand there, my life flashing before my eyes. He stands there, shaking like a leaf. He didn’t wanna be there. Now, we are in north Philadelphia, but I’m not going to entertain any stereotypes. So for purposes of this story, they could be Kahlil and Jamal, or Raoul and Juan…I’m gonna call them Biff and Moshe.
Moshe had the gun, Biff was the heavy. So Biff is standing in front of me. Moshe, standing in front of me, shaking like a leaf. Biff is behind him. He runs up. Now, I’m from Colorado…and I have a bag…believe it or not I have hair…I have a little kid ‘n’ play box. And Moshe says, in a shaky voice, “Give it to me, give it to me.” Biff runs behind him. “What’d you get son?” “I don’t know yet,” says Moshe, still shaking. I said, “Listen guys, I don’t know where you guys went to the school of criminality, but you’re robbing a black guy on a public school campus. I’m like, really? What do you think I have?”
I empty my bag, and say, “You can sell these books. I’ve got a pick with a fist on the end of it, you can have that. Here’s a meal card, you can have that. Just let me go.”
So then this weird dance occurs, between myself and Moshe. Moshe says, “Wait a second. Hold your head up.” Biff says, “Cap this bitch. F*** him, get your first body.” Moshe says “Wait wait wait wait wait. Chill, chill. Yo, where do I know you from?”
He’s trying to save my life. He didn’t know me. I didn’t know him. I said the first thing that came to my mind, I was like, “Um, do you play basketball?”
Moshe says, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah. I play ball. I play ball.”
“You play ball at Nicetown Boys Club?”
Now, people from Philly, Nicetown Boys Club doesn’t have a court, I was just pulling it out of thin air.
And he says, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. What’s your name again, son?”
“Yeah, uh, cool cool cool. Naw, I can’t this…I can’t rob this dude. I can’t rob this dude.”
Well, Biff isn’t convinced. “Naw, naw naw. Naw…he’s seen our faces, yo, you gotta cap him. “
Moshe’s like, “Naw naw, he’s cool, chill, chill.”
Biff says, “How do you know him again?”
I said “I dunked on him at Nicetown Boys Club.”
Moshe goes, (kinda punked him in front of his friend), he’s like, “You never dunked on me, kid!”
And I was like “Oh, my bad, somebody else, somebody else.”
So long story short, I go back to my dorm, after they allowed me to collect my stuff. And I did Moshe a solid. I coulda called the cops. I coulda had them canvas all of North Philadelphia to find this young man. But that young man wasn’t a criminal. That young man was a boy who was hungry, a boy who lacked education…a boy who needed some guidance. And I wasn’t gonna be the one responsible for changing his life.
Jamie J: Growing up in his neighborhood, Russell Walker remembers a day that stayed in his mind. And as we shared stories, he reflected on how that experience helped him negotiate danger when he served in the military in Iraq.
Russell Walker: So growing up in West Philly there’s not a lot of places to play safely. Our favorite sport was basketball. We couldn’t always go down to the basketball courts, so we would um, we innovated ways to play on our block where it was a little bit safer. So we would find old milk crates cut the bottom out and nail it to telephone polls. So one day me and a friend of mine and I were on our way to put a crate up. I noticed a man running, he stopped and he fired into a house. As soon as he stopped shooting we ran towards our house, which happened to be in the same direction as the bullets. As we were going down the block we noticed a few guys coming up the opposite way of the block they stopped and shot into that same house. As they were shooting we had just passed the house, the bullets missed us by inches. We were probably, 40, maybe 50 feet from home, we heard more shots. So there was another guy coming the opposite way, and he fired into the same house. My sister had a friend who actually was in that house during that time of the shooting. He got carried out, thrown into the back of a police car, he died on the way to the hospital, he didn’t make it. And that was one of the most memorable times of my youth, something that has stuck with me my whole life, something that’s made me wary of where I am, what I’m doing at all times.
Fast forward maybe twelve years, I’m out of high school now, my high school sweetheart is pregnant with our first child, and a buddy of mine who had went away to college had called me one day and asked me to take a ride with him. Fifteen, twenty minutes into the ride, he tells me where we’re going. We’re actually heading to a national guard recruiting office. The furthest thing from my mind was actually joining the military at the time. It was June 16, 2002, which was less than a year after 9/11. So, now I made this decision, mind you, without talking to my family, my mother, my father, my girlfriend, who had just had my son, he was 7 months old. And I made this decision, and I said sure.
So, less than a year later, got ordered to go to Iraq. My job was - locate, spot, and secure IEDs. IEDs are Improvised Explosive Devices. They are explosives tied together with rudimentary wires and cell phone pieces. The enemy buries them on the road, waits for whoever to drive by, and he blows you up. For twelve to fourteen hours a day for two years this was my job. We rode up and down the road, looking for roadside bombs, securing roadside bombs, getting blown up…whatever they decided they wanted our unit to do that’s what we did.
I was really angry while overseas, I didn’t believe in the war. I didn’t understand why we were over there in this place where no gunfire, there’s nobody shooting at us, we were waiting for people to try to blow us up. We’re in their country bullying them, that’s how I seen it, I seen it as bullying. There was a lot of racism in my unit, as far as towards the Iraqi people. Which made me think what did they say about me behind my back? That bothered me a lot. And my mother, she’s been Muslim since I can remember, so seeing Muslim women over there, and what they had to go through, it didn’t always mesh well with me. That was something else that bothered me over there.
Jamie J: I was gonna say, you know, you’re talking about coming from a neighborhood that clearly wasn’t safe…gunfire was a part of the reality. And then going over to war, where the ground you walk on isn’t even safe. How do you come back home and try to make a life after that, how do you have a sense of safety?
Russell Walker: Well, um, a lot of jokes I guess. Not too long after we got back, a buddy of mine was driving. While in Iraq, we never drove under bridges…so me and him were driving under a bridge, To make me feel better about going under this bridge, which I was, I can’t even explain to you how afraid I was to drive under this bridge at that time. I played a practical joke on him, which now thinking back on it, it wasn’t nice. But it helped me get under that bridge. So I screamed IED! And we literally almost rolled the vehicle, it was a jeep. And it’s not funny but it helped me.
Coming from Philadelphia, like you said there’s a lot of shootings I’ve had family members who died, I’ve had friends that died so gunfire wasn’t something that would have been new to me over there. But like you said, now where can I drive, where can I walk? So that was…I wasn’t afraid, so much so as, just, whatever’s gonna happen let it happen. I wasn’t suicidal, but, it was like, if it’s gonna happen, then let it happen now, let’s go and see what comes from it – because, because there’s no rewind, I can’t take back that I signed up, I can’t get back the time that I lost with my wife and son, so I’m just gonna go over here and do what I gotta do and try to make it back.
Jamie J: And thankfully you did make it back…how’s your life now?
Russell Walker: Like I said I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a brother, a son...I feel like my job now, what it means to me to be a black man is to educate my son and my daughter, and to show them that what the media says isn’t who you are, what mommy and daddy say, that’s not who you are. My job is to make sure that they go out and live life. So to me being a black man is being a provider, protector and a loving parent and spouse.
Jamie J: So we’ve talked about you know, the coding, and we’ve talked about difficulties and challenges. Let’s talk about what binds the brothers together. Let’s talk about what are the things that you guys share that bring you together, what are the influences, is it the music, is it the religion, is it the experience, talk about that.
Dr. Evans: Well I do think it is having those common experiences. So when I see another African American man, no matter where we’re at, be in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, California…I know that that man has had very similar experiences to mine. I know he’s had to do the code switching, I know that there’s just some of those common experiences you have, that you don’t even have to articulate it, you just know that’s the case, you can talk about it…it’s like being in a club, actually, it’s a club, you know, and there’s a way you shake hands, and there’s a way you do a lot of things that you just know, it’s like I’m in a fraternity and I know the grip, and it’s sort of like that you know you’re going to get that kind of reaction.
Russell Walker: Yeah he hit it right on the nose. There’s a bond often times that we share, like he said, I don’t have to know the person. When I met Mike, when he told his story, I understood him. Without him having to really get into his emotions or his feelings, or anything other than him just telling his story, it was ok I know this brother, you know…I know him. So it’s almost like without even trying, we family, without even trying. That’s how I feel about it.
Dr. Evans: Let me give you an example. So, when I hear about people witnessing certain kinds of violence, or those kinds of things, I can't really relate to that. But, the reality is if I'm walking down the street at ten o’clock at night, with a PhD that I have, with the job that I have, all of those things, and the gentlemen that you’re listening to who’ve had a very different experience, we’re going to be treated pretty much the same. That’s the piece that I think binds us, there are some things that are common, and those things are the things that I think can connect folks in ways that you know, that veterans or any other group that has a common experience can have.
Jaime J: What's the most infuriating stereotype that you come across and how would you rebuke it?
Mike Green: I would probably say that black men, in terms of education, that we’re not smart enough to learn, or we don’t want to learn. That something that bothers me, because there are layers to that in itself.
Dr. Evans: I’m going to tell you the one that I think is the most laughable, and that’s the one that African American men are lazy. And that one’s funny to me because I know guys who just work, they have multiple jobs, they work at home, they work in their church, they work - they just work. There’s even the term the John Henry, the John Henry Syndrome, you know, you work yourself to death. So that one is, just sorta juxtaposed to the reality, I think that’s just kind of hilarious. And you know, all groups have people who are lazy, or whatever, but it’s just not the typical, and one of the things that I try to do, with certainly my kids and my family, is point out when people don’t fit the stereotypes.
Because a lot of times when I’m walking down Market Street, in Philadelphia sometimes, I’ll see a young African American father, with two or three kids, and I wonder how many people really saw him taking care of his kids, walking down the street. Most people wouldn’t see him.
Russell Walker: Nope, he’d be invisible.
Dr. Evans: Completely invisible. I have this theory about the highly salient invisible black man, because African American men can be very invisible and highly salient at the same time. At night, at ten o’clock, on a street, you’re very visible. If you’re doing your fatherly duties, in the middle of day, walking down Market Street, people aren’t going to see you. I think that that’s sort of just the experience people have, and so not putting in people’s face, but just politely pointing out, that guy is, he looks like a really good father, did you see him?
Russell Walker: (laughs) That’s awesome I gotta do that. Because often times, like I said, I’m an angry person. I’ve gotten a whole better, but I scream and fight for us so much, online, at work, its just like, like I said, like when I say it’s a job, like that’s what I mean, because I feel like I’m always protecting us. When I see somebody not doing something, like come on man, you’re setting us back. And it’s not always that serious, but that’s how I feel…and that was a great point he just made. That’s why I was laughing that was a great point.
Jamie J: So we’ve talked about African American males being fathers. Alright, so let’s talk about stereotypes about y’all as husbands, lovers, boyfriends…
Dr. Evans: We’re awesome. We’re awesome.
Russell Walker: That’s the only stereotype I’ve ever heard is that we’re awesome.
Jamie J: You’re preaching to the choir here.
Dr. Evans: We’re done!!
Jamie J: Well, no not quite. You’ve been listening to “Being a Black Man Is A Full Time Job, here on Commonspace. Our round table guests were Dr. Arthur C. Evans Jr., Russell Walker, Michael Green, and Raheem Brock. The featured story tellers were Mister Mann Frisby, and Billy Smith. Commonspace is a co-production of WHYY and First Person Arts, written by Executive Producer Elisabeth Peres Luna and me, and produced by Mike Villers. Our theme music was written and performed by Subglo. Commonspace has been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Check out all our podcasts at A-Commonspace.org., where you can also find information on how to tell us your story. Again, that’s A-Commonspace-dot-org. I’m your host Jamie J, and remember, no matter what the news cycle brings, we’ll be here at Commonspace to help us all feel a little more connected to the world.