When Mychal Smith has free time to read, he finds himself putting brothers on the wall.
I don’t read nearly as many books as I should. Being a writer in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the era of blogs and Twitter, means reading by way of a laptop backlight for untold hours, poring over news bits and op-eds from all over the web. It leaves little time (and reduces desire) to work through 200+ black and white pages (I also have a Kindle, but don’t ask me where it is).
But when I do finally get back to the printed word, I like to read everything all at once. I have six books lying in my bed as I type, each of them with dog-eared pages marking the place I left off, begging me to get back. Currently on my reading list: Flyboy in the Buttermilk by Greg Tate, The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Blues People by Amiri Baraka, The Devil & Dave Chappelle: And Other Essays by William Jelani Cobb, No Name in the Street by James Baldwin, and The Hip-Hop Generation by Bakari Kitwana. My latest epiphany after a quick glance at the stack wasn’t all that hard to come by: shit, these are all written by black dudes.
To my credit, I did recently (after years of postponement) read When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost by Joan Morgan (a black WOMAN, so there!) in one sitting and was so inspired I had to pass along my praise to her via Twitter. Still, I can’t escape my prejudice in choosing to pick up the books of black men first, foremost, and most often. I’ll own that.
It doesn’t stop there. I’m more prone to tune in to cable news shows when Eugene Robinson and Marc Lamont Hill are called in to provide analysis. I don’t watch many programs on ESPN aside from Outside the Lines and Around the Horn because these are typically the shows where Bomani Jones and Kevin Blackistone make appearances. I don’t know any video bloggers not named Jay Smooth and I’m not that pressed to find any. And as much as I love Bob Dylan and Lauryn Hill, you’re far more likely to catch me listening to Gil Scott-Heron or Ice Cube.
I’m not at all averse to other viewpoints, and it’s not even that I agree 100% with any of these men. It simply comes down to the fact that, in my 20-something year existence, the amount of time I’ve spent being intellectually challenged by black men is negligible at best. Like that critical scene in Do the Right Thing, there just haven’t been any brothers on the wall. And that’s sad.
Like so many other young black men, I didn’t encounter a black male teacher until I reached college. When black men make up less than 2% of the nation’s teachers, that’s not really all that shocking. What was further infuriating was the lack of engagement from my multicultural, suburban Virginia educational system with black male thinkers in the broader curricula. Despite the earnest efforts of some rogue teachers to slip a few Langston Hughes poems into the syllabus, the formal education of my K-12 years can most accurately be summed up as white women extolling the virtues of white male achievement.
My mother attempted to fill in the gaps with frequent trips to the library, but I was far more interested in Goosebumps, and if the black men in those books weren’t the same ones dunking basketballs and appearing on the side of Wheaties boxes, I really wasn’t having it.
The interpersonal relationships I’ve had with black men in my life never yielded much better returns. My maternal grandfather died when I was ten, leaving me with memories of him handing me a dollar to bring him something to drink and saying in front of my grandmother that he had never been in love, which is two more memories than I have of my father’s father. And while I did indeed grow up with a father in my life, his was more a role of disciplinarian than curator of thought and debate.
The cats I hung out with in my adolescent years weren’t any better. My preoccupation with being considered “cool” meant my homies were holding in-depth discussions on the latest Jordans and the finer points of getting girls’ numbers instead of the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and Manning Marable. The crew is different now, but if I’m being totally honest, we spend just as much if not more time discussing round asses as we do Occupy Wall Street.
Through luck and the power of social media over the past few years, I’ve had the extreme honor of sitting at the table breaking bread and sharing in the knowledge of many brilliant black men. And having these opportunities has not only altered my sense of self, but challenged many of the ideas I used to hold on just what constitutes black manhood.
What we sometimes miss is that seeing black men in positions that require intellectual prowess isn’t just about the self-esteem of black boys but how they esteem one another. Black people ingest the same racist culture and stereotypes that is a part of the American diet. It’s not just a matter of reversing the beliefs about your personal self but the collective. We can, and I make myself no exception, project those same damaging prejudices on the group to which we belong that the wider public embraces. Consequently, it tarnishes our relationships with one another.
This isn’t an attempt to downplay the importance of being introduced to and seriously engaging an array of thought from people across the spectrum and a variety of backgrounds. And I don’t mean to suggest I value the thoughts of black men above all others. But it’s like that episode of Good Times where the family’s fortunes begin to turn around the moment they replace the portrait of a white Jesus with a Jesus of a darker hue (which really was supposed to be Ned the Wino, but that’s a whole ‘nother, deeper discussion of its own). There’s a power in seeing your optimal reflection that many black men are deprived. It’s just a matter of finding a way to put more brothers on the wall.
If any of us are truly concerned about the future of black boys in this country, the simplest and most profound individual action we can take is to put a book in one’s hands and tell him, “a black man wrote that.”