A few days ago,Wesleyan trustee (and my classmate) Irma Gonzalez forwarded me a moving essay by another board member, Al Young ’88. It was recently published in the Detroit News. Given that his subject is so close to many of our own campus’s conversations, I asked him if I might reprint his piece here.
Al is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Department Chair in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His fields of study are culture and knowledge; race, ethnicity and immigration, and social psychology.
Al Young and sons
My late father and I really began to hit it off during my teenage years. Prior to that I struggled to understand him. As a child, a relative told me a story about how my father as a young man had hoped to be a parent of daughters because his own stepfather had convinced him that boys were just too much trouble. My father’s firstborn was a girl, and I, as his second and last child, sometimes thought that my birth somehow let him down.
I do not recall ever talking to him about this, but I also never thought much about the matter after turning 16. It was then that I felt like I truly made sense to my dad, as he did to me. I began feeling that I wasn’t so bad after all. Truthfully, I never was. This was much unlike some of the guys I grew up with in New York City’s East Harlem, where there seemed to be no shortage of young black and brown men in trouble. I never experienced their kind of trouble, and at age 16, I began feeling that whatever insecurities I had about being my dad’s son were replaced by the euphoric feeling that he was happy to have me in his life.
My father was a college-educated professional, so the poverty surrounding our family in East Harlem was never brought into our household. Instead, my teenage years were spent getting to know my father and his social worlds. Among other things he taught me that anything he achieved was within my grasp, but he also let me know that at any point in time I could be underestimated and prejudged because I am a black man.
I experienced integrated schooling since the first grade. My parents had more resources than many of our neighbors, so going to school in this Caucasian environment was counterbalanced by returning home to East Harlem — a social world full of struggling Latinos and African-Americans. I learned to navigate race by moving between these social worlds (what we today call code-switching). Through elementary and high school I had white friends and black friends, and I was one of few who regularly engaged people on each side of the divide.
As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, the rules of engagement were clear. Black boys had their ways of talking to each other, and black and white boys never ventured into the terrain of black-on-black conversation. Occasionally some of my white friends took an interest in the emerging phenomenon called hip-hop, but most struggled to understand why any group would want to rhyme about themselves over tracks of music made by somebody else. The parties in high school were never really integrated. In my all-male Catholic high school, the black boys attended the one party a year hosted by the black student organization. The other parties were not on our calendar as the two racially distinct worlds got along side-by-side, in the lunchroom, classroom, practice field, and the stands.
Three decades later, I am the parent of two boys, teaching at the University of Michigan and living in Ann Arbor. My goal has been to create the same quality of relationship with my boys that I experienced with my dad. A well-respected family sociologist once told me that I could never live with my children the way I lived with my father. Her comment encouraged me to think about how East Harlem of the 1970s and 1980s was not at all like the Ann Arbor of the 21st century. As I raise my family, I am reminded of this all the time.
My oldest son is nearly 17. His peer group includes young men of various races and ethnicities. In fact, he has rarely experienced racially distinct social circles. He has grown up hearing the N-word not as an intentionally derogatory term but as part of Hip Hop culture. It seems that every young person listens to Hip Hop today, and popular culture offers no grounds for making racial distinctions. Today, race talk happens exclusively at home for my sons rather than with friends as it did back then. The discussions my wife and I have with him and his 12-year-old brother about race often seem to me to be suited for children of the 1980s.
To be fair, my sons understand that race matters. We talk about the public responses to President Barack Obama in ways that make it clear that they realize that it does. Yet, I long for them to understand why race matters. After all, they have never had to divide their life experiences in the same way as I did. My boys understand the civil rights movement not as a time in which the adults in their lives fought for social justice (as I recall thinking in the 70s and 80s), but as an historic moment of some time ago — a part of history just like slavery.
Today they don’t have to talk about race. Social media allows them to non-verbally access all kinds of people and situations that can be all about race. And none require face-to-face interactive skills that had to be employed in the past. Today talk among youth is facilitated by technology, which allows so much to be shared with so many, all without anyone having to actually talk to anybody. Hence, young people can claim to know so much about other people and their life situations without ever having to directly confront them or their issues.
And that makes me nervous. I am nervous not because I doubt the ability of my sons to become who they want to be in the future. I am nervous because, like any parent, I worry about that which I am hopeful for, but cannot control, which is their future. More importantly, as a black man and father I am nervous because I am still trying to figure out the racial rules that they abide by when so much of the game seems the same.
Black males can be killed for walking down the street (Trayvon Martin), arguing with the police (Michael Brown) or face-down on the platform of a municipal train station (Oscar Grant), yet theirs is a single social world with no public space to retreat and reflect. The only space is at home with mom and dad, neither of whom can figure out why so many youth today so casually use the N-word, and why our boys sometimes act like their fates are so common with others when so much happens to us that does not happen to them.
I tell my oldest son (and my youngest more so in recent years), that the internet cannot give you all you need to know about interacting with police, whether in small towns or large cities. My son is quite knowledgeable of local laws and policies (another by-product of the internet), but this does not substitute for knowing how to act in public, I warn. And despite what the law says, I tell him that associating with people in trouble means that you will be in trouble as well if the police are around.
Because he weighs 215 pounds and wears a size 14 shoe, I warn him that not everyone, certainly not some police, will necessarily see him as the boy he is. I tell him that although he has a way to go to be a man, he must know right now that others will think of him and act toward him as a man, and what the law says may not matter for how such others may respond to him in the mall, after the concert or the game, or on the street.
The streets of Ann Arbor may strike many as innocent, but my son goes to concerts in Detroit, visits relatives in New York City and loves to vacation in Chicago. Those streets demand that a young black male know not just the law, but how easily he can be seen as unlawful in the eyes of others. This insight cannot be garnered through social media, and it seems to have no place in his peer group discussions.
Consequently, I strive to tell him that the power of race is such that what people do, especially in moments of uncertainty and confusion, may not correspond with his idea of proper conduct. Hence, he cannot always assume that people will think of him as a proper young man, irrespective of how he thinks about and conducts himself. I tell him and his brother that just because there may be less talk about race today, whether because people have decided that it’s just not right to talk about or because they do not talk much at all because they are texting, that at any point in time, in any place, race may make all the difference for what happens to them and why.
Professor Alford Young, Wesleyan Class of 1988