Vanishing Black Male {review}

{ exclusive feature}

Vanishing Black Male
by Anthony Gayle
{photo © Kameelah J. Rasheed}

"Vanishing Black Male" is a documentary that explores some of the so-called problems, potential and perspectives of black men in America. It would have been very easy for this documentary to devolve into a Cosby-style diatribe where "personal responsibility" is offered up as a panacea. Luckily, this film doesn't fall into that trap. There are enough conscious and competent people presented here who understand the need for personal responsibility, but also understand that personal responsibility is often used like a mantra by those who wish to ignore systemic injustice. Many of those interviewed here understand that personal responsibility and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one should strengthen and feed the other. There is a transactional quality between the two that is often ignored to the detriment of some and the benefit of others.

The film begins with an exploration of the concept of a "vanishing black male." Are we literally facing extinction? Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver doesn't believe so. In the film, she states, "We don't exactly have a vanishing black male, but what we do have is a deep divide between black women and black men based on perceptions that we have of one another." Many of our black men are severely damaged by the decisions made by them, for them and about them. They are often left in a position where it is very difficult for them to be suitable husbands and fathers. Janet Foster believes this may result in African American women looking "beyond African-American men" for suitable mates. She later contends that African American women might be wise to start bridging the educational and professional divide by taking a serious look at the factory worker or the "sanitation engineer" instead of limiting their view to white-collar workers. She is calling for women to re-evaluate and re-prioritize the things they find important in a mate. This is good advice for anyone who realizes that the educational and economic gap between black men and women has been intentionally manufactured to further destroy the black family.

The documentary takes a look at some of the issues that affect black men. They include, but are not limited to, incarceration, violence, family, education, work, politics, media, spirituality and health. There isn't enough time in a single film (or this review) to adequately explore any of the aforementioned issues. However, I believe enough time is spent on each topic to give the viewer an introduction to some of the challenges faced as black men in America.

Spirituality and religion have always been important in the black community. Dr. Kenneth L. Pearman remembers a lot of men in church who were "very strong leaders in the house." It's ironic that black churches have grown so much in size and number, but not in effectiveness. In Baltimore, there are several hundred churches (and liquor stores) packed into approximately 80 square miles. I find that many of the students I work with don't seem to make any real distinctions between the various buildings (schools, churches, liquor stores, etc.). Each building serves a function, but none of them are special. They don't see how what takes place inside the church affects their life outside of the church (regardless if they attend or not). The church is no longer a sanctuary; it's just another building. This reflects more poorly on us than it does on them.

The treatment and perception of black men in the media can only be described as criminal. We always get to see the players on camera, but we rarely get to see the real players behind the scenes. Sgt. Delacy Davis explains, "They don't enjoy the benefits of their rap, of their creativity, of their Africanness because if they enjoyed the benefits, they'd control their masters; they'd control their videos. And the last thing they would do is put their sisters, my daughters and your sisters in the video with no clothes on." His point should be obvious, but it doesn't resonant with as many people as it should. It's striking how many people can't wait to condemn a rapper for what they believe to be inappropriate behavior, but have no opinion about those individuals on the corporate level who sign and promote these artists. It's easy to attack the target placed before you. It requires a little more courage and intelligence to go after the people who green light these projects. It's clear that corporate America creates the toxic environment that surrounds young black minds via television screens and head sets, but it's much harder to prove a correlation between that toxic environment and the subsequent negative behavior and consequences. Still, should we leave the future of our kids to chance?

Education is also explored in some detail. Darryl Jeffries asks, "Where did our young people ever get the notion that not being smart was cool?" There are some who argue that the black community is plagued by the belief that doing well academically will result in charges of "acting white." I went to a school where everyone was considered to be very intelligent. When everyone is treated as an intelligent person, the ridiculousness and the origin of the "acting white" claim becomes more apparent. It is when there is special emphasis (or de-emphasis) placed on members within or between groups of students that such negative and destructive ideas tend to germinate and grow. It is my belief that many students are at least aware of this phenomenon if not able to clearly articulate it. Those students who make the hurtful claim of "acting white" may be picking up on the notion that the way we learn and relate to that knowledge and each other has been "racialized." You can be academically gifted and have a high social IQ at the same time. In fact, there is quite a bit of research that shows the ability to navigate through different social circles (network) can be more important than anything you learn in class. It's clear to me that we need to rethink the way we educate our young men and we need to do it quickly. Dr. Duane Dyson explains, "They take a look at fifth grade reading scores to figure out how many jail cells to build." It may not be possible to conclusively say that someone who can't read is going to jail, but we all know that the prisons are filled with the uneducated, the under-educated and the miseducated. We don't have the luxury of waiting for more conclusive evidence to come in. We have to act now.

When it comes to economics, Sgt. Davis states, "If a guy has a death wish, why don't he get a hundred thousand dollars worth of insurance and endow ninety thousand of that to a non-profit organization …" It's a depressing example, but his point is well-taken. We do have to change our thinking and that means moving beyond the myopic views and instant gratification we've been trained to seek and accept. I like to use an example with my high school students that's a little less morbid. I show them how it's possible for a teacher making less than 40K a year can retire early and as a millionaire. It only requires that you start saving early, avoid excess spending on vanity purchases, limit the number of children you have and take advantage of some of the benefits offered by many employers. It's possible for someone with little or no experience in the stock or real estate market to do very well. For those individuals with a greater work ethic or an entrepreneurial spirit, you can do even more. On the other hand, I'll also show them how you can generate more than $100 million in sales with a single album (e.g. Tupac, TLC) and still end up with very little. It's important to teach kids about money and help them to understand that a high income is nice, but it should not be their goal. Their goal should be to accumulate wealth. You work for your income, but your wealth works for you.

"Vanishing Black Male" is a much more interesting and informative look than the series on blacks in America by CNN because it presents the problems without losing an underlying sense of sympathy for our plight. The film doesn't insult our intelligence by pretending our condition is entirely our own fault. It does, however, recognize that many of the solutions to these problems begin with us.


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