I met him at a basketball court where several young ballers came to play. Running up and down the court to the rhythm of rap tracks, the men dunked and dazzled. Their intensity was high, their competitiveness fierce. No one dared step foot on the court while these playground gladiators did battle; no one except a little boy and his three friends.
The little boys scurried onto the court and began to play as if the older, bigger, stronger guys weren’t even there.
“Whose kids are these,” asked a sculpted, dunking machine who had been dominating the court. No one answered. He told the kids to move, and they did, for about a minute.
When the players ran back to the other side of the court, the rowdy pack reconvened underneath the basket. Clearly upset, the dunk master demanded that someone remove the kids. Since my team played next, I volunteered to corral them. As I gathered the kids, the dunk master glared at me as if to say, “Don’t let those kids back on the court, or else.” He returned to his game and immediately punctuated his threat with a rim-shaking tomahawk dunk. I ignored his posturing and focused on the kids who were clamoring around to interrogate me.
Their first few questions such as, “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” were typical of children with curious minds. These questions were easy. The ones from that one particular boy, however, were much tougher.
His first question was, “Are you a man?”
“Yes,” I proudly proclaimed. “I am a man.”
The little boy’s demeanor turned serious as he gazed into my eyes and asked, “Have you ever killed anyone?” I hesitated for a second to process what I had just heard. Was he serious? What would make him ask such an unusual question? Surely I did not look like a killer, at least I hope not.
Finally regaining my composure, I answered, “No, I’ve never killed anyone.”
“Then how can you be a man if you’ve never killed anyone?” My heart dropped. I tried to respond, but my voice failed me. I stood frozen staring into his innocent-looking brown eyes searching for an answer to his dark question. What must he have seen in his short life that made him equate manhood with murder?
The little boy did not wait for my answer; instead, he darted off to play on the swings with his playmates. I watched that little boy swing until my vision became blurry. If not for my teammate hitting me on the calf with the basketball I would still be standing there.
“What’s wrong with you?” my friend asked. “It’s our turn to play.”
“I don’t feel like playing,” I said still staring at the little boy, who was now running down the street.
This event occurred over a decade ago; however, it still haunts me, especially now that I have boys of my own. What are we teaching our children about black manhood? Is being a criminal the only thing little African American boys have to look forward to?
The answer is obviously “no,” but it will take a concerted effort by African American fathers across the country if we are to change perceptions about black men and demonstrate true manhood to our children. Our young men are coming of age in an increasingly violent society, but instead of shunning the violence, they seem to embrace it. This is why it is critical for young black males to have positive role models whom they can emulate and respect so they can learn to express themselves and solve conflicts without violence. Dads have to be those role models.
Raising boys is hard work, but well worth the effort. I look forward to the day when someone asks my sons if they are men, and they can answer, “Yes I am a man! Just like my daddy.”
I have not seen that little boy since that fateful day, but I wish I could so I could tell him that he doesn’t have to be a murderer to be a man. I pray it’s not too late.