For my brothers
17th December 2012 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
Every now and then, my mind travels back to an encounter many years ago that I will never forget.
It was a Saturday in late December more than a decade ago that started out like any other day off for me. After a much-needed night of sleep, I decided to head to a few stores in eastern New Orleans to look for some Kwanzaa gifts for a few of my friends and loved ones. As expected, the last store I visited was cluttered with rude, grouchy shoppers who had absolutely no idea what kind of domino effect their funky attitudes were having on the people they came into contact with. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Either way, I found myself rattled and stressed out unnecessarily at a time of year that should bring nothing but joy and good will.
I did, however, meet an intelligent, articulate young man with a story to share that pretty much made my day.
Every day we are bombarded with media images of menacing Black men who prey on anyone they come into contact with without an iota of remorse. This brother was nothing like that.
We started out making small talk about how slow and unreliable the transit system was in New Orleans. I must have made a comment about how the transit system’s inability to keep buses on schedule only makes it very easy for roving criminals to find vulnerable victims. He shared with me the fact that he and a friend had been robbed the night before just steps away from his front door.
The four gunmen, I was told, got away with his leather jacket and a couple of bucks from his friend. Before he could go any further with his story, the bus pulled up to the stop and we boarded. After sitting down near the back of the bus, this brother, whose name I never knew, resumed telling his story. Afterwards, I told him that it was in times like those that I wish I was strapped so that I could do a little “regulatin’.” He commented that he was grateful that he didn’t have his gun because he probably would have been killed in an exchange of gunfire or put in jail for murder, even though it would have been self defense.
I can’t explain it, but I felt as if I knew this guy for years, so we continued to talk about a lot of different things. Almost everyone has met someone while out and about who they feel comfortable talking to. It’s not like we can go around trusting everyone we run into on the street, but every now and then we meet people who we just know mean us no harm and have something that can enrich our lives. That’s how I felt.
The other thing is, that’s what it used to be a lot more like in New Orleans in days gone by. Almost everywhere you could go, you might run into somebody who was willing to step out of their comfort zone to show you a little kindness and compassion.
As we rode along on the bus, we started talking about crime and the criminal justice system and this brother felt comfortable enough to share with me the fact that he spent a couple of years in prison for forging names on personal checks. He talked about what it felt like to be locked up in a prison cell, to have no privacy and very little dignity, and to be abused and exploited by a criminal justice system that labels Black men as criminals long before they even think about stepping outside of “the law.” I was impressed with the brother’s candor and honesty, and his willingness to relate something that was obviously very personal and private to me, a perfect stranger.
The last thing he told me was that there’s absolutely no way he was going to go back to jail, that he refused to repeat his mistake. Though I barely knew him, I was inclined to believe him because he just seemed like a solid cat who made a mistake and paid for it. By the time he reached his destination, I felt as though I had another nameless brother out there in New Orleans, someone who would have my back in the future if and when our paths cross again.
There was a time when meeting a positive brother or sister in the community was commonplace. Unfortunately, that time has come and gone. But we can get it back if we’re willing to put aside our pride and self absorption and find our way back to truly African communalism. All of our lives would be enriched by coming together even in the smallest of ways to celebrate what we have in common.
Several years ago, I read somewhere that Black fraternities are still needed — if for no other reason than the fact that it seems as though Black men need an excuse to care about one another. For years women have been building sisterhood networks and finding ways to work together in symbiotic relationships. While I am aware that this is already happening in some circles, Black men need to follow suit with greater regularity.
There are certainly examples of Black men coming together and helping one another, but not as often a we need to. Far too many of us are still obsessed with the mandates of appearing to “keep it real”: Looking and acting hard, ignoring the problems of others and acting like we need no help when we know we do.
Whether it was the spirit of the Million Man March, or just the result of brothers raised by Black folks who have not forgotten the way that led to the talk I had with the cat on the bus many years ago, I don’t know. What I do know is that more people like this will make New Orleans the city it once was. New Orleans was once a place where brothers and sisters who had never laid eyes on one another greeted one another warmly and did whatever they could to help their fellow man. New Orleans was once a place where my friends and I could walk all the way from the Superdome to our homes in Gentilly without fear of being robbed or killed. New Orleans was once a place where the balmy temperatures were only exceeded by the warmth in people’s hearts. New Orleans was once the village that raised its children to be God-fearing, considerate human beings who respected everyone and themselves. We’ve got to get that back.
One of the things I’m most grateful for is that fact that I have a number of longtime friends, former classmates and fraternity brothers that I can call on during those times when, as the late Richard “Dimples” Fields once said, “even my blues have the blues.” Storytelling and sharing experiences is a powerful tool in the struggle for Black men in this strange land to maintain their sanity, dignity, feeling of self-worth and sense of purpose.
Only Black men know what it feels like to be a Black man in a harsh and unforgiving world. And only Black men can fully grasp and appreciate the many daily struggles Black men face as they seek to better themselves and uplift their families and communities.
My friends and I talk whenever we get a chance about those who don’t appreciate the struggles Black men face and as a result place very little value on Black manhood. But rather than get bitter or frustrated about these things, we share our survival strategies and coping mechanisms,.
We celebrate the fact that despite all of the adversity and challenges we face as Black men we’re still here —fighting the good fight and keeping it moving in a positive direction. These are the ties that bind my friends and I together and ensure our survival.
One of the first things we can do to get that back is to get brothers to stand up and be men. Not men who shoot someone in a New York millisecond or raise a hand to a sister. I’m talking about real men, men who know that there is more strength in an open hand and an open heart. Men who know their role in the community as protector, provider, comforter, and freedom fighter, and who understand the need for reciprocity in their relationships with our mothers, sisters and daughters. Men who are willing to die for the red, black and green, not for some red or blue article of clothing or because somebody looked at them wrong, they wear a certain brand of tennis shoes or stand on the wrong corner. We need to be the kind of men who are ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes to make things right in our community.
As this year draws to an end, I am renewing my challenge to myself and all the brothers I know to be better and do better. I’m going to ask them to tap into the strength, courage, resilience and love of our ancestors and ancestresses and ask them to sustain us throughout this African holocaust that continues to rage on. In short, I’m sending out a call to all the brothers prepared to carry on with the spirit of the Million Man March in their hearts and freedom on their minds.
And to think, this reflection on the need for strong, brave and independent-minded Black men was triggered many years ago by the positivity of one brother showing another brother his love and knowledge of self and his commitment to being the best he can be. Imagine what would happen if we got a thousand brothers to do this every day!
We’d probably be free by now.
Hotep, my brothers. Stay strong and focused, and don’t give up the fight. All power to the people.
This article was originally published in the December 17, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper