As an aspiring member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., my prophytes would often stress the importance of the statement:
“I am a black man.”
It seemed to be an obvious enough statement. I mean I am no biologist, but my eyes confirmed for me long ago that my melanin had intended for me to be black. As time passed though, I saw the significance of that statement – not just knowing what I see in the mirror, but understanding and internalizing it. The significance of saying it and representing it.
“I am a black man.“
As I say it, I am reminded of the history of black men in this country. The premise that a black man was scientifically inferior. The widely accepted idea that a black man did not deserve to be free. The precedent that separate but equal was good enough. The practice of deception and taking advantage of black men. Institutionalizing the idea that black men weren’t worth a full person.
The black man has been held down, left out, held back, pushed aside, and cast out…all in the name of what people “knew” about a black man’s worth and ability.
But history also showed us that black men could rise above that – that in spite of these limiting factors and starting out 200 meters behind the starting line, the finish line is still a possibility. That the race is not automatically lost. Even when freedom seemed a distant dream, there were those that fought to make it a reality. When inferiority was an idea black men were expected to believe and internalize, there were those that proved their worth as scientists, inventors, professionals, and revolutionaries.
I am a black man, whose history is forged in the fires of oppression, struggle, and inequality. But while fire has the power to burn and destroy, it also has the capacity to transform. Like the phoenix, the black man rises from the ashes resilient and strong. A black man is a survivor.
“I am a black man.”
As I say it, I think of all of the images of the black man in society today – our images of black men in popular culture, and in positions of power and influence. I think about images of black men in our community.
Every image that exists shapes the definition of what it means to be a black man in America today – the positive, the negative, and the stereotypical. A friend of mine told me the other day that when she asked some of her high school students to share things they associated with “being black“, the class could not come up one positive association. And why should they? Search for “black men are…” on Google, and you will find several related searches – no doubt made popular by other people searching for it – that connote negative stereotypes about what black men represent to people in society. Lazy, ignorant, irresponsible – despite the absence of words and images like the sambo and blackface in our present vernacular, stereotypes about black men have a startling parallel to these historical images that are hard to ignore. Despite these theme of negativity, positive images of the black male are not some bedtime story fantasy you learn about as kids. Black men have built upon our resiliency, tenacity, and survivor mentality, to become more than what society has predestined us for. No doubt these stereotypes and perceptions have a toxic effect on the condition of opportunities presented to black men in America. But the positive images of the black man today is an indication that when we do make a choice, we define our own destiny. Black men are iron-willed, determined, and master’s of our fate. I am a black man, whose story is affected by perceptions, but not defined by it.
“I am a black man.”
Being a black man means a complicated existence where the story of your history both creates challenges for us and motivates us. It’s a complicated story of achievement while knowing things could and should improve. It is a complicated story of being treated with both curiosity and fear or disgust in society. But a black man has learned to be resilient through all of that. A black man is a survivor in spite of that. A black man can rise above all that. I am a black man, defined by a history of struggle and resilience, driven by misperceptions that exist about my blackness and my determination to reshape them. There is power in that statement. Because it goes beyond simply seeing myself in the mirror. It is about seeing the achievement and legacy that goes to the core of who I am, and the potential that exists within me based on a legacy of survival, achievement, and progress.
“I AM a black man.”