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The Death of Black Boyhood

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In a NYtimes.com short documentary, "The Scars of Stop and Frisk," Tyquan Brehon estimates that he was stopped and frisked by New York City police over 60 times before he turned 18 years old. A report by the New York Civil Liberties Union suggests that Brehon's experience was not an anomaly. Though black males made up just 4.7 percent of the city's population, they formed 41.6 percent of stops by NYPD. According to a WNYC analysis, there were over 120,000 stops of kids between the ages of 14 and 18. Some reported being stopped as young as 12.

The persistent view of black men as predators has had dire consequences for black males, but we should remember that many of those who must bear the weight of this stigma are adolescent boys. It as if these children, through no fault of theirs, have leapt over adolescence and landed in the cross hairs where black men so often reside. I do not want to suggest, however, that black men deserve to suffer the consequences of the myth of the black male predator any more than black boys do, but rather that the idea that black men somehow spring into the world full-grown is an integral part of this dehumanizing myth.

The construction of black boys as men has meant that like black men, they must navigate the complex amalgam of being feared and targeted at once. Thus, the very characteristics that we so often find tolerable and even desirable in white male adolescents -- exuberance, willfulness, and impulsivity -- could get a black boy killed. There is no such thing as black boyhood in American culture, and black boys' imaginary manhood is being used as an excuse to bully and brutalize them.

Consider, for example, the representation of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin who was shot to death in Florida this February. When the shooter, George Zimmerman, made his first public statement at a bail hearing, he jumped at the chance to state that he was unaware that Martin was 17, and that he believed that Martin was nearly his age, 28. He said this as if to suggest that if Martin was 28, the shooting would surely have been justified. His lawyer claims that he was answering questions posed by Martin's mother. But Zimmerman was presenting his defense; he was telling the world that on the night of February 26th he killed a black man, not a boy. Zimmerman's defenders have also attempted to depict Martin as an adult by distributing photographs, some of them bogus, of a more mature-looking Martin. In a photo that appeared on the conservative news aggregation site, The Drudge Report, Martin wears a sleeveless white undershirt and displays gold teeth beneath the dark shadow of a mustache. The dimly lit photo appears to have been taken with a poor quality webcam that distorts Martin's face. Nonetheless, this single photo of a teenager posturing was picked up by numerous blogs that claim to present the real Trayvon Martin.

The tactic of justifying the death of a black boy by claiming that he was a man is not new. When 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed by white supremacists in 1955, a Mississippi newspaper, The Clarion Ledger printed photos that made Till appear more mature. In Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy point out that the photo which made Till appear to have a mustache was placed alongside a glamorous beauty shot of the white woman who accused him of flirting. The photograph of a more menacing-looking Till communicated to Mississippians that Till was not a sweet-faced boy, but instead a formidable predator who had insulted the virtue of a white woman. Defenders of Till's killers had reason to believe that by representing Till as a man, they could justify his murder. The shooting deaths of two adult black males in Mississippi just three months prior to the death of Till had received little attention from the public and no arrests were made.

Perhaps the concept of black boyhood has long been dead. But I want to believe that we can do something more than teach black boys how to quietly cooperate with the police and steer clear of armed, self-appointed, neighborhood watchmen. I want to believe that we can demand their childhood back, and yet, I am not sure how one reclaims a boy's adolescence after he has been stopped and frisked by police 60 times. Can one give back the fearless abandon of boyhood in country where Skittles can be perceived as a weapon? I do not know. But perhaps, we might begin with this simple ideological shift: a boy is a boy.