As I have watched the festivities surrounding President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, concurrently being celebrated alongside the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, I find myself courting a different dream…and that is that the president’s presence, power and persistence in spite of tremendous odds, that more and more African-American boys will have someone in their lives whom they call “my dad,” aspiring to be like him.
When President Obama was first elected, he came to Columbus, Ohio. There was great excitement in seeing the president’s jet sitting in our airport; many people went to the airport and stood outside fences just to see him jaunt down the stairs of that big jet to go do … “president work.”
I was there, and I loved the jet and seeing the president, but what sticks in my mind are the images of young African-American men with little boys ( I assumed they were their sons) perched on their shoulders. I remember hearing so many of these young men saying to those little boys, “You can be president one day.” The little boys, some of them, clapped their hands and were clearly excited. I can still feel the energy those little boys and the men I assumed were their dads emitted that day. I suppose the presence of the president also ignited something inside their dads as well. Who knew that any of us would see an African-American be president of this country?
It was a powerful moment, on so many levels, but one of those levels struck me deeply. I know that little boys idolize their fathers, and I know that one of those little boys I saw that day internalized what their dads were saying to them. Those words for the little boys had power not just because the president of the greatest country in the world looked like them …but because their dads planted the seeds of hope into them that they could be anything they wanted to be.
Little African-American boys don’t often get that kind of encouragement. I have seen them labeled as behavior problems when they have just been being little boys. I have seen them ignored and tossed aside in schools, so that by third grade, many of them (African-American girls as well) have lost hope and excitement about life and learning. They are told they are bad and they can feel that not their teachers nor even their parents (mostly moms) believe in them.
I listened to Vice President Joe Biden‘s son today talking, saying, “my dad,” and I realized that not enough African-American children, and especially African-American boys, can say those two words. There have been plenty of sociological studies that try to explain to us why so many African-American men are not present in the lives of their children, and for sure, there are cultural, sociological and historical reasons for the plight and condition of African-American men in this country …but our little boys need their dads. They need dads who show them what strength and perseverance is. They need dads whom they can follow around and get advice from that only a dad can give a son. They need dads to show them how to stand up when the world knocks them down.
A lot has been said that America’s “War on Drugs” has resulted in more African-American men being incarcerated than whites; indeed, America has more people in prison than any other modern industrialized nation. Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow does an amazing job of showing how this “war,” initiated by Ronald Reagan, ended up being an instrument which made it legal to throw blacks in jail, not as much for violent crime as for minor drug offenses.
The “war” itself has resulted in “keeping blacks in their place,” some have argued. Once out of jail, these formerly jailed men cannot, oftentimes, get jobs, find housing, get food stamps, secure a driver’s license …they in effect have been shut out of life as it must be lived in America. They cannot survive, and many end up back in jail.
And who suffers? The society as a whole for sure, but especially the little boys who are left behind, with no fathers, and too often, overworked mothers who cannot give them what their dads need to give them. A recent movie called The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki, shows what the “war” has done in this country…It is sad and disturbing, but a fact of our American life.
And so on this Martin Luther King holiday, thinking about his “dream,” I am stuck on a different dream – a country where the unfair and unjust “justice” system that has put too many African-American fathers in jail will be addressed, modified, changed …so that more little boys can sit on the shoulders of their fathers, and be inspired as to what they can do.
A candid observation…