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Marcus Lee Headshot

Young and (Unabashedly) Black and Male and on Behalf of Myself, In Defense of Myself

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Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's getaway reinitiated a conversation of crucial importance about race. This conversation has been mistakenly conflated with the very specific, raced and gendered experience of young, heterosexual, Black men. What makes this (unsurprising and frustrating) conflation particularly odd is that this conversation is being had without young Black men being present in the room. This beautiful opportunity to have an honest and productive conversation about racial oppression and the trap that hegemonic masculinity presents to men of color is being used to have lazy and misinformed conversations about interpersonal, racist micro-aggressions (from the perspective of middle class, famous, political pundits) and imaginatively created narratives about self-imposed institutional oppression.

Though I've been able to hold in my frustration with the sophomoric nature of mainstream news in the present moment [and the moments past] for a while now, my boiling point came with Don Lemon's indictment of the Black community. Of course, this isn't the first [and won't be the last] indictment of the Black community. But this indictment was particularly hurtful for me. Maybe it's because of my temporary and uncritical acceptance of the idea that people that share social identities will share socio-political dreams and desires. Maybe it's because of my naive assumption that all Black men can and do love and care for other Black men and our general state & community as much as I do. Either way, what his comments have reminded me of is the fact that racism was never constructed for Black people to understand.

My investment in Black men is deep. I come from a small family of two older brothers and four male first-cousins. I'm an ex-football player and track runner; and, in both cases, my coaches and teammates -- whether they were my fellow defensive linemen or the men I relied during relay races -- were Black men. And, I attend Morehouse College. I've struggled alongside Black men against racism and classism; and, I've struggled with them about homophobia and the devaluation of our sisters. Black men have been my best friends, my intimate partners, my classmates, my arch rivals, and my closest confidants. My investment in Black men is indeed deep.

My investment in us and my care for us compelled me to disrupt the misinformation of the present moment. To begin, the state of Black men should not be analyzed in comparison to the White community (Whew! I'm so glad I got that off my chest!). Equality rhetorics that push for objectivity and universality do little but impose false homogeneity among people, their histories, experiences, desires and dreams. People are not all the same and we don't have to be. Ignoring our particularities and centering the particularities of the White community only support the public disregard of our needs and desires. Putting this into context, I don't care that White people don't sag their jeans because that has nothing to do with me (Whew! Another weight lifted off my chest!). The focus on why Black men sag or whether or not it comes from prison culture allows for the avoidance of more pertinent political and philosophical questions: What happened to judging me solely based on the content of my character? Does that have limits; and, are those limits relative? If sagging can [and should] be outlawed because it is too 'outrageous' and 'disrespectful,' and if these concepts are relative, then shouldn't we question whose understandings of these terms control what's outlawed and what's not and how that may disenfranchise a community of people? My grandmother has no issue with sagging but has a huge issue with ripped jeans -- she thinks they look raggedy, ridiculous and entirely improper. Shouldn't her understanding of attire be honored? Or does her status as an old, Black, poor woman disqualify her from informing social norms? Also, if sagging is a symbol of anti-assimilation for Black men in general (as it certainly is for me in particular!), then what are the implications of deeming it improper? What else is discouraged? These questions will never be answered in a context in which the choices of White men are deemed most appropriate.

Furthermore, the liberation of Black men must happen alongside the liberation of all Black people. Therefore, analyses of our oppression must be checkered by 'both/ands' rather than 'either/ors.' This means that discussions and rallies about the untimely death of Trayvon Martin should not exclude the voices and experiences of women, LGBTQ people and the 500+ poor Black men dying in Chicago every day, but should happily incorporate those voices to be sure that everyone -- their voices and their real experiences -- are heard.

Lastly, racism should be discussed as an institutional and global phenomenon. Political pundits continue to make the dangerous mistake of discussing racism as some 'silly,' never-ending game of Black vs. White. This analysis quiets the efforts of radical, extremely inclusive, White people who understand their privileges and work diligently with open ears, hearts and minds pushing for a more just society, erases other people of color that indeed experience racism, and supports the myth that Black people cannot be complicit with racism. Put simply, racism is a system of dominance that supports the basic idea that people of color are less valuable to society than White people through cultural norms and laws centered on the experiences of White men. People of all colors support or reject this system through their everyday choices -- whether they are supporting racism in the media by attributing the plight of the Black community to its aesthetics or rejecting racist cultural assimilation in their own way by sagging their pants while walking down the street.

The suggestions made here are not new or exhaustive -- entire books have been written about these things and more. However, the misinformation in the media and in textbooks calls for a reiteration. In addition, the exclusion of the very particular experience of Black women was done intentionally here not only because their experiences with racism are indeed unique and different from Black men, but also in order to leave room for women to discuss their own experiences in their own way, on their own terms. I look forward to listening to and receiving what Black women have to offer to this discussion.

What makes humans beautiful are our narratives. As society attempts to entangle young Black men in a web of imposed realities, polemical statements, and numerical data, it runs the risk of dislocating our humanity. We saw that very clearly in the George Zimmerman trial [and we see it in subsequent political rallies] -- How often do we discuss what Trayvon was like as a person rather than an object of political importance? What was he like? I don't mean his grades, his behavioral record, or anything else respectable political organizations try to use to justify rallying around what his death symbolized. I want to know Trayvon personally -- what did he smell like? How did he walk? Did he have a catch phrase? The breadth and depth of these questions could expand endlessly; but, the point is that the real thing is too often lost in our political debates. My heart beats with frustration as Black men are discussed and depicted as being without agency either as complete victims of our environments or unintentional culprits of our own oppression. It's as if we're here in this conversation, but not here in reality. But we are here. I'm here; I'm young, Black, and male; and, my life -- not just the air in my lungs, but the story in my heart -- truly does matter.