Kenneth Braswell would like us to imagine a world where adults and peers believe in our black youth—and how that would change things.
Recently I had the privilege of being around two different groups of men. The first was a group of homeless men in Schenectady, New York and the other was a group of formerly incarcerated men in New York City. In my work, I get to talk to men all over the world and I am always intrigued by our conversations. What struck me about the two groups of men I spoke with recently is that based on appearances alone, I never would be able to identify them as being homeless or formerly incarcerated. These men looked like my male family members, peers, co-workers, community members, and some of my former superiors. There was nothing about their former circumstances or present conditions that would identify them as anything other than Black and Latino Men. In fact, the only difference between them and me was opportunity and choices.
What did serve as a common point of reference for both groups of men was their desire to do better for themselves and their families. Not one man was participating in either group because they were forced to be there or because they didn’t have any place else to go. Ranging in age from 18–76 and from all walks of life, these men–even with their individual various challenges–knew there is more to life than where their limited past opportunities and destructive choices had landed them.
Yet, I couldn’t help wonder that if somewhere along the way someone had told them and helped them to believe as boys that they could soar, would their choices in life and circumstances have been different? Many of the men shared with me that they had lived lives void of second chances, forgiveness, compassion, and adults and peers who believed in them. This forced me to examine my own life. As far as I know; as a boy no one ever told me I couldn’t soar, but nobody ever told me I could either. However at some point I began to believe I could.
My five year old son is infatuated with superheroes. He has all the costumes–Superman, Batman, Captain America, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Woody from Toy Story–and from one moment to the next, I never know who he is going to be when he comes down the stairs. His life, at least in his head, is filled with the adventures and powers of a superhero. Knowing he probably won’t be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, outrun locomotives, or change the course of mighty rivers, I at least must help him believe that he can…in his own way.
You see, I know that too many boys stop believing they can save or change the world; they trade in their costumes for uniforms, stop working on their powers, and no longer believe they can rescue their “girl,” or help a child with a hug or words of affirmation. While some might say we all have the power within us to change the world, I ask, “What good is having power if we don’t teach our boys how to use it for good and not evil?”
I also have three daughters I love dearly. One day they are going to look for a boy who has turned into a man, hopefully a gentleman, that will hold open a door, pull out a chair, and possibly toss his coat over a puddle of water for her to cross, and a man who understands the value of kind words like, “please, thank you, and I’m sorry.” They might even meet a man who can bend steel in his bare hands or see things typical people can’t–the kind of man that has a heart for honor, humor, and humanity. In fact, this is the kind of man I want my son and daughters to see in me and seek through me.
Our boys may not understand the powers they have to make a difference in the world or to be the inspiration in somebody’s life. However, when they display the aspiration to do great things, we have a responsibility to let them know that the powers they possess are unique to their own passion and purpose in life. Our boys need to understand that the world is waiting for them to arrive and it needs them. We need them.
Our job is to tell our boys that they do possess the power it takes to save the world. When we start doing this, we help them to see opportunities they might not have realized existed otherwise; we inspire them to make good life choices; we give them the “wings and capes” they need to soar, AND THEY WILL!