What I Learned About Race by Age 10
One afternoon, after a three-hour play rehearsal at the Crittenden Arts Council in West Memphis, Arkansas, I climbed into my father’s red Chevy Avalanche to tell him about practice. I was the only black male cast in a production of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." The director offered me a second role, but feeling uneasy about memorizing lines for two characters, I said "No."
My father was not impressed.
“You turned down that role because you were scared,” my father said, his forehead wrinkling. “Don’t ever do that again.”
In that moment –at the age of 10– I realized I would always have to work harder and jump more hurdles.
A city councilman by 24 in my small hometown of West Memphis, Arkansas, my father had experienced his share of racism. He raised me to know I would face challenges others would not. I remember sitting in the living room of my grandparent's home as my father explained the odds to his mother.
“Lamarco could be the most qualified person between him and his white classmate, but the white guy would get the job simply because he’s white,” he told his mother.
My father dressed me in three-piece suits and kept my hair low-cut. Little room existed for creative expression when it came to appearance growing up in West Memphis. The predominantly African-American city had a population of about 26,000 with a median income around $29,000. Not many people lived above water -at least not in the black community.
Teenage boys walking down Barton, 14th Street and other neighborhood streets in oversized T-shirts and pants bunched up below their butts was a common sight. When five or more of us gathered, it was common to see a police car slow down and someone ask, “Where are y’all going?”
For me, there was a constant pressure of being “on” at all times.
My adolescent years brought a different pressure –especially after my 12-year-old cousin, DeAuntae Farrow, was killed in 2007 by a West Memphis police officer after the officer mistook a bag of chips and soda for a toy gun. The officer, Erik Sammis, got off.
The killing turned my city upside down. Members of the black community held candlelight vigils and signs that read, "I am DeAuntae Farrow," in support of his mom, Deborah. Others defended the officer.
As the councilman for the ward where the shooting happened, my father spoke out against the injustice. In return, we received threatening phone calls at our home and my father was the target of attacks, including a dead bird thrown at his car.
The shooting shed light on injustices blacks faced in West Memphis. Years later, the national attention given the Trayvon Martin case brought me back to that moment.
Evening jogs around the neighborhood became burdensome as I was constantly reminded of the fear that I could be mistaken for someone running from a crime and killed by police.
But, as I learned with age, this fear was not unique to me. It was the reality of many black men across America –one that could only be understood if you lived it.
Many black men live in constant fear of being racially profiled every time they see a police officer. The recent killings of blacks by officers with no punishment from the justice system intensifies those fears.
In media and pop culture, black men are often portrayed as one dimensional and ridiculed for their creative expression by the black community and the larger society.
Centuries of racial oppression and slavery endured by African Americans still influence black men’s experience in America.
Over a four-month time period, I interviewed black men from various backgrounds on their experiences growing up in single-parent households, their encounters with police, their views on sexuality and their roles in black communities and America. I sought out multiple scholars on black masculinity to provide historical context.
After extensive research and interviews, I created this platform for their voices to be heard and to deepen the understanding of the black experience portrayed in the news and other media.
Dissecting the Problem
Danzael Blount sat against the headboard of his bed, clutching his iPhone 6 Plus at his home in Madison, Mississippi. His Facebook app was opened to the “message” section where he had spent the last half-hour messaging a friend. His message summed up his frustration on the state of black men in America.
“It seems as if it is a never-ending discussion and it is quickly losing its charm,” Blount said, reading the message aloud. “It’s tiresome to keep talking about the pressures black men face when there are no positive results at the end.”
The Mississippi native was reeling from the social injustice surrounding the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, an African-American boy who was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, a few weeks earlier. The officer, Timothy Loehmann, was not indicted. For Blount, and many other Americans, Tamir’s circumstances echoed those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and other black men who had been killed by police officers last year.
During the same time, social media buzzed with pictures, videos and comments criticizing New York Giants’ wide receiver O’Dell Beckham Jr.
Beckham became the subject of heated conversation after performing dance routines on the football field, dancing with a close friend in an Instagram video and posting pictures with male friends –all behaviors the black community called “suspect.”
Jaden Smith’s gig as a model for Louis Vuitton’s womenswear campaign, where he was featured wearing a skirt, did not escape public ridicule either.
As someone who has battled finding his place as a man in the black community, Blount was left asking the question, “Is the black male an endangered species?”
Blount struggled with trying to be perceived as masculine after being reared in a single-mother household.
“I didn’t have a male example in my life, so I naturally gravitated toward the mannerisms of my caregiver, my mother,” said Blount. “I don’t know how to make people understand that I am still good enough to be considered a man.”
The 22-year-old said growing up he was often teased because of the way he talked, walked and other mannerisms.
African-American men have juggled the pressures of balancing life in the black community and in the larger American society for centuries. This strain has affected the expectations of what it means to be a black man, how black men are viewed in their own community and, ultimately, how they live their day to day lives.
The 50th Super Bowl brought the problem center stage with Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton. Newton was criticized by the media and members of the black and white communities for lack of sportsmanship, his attire and what was considered inappropriate dancing on the field, namely doing the “dab,” a dance made popular by hip-hop artists, Migos.
It quickly became a topic of race and some Americans viewed the criticism as a double standard.
While black men such as Beckham, Newton and Smith were attacked for their behaviors, Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rogers, received a special on ESPN for his celebratory hip thrust, Manning did not receive the same criticism as Newton for his lack of sportsmanship after his 2010 Super Bowl defeat and David Bowie, known for his androgynous outfits, was celebrated while Smith was ridiculed.
In a Jan. 6 blog post “The Double Standard: Why Black Society is coming for O’Dell Beckham Jr., and not Channing Tatum,” blogger Woman of My Own Design called out the black community for its hypercriticism of NFL player Beckham.
“I’m passed the fact that we project our deep-seated homophobia onto other people, or even that we find damn near everything to be “suspect,”’ the blogger wrote. “You don’t ever hear white people saying 'Channing Tatum is suspect.”’
Tatum became a part of the black narrative after a Vanity Fair video posted showing the actor doing the vogue and appearing on Spike TV’s “Lip Sync Battle” wearing wigs and dresses. The notion is while Tatum gets a pass for such activities, a black man would instantly be emasculated and called gay –by the black community especially– for doing the same thing.
Judged by What You Wear
The criticism prominent black men receive in the media is only a reflection of what the typical black man experiences every day.
Sitting in the living room of his Los Angeles apartment on West 12th street, Justin Key pondered the condition of black men. Key said the black community is still battling the conditioning imposed on blacks during slavery. By battling, he means imposing the same mentalities.
“Boy, you know you are not supposed to be wearing those skinny jeans. You know you are not supposed to be wearing your hair like that,” Key said, mimicking a southern dialect. “They are talking like a slave master and do not recognize it.”
Wearing skinny jeans is commonly viewed as a sign of emasculation in the black community. In some ways, the clothing alone is sufficient enough to warrant the questioning of a man’s sexuality.
Key said while attending school at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in 2006, which is 95 percent white, wearing skinny jeans was the norm for white men. But, whenever he returns home to Memphis, he is reminded that skinny jeans and flip flops are for women.
“People still have a problem with men getting their beards shaped up and taking care of their appearance,” Key said.
Black men’s hair has posed other challenges. While men of other races have had a range of acceptable hairstyles they can wear, black men are often left with a low-cut.
As many have tried to branch out and wear dreads, high fades with natural twists and other styles, they are often told their hairstyles are not professional or unacceptable.
The Rearing of Black Men
For years, JuVan Langford, a men's empowerment coach, has traveled around the world delivering speeches and putting on workshops to help men find their “purpose.” He has found success in his career and as a man, but his path was not always smooth.
Generationally, black men have been viewed as less than white men, said Langford.
“We, black men, have been emasculated and separated from our families and left feeling as though we were behind or had something to prove,” Langford said. “We were left protecting the little dignity that we were allowed to have –if any at all.”
Many black men recount being told growing up that they must work twice as hard as white men just to be half as good. This pressure typically follows them into adulthood.
Langford said this trait was ingrained and unconsciously reinforced through conversations held in his household.
“The pressure I experienced was to live beyond and above the stories told of the men who were here before me,” the empowerment coach said. “I felt as if I could do more and be more but knew it would require that I do it with precision and strategy.”
For men like Langford who grow up in single-parent households, the weight is intensified.
The oldest of five children and the only boy, Langford’s upbringing was heavily influenced by the women in his life in Worcester, Massachusetts. The absence of a father figure made it difficult for him to learn what a man was supposed to be.
“I found myself searching and watching other men and mocking their behaviors and language in order to teach myself how to be a man,” Langford said.
Some 72 percent of children grow up in single-parent households in the black community, according to multiple reports, including the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. That is far greater than other communities -17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, and 53 percent of Hispanics.
The dual role African-American women play in the household affect their sons’ upbringing –more often than not in negative ways.
“Many women in the black community have to be the mother and the father. Femininity is not allowed or celebrated in these households,” said Langford. “The boys often feel the pressure to provide for mom and siblings and be man enough. I was that boy”
In the absence of fathers in the African-American community, young men are often given the title “head of household” though the mother is the actual provider.
Eighty-two percent of African-American men, 18-40 years old, reported feeling more pressures and restraints on them as men compared to their white counterparts in an original survey created on Surveynuts.com.
But, even with this sense of heavy pressure, they are taught that showing emotion is considered a weakness.
“When it came to crying, I knew I could not let my dad see that or he would lose it,” said Chris Akens, an acting student at the New York Film Academy.
Akens grew up with his father in Houston, Texas. He considered much of the way he and his father lived to be the “normal way of doing things.” One of those things was to never back down from any man.
“I knew that if I told my dad someone at school hit me, his first words were going to be, “Did you hit them back?”’ Akens said.
While he felt the pressures of being masculine, Akens said his father never pushed him too far.
But, the desire to fit in with friends posed another challenge.
“I would date and talk to numerous girls so my friends would be like ‘you the man’ when I was younger,” said Akens. “Better yet, I would sometimes do it so I wouldn’t feel like the odd ball in the group.”
For many men in the black community, dating multiple girls or being seen as the “ladies’ man” is a form of validation of their manhood. At one time, it was considered the ultimate guard against anyone questioning your sexuality.
“It was not until my junior year of college that I noticed how juvenile it was to only talk to girls for acceptance,” Akens said. “I decided to let it go once I realized that.”
The aspiring actor also found himself breaking from the idea that men should not be affectionate.
“I would get kind of apprehensive when my close friends used to tell me they loved me or hugged me,” said Akens.
It is common for black men to replace a hug with a handshake before wrapping one arm around another guy or for “I love you” to be replaced with “love ya bruh” to tone down the amount of affection in the gestures.
“I sort of grew out of that,” said Akens. “I think that it is a mind thing that people have to get past. There is no harm in letting your close friends and family know that you love them.”
Only the Strong Survive
African-American men hold their sons and other black men to strict standards because of the black communities’ history of slavery in America, according to Waldo E. Johnson, associate professor at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture of the University of Chicago.
“Blacks have a fear that any negative thing they do will come back on the community and they do not want to contribute to the negative image placed on their race,” said Johnson.
While the need to maintain a strong sense of masculinity is evident across all races, many black men believe the historical condition of their people in America places them in a unique situation.
Johnson said it is evident in how masculinity manifests itself in the black community.
“If a black man is in the hood or a bad neighbor, he may not want to show that he is this hyper masculine guy, said Johnson. “But, there are also times that a young man who is in school will not want to walk around a neighborhood with a backpack on showing he’s in school.”
Robert Kince faced it firsthand growing up in Memphis, Tennessee.
Raised by a single mother after his father died, the 23-year-old said living in Memphis had a negative effect on his character. In his teenage years, he was involved with gang activity which contributed to violent behavior.
“There was one time when I was in high school I walked in the cafeteria and just sprang on this guy without thinking about it,” said Kince.
He did not feel as though he had to act tough but he did feel that he had to show no weakness. “Weakness is frowned upon where I am from,” he said.
Kince said showing affection to other guys was considered a sign of weakness in his community. Listening to music other than rap or songs by female artists could also be considered weak to other black men.
There is a certain standard of what the black community and society expects black men to be, especially based on their appearance, according to Athena Mutua, author of “Progressive Black Masculinities”
“One of my sons is a very big guy and because of that he was expected to be this sort of tough, hyper masculine man in the community. He kind of took on that persona as a result,” said Mutua.
While black men as a whole face the pressures of meeting the standards of being “black enough” or “man enough,” a different pressure awaits gay black men.
“It is hard being gay in the black community because it really makes you second guess how you dress, how you act, how you speak, your mannerisms and even the car you drive,” said Allen Williams, a 22-year-old openly gay student from Oakland, California. “Any and everything you do, you have to second guess because someone is always saying something.”
Gay black men are often not considered men in the black community.
Homosexuality was considered a white man’s disease and any association with homosexuality was considered an extra burden on the black community.
The black community's strong ties to the church increased the pressure.
A 2009 Pew poll illustrated African Americans were the most religious people in the U.S. with 79 percent of blacks reporting religion played an important role in their lives compared to 56 percent of all U.S. adults.
It does not go unnoticed.
“My father raised me on the biblical scripture ‘train up the child in the way he must go and he will not depart from it,”’ said Williams.
Part of his upbringing was the teaching that there is a line between what a man should do and what a woman should do.
“I think it is harmful to tell someone that only girls do that or only guys do that because you are devaluing the person who they want to be,” said Williams. “I even find it hard to accept some of my more feminine guy friends due to the fact of what I was told when I was raised.”
The Oakland native said he constantly has to evaluate his thinking because of his judgmental tendencies.
“My idea of masculinity has changed due to the fact that the world is becoming more accepting,” said Williams. “I don’t however feel that the black community is changing to the magnitude that the world has been changing.”
Fifty-eight percent of white Americans support same-sex marriage while 39 percent of black Americans favor it, according to a 2015 Pew poll.
“It is hard,” said Williams. “But, there is a sense of natural durability with black people.”
The inability of some members of the black community to change their perceptions of gay men, even with the research that is now available, is harmful for the growth of black men who identify as gay, said professor Johnson.
The attitudes toward homosexuality in the black community does not only impact gay men. Many straight black men tailor their actions to appear more masculine and to keep from being questioned on their sexuality.
Black Men in the Age of Police Brutality
Chris Akens stood in his bedroom at Avalon Apartments in Burbank, California, listening to music play from his phone. It was early in the afternoon and he had a DVD in his right hand. Before he could put the disc into his DVD player, Akens heard murmuring coming from the other side of his door.
Knowing his roommate was in class during that time, he stopped the music and pushed his door open. Six guns were pointed at him with police officers on the other side.
“Get on the ground,” an officer yelled before frisking and handcuffing Akens.
A robbery occurred at Avalon moments earlier and the suspect fled into the apartments with officers unsure of the exact location.
It was not until several minutes later Akens was freed and allowed to ask the officers why he was handcuffed. The answer: “the guy we were looking for was black.”
Akens story could have easily ended differently.
Police killed at least 102 unarmed African-American men in 2015, according to the Mapping Police Violence project. The project reported unarmed blacks were killed at five times the rate of unarmed whites in the same year.
The data reflected killings of black men that resulted in mass protests and the prominent Black Lives Matter movement that has consumed media coverage.
“I feel I always have to speak and put on a smile even when I don’t want to just so others will feel comfortable walking near me,” said Akens. “There are times when I don’t even want to make eye contact with police officers. I just stare at the ground when walking past them.”
Many young black men felt unsure of their safety after the deaths of Michael Brown, Walter Scott and other black men at the hands of police officers became media spectacles. To provide a sense of security, some altered how they presented themselves to be perceived as less of a threat.
Randall Newsome sought to achieve this camouflage by identifying himself as a USC student at all times.
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Newsome moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2015 to attend graduate school at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Though he typically dressed in a fashion typical of young men his age –jeans, button downs, slacks or the occasional basketball shorts– the grad student did not feel it was enough.
It was not long after starting school that he purchased a red backpack with USC stitched in the middle. “I am too far away from home to take any chances,” said Newsome. “I can’t risk someone mistaking me for the wrong person and my mom gets a phone call.”
The fear of being profiled is shared by black men from various backgrounds.
While driving on Interstate I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee, two police officers pulled over our Chevy Impala. My friend was driving and I was a passenger along with three others. We were told to get out of the car and step to the side of the road.
After waiting several minutes, two officers turned into six. One by one the officers addressed three of them.
“Take off your shoes. Do you have something in your pockets?” the officers said repeatedly –even after multiple checks. I stood on the shoulder of the road with another young man and watched as the men were groped.
I was dressed in slim fit khaki pants, a button-down shirt and brown loafers. The guy standing next to me was dressed similar.
The other three men shared similar clothing styles as well –loose fitting pants, T-shirts and boots.
Black men’s view of police officers vary. Forty-nine percent of African-American men hold unfavorable views of police officers, while 47 percent reported being somewhere in between on Surveynuts.com.
Men like Kince believe the problem with police does not lie solely with race. “I feel there are good police officers out there, but they all work for a bad system,” said Kince.
The Memphis resident believes that instead of operating by the law most officers are taught to act based on instinct and stereotype. “I don’t blame the cops. I blame the system,” said Kince.
Kince has had his share of encounters with police officers growing up in Memphis.
On one Saturday afternoon Kince stood outside of his grandmother’s house with a group of friends. After passing by the group, two officers stepped out of the car and wanted to check the vehicle the men were standing beside.
“They were messing with us because of how we were looking. No one was doing anything illegal,” said Kince. “I had to talk to the officer because none of my friends were calm about the situation,” he added with a slight laugh.
The pressure black men feel in the presence of officers can be physically overwhelming and the impact is far reaching.
Trapped in the Middle
Though many black men sense increased odds against them, they do not consider their overall experience as a negative. Good life experiences and the opportunity to make better lives for themselves balance out their perspective.
“Being a man is nothing like I thought it was as a child,” said Langford. “Today, I recognize a man as a vulnerable, authentic and powerful leader.”
For years, he shunned dancing and any other acts associated with fun because he viewed them as feminine. But, in adulthood, he found freedom.
Langford believes men across all ethnic backgrounds are learning to lead with vulnerability. But, the maturation of black men is still impeded by black culture.
“The black community is a culture that celebrates and is recognized for its hyper masculine ways,” said Langford. “We are comparing ourselves to one another and deeply afraid to be seen fully or acknowledge our softer desires for love and connection,” the men’s coach said.
While black men are making progress in America, they still have a ways to go. The hyper masculine outlook held by some blacks remain a hindrance for some black men.
Many black men agree that the cultural celebration of hyper masculinity has been tough on them. Some believe the mainstream teachings of black history beginning with slavery and the lack of positive images of black men in the media place limits on what black men think they can become and who they think they should be.
Black men are still rallying in the streets for social justice and to be seen as equals to their white counterparts. Though times have changed, the circumstances of black men are slow to catch up.
“It is one thing to be born,” my father, Marco McClendon, said. “But, it is another thing to be born in this black skin.”