Let’s go way back. On the 1996 De La Soul classic Stakes Is High, Posdnuos emceed “Neighborhoods are now ’hoods/’Cause nobody’s neighbors/Just animals/Surviving with that animal behavior,” and ignited a huge conversation. At the time, people who agreed and disagreed were evenly matched. Fast-forward 17 years, and many of us are having the same dispute.
One side argues that the lack of a cohesive Black community is a media fabrication. The other side accuses Black folks of thinking we “made it,” a supposed fallacy brought about by the mythologizing of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Barack Obama. The truth, as always, is quite a bit more complex.
For the past decade, I’ve been working with adolescent males in the juvenile justice and mental health systems. I do community-based work, so I’m always where the people live and work. During the course of my day I see heartbreaking things, but the following killed me. They happened 10 minutes apart:
1. A teenage sister was walking with a little girl. She took the girl’s bottle, poured out the water, filled it with soda, and gave it back to the little girl, who eagerly drank.
2. A young couple was walking down the street, pushing a baby boy in a stroller. The baby became fussy, so the young woman picked the baby up, hugged and kissed him. The young man snatched the little boy and shoved him back into his stroller. The little boy started to wail. The young man looked at the young woman and said, “You better stop spoiling that little ni;;a. You want that little ni;;a to be b!+¢h?”
After those incidents, I felt disappointed in myself because I didn’t step in to offer support. This was new for me, as I always intervene. Always. I live by a simple code: Act the way you want the world to be. Don’t react to the way that it is. I want the world to be a place where children are raised in love and health. So, what stopped me?
I’m from a community where your friend’s parents would scold (or whoop) you just as quickly as your own decades ago. There was zero hesitation in their actions. You acted a fool; you were called out and treated like one. This was just how my ’hood got down. Part of my hesitation stemmed from my now being a parent and not wanting anyone to tell me that I’m not raising my kid to the best of my ability. Not to mention, most young Black folks are rarely told that they are doing anything well.
Another prime factor is that it’s becoming more and more unsafe to speak out.
I’ve had people curse me up and down for intervening in their parenting. I’ve had knives pulled on me, and once had a dude pop his trunk, making threats to “blast me” for telling him he shouldn’t have a baby in the backseat while him and his boys were getting high. Now that I’m a father, I don’t want to take the risk of getting hurt (or worse), but I feel like an absolute traitor to my values by not intervening like I used to.
Is it the “stop snitchin’ ” BS that’s so effectively integrated itself into some of our communities fellowship is now dangerous? Has what was once an admonishment against speaking out against criminal behavior become a flag under which no behavior is held accountable? There are things that are profoundly wrong in some of our communities. Yet any attempts at easing the pain or making the struggle less arduous—especially pertaining to children—are seen as insults, declarations that you somehow see yourself above those who you want to help.
Some of us may have heard of ubuntu (very loose translation: “I am because we are”), and the idea of “it takes a village to raise a child” has been drilled into many of us for decades (years and years before Hillary Clinton published It Takes a Village in 1996). And they’re great philosophies to live by. What an amazing idea it is to recognize that you exist and thrive because others care. What an astounding experience it would be for a child to have a legion of aunties, uncles and play cousins who conspire to raise, love and protect them in the best possible way.
What is it that’s stopping us from living these ideas? What causes many of us to become so defensive that any intervention in support of a child can be perceived as an attack?
I eagerly await your solutions.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.