“. . . Lonely but free I’ll be found. . .” (Bob Nolan)

Driftin' along

Driftin’ along

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Casablanca is a film lodged in the memories of Americans who were alive in 1942 and for many years after—until the generation for whom black and white movies became unbearable to watch. It has the most incorrectly quoted line in movie history. “Play it,” has become, “Play it again, Sam.” That’s understandable because Rick (Humphrey Bogart) wants Sam to play it again as he played it for Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).

Anyone who knows a modicum of movie history knows all of that. And still we say, “Play it again, Sam.”

Poor old Rick, trying to recapture a moment. “Play it,” was not enough. He and everyone remembering the movie wants Sam to “play it again.” Play the song, “As Time Goes By.”

This has been the shortest year of my life.

I don’t construct years in my memory by the number of the year (2014) but by my age (69). My birthday is so close to New Year’s Day (January 3) that it’s convenient for me to think the whole of 2014 was the whole of my 70th year. And believe me, this was the shortest year of my life. “As time goes by.”

Apparently that happens when you get to be an old fart. Years don’t pass, they tumble by. I’ve written about the big events of the year. The biggest was my retirement (brought about by decisions other than my own). That engendered reliance on Medicare, my new position as tutor in the Academic Development of Student Athletes center at SMU, and my teaching an ESL class at the Aberg Center for Literacy.

Other stuff, too. In this year that tumbled by.

My use of the word “tumble” comes from the song recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers when I was a year old and continuing in popularity until—until now, if you’re in the right crowd.

See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

Cares of the past are behind
Nowhere to go but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

I know when night has gone
That a new world’s born at dawn.

I’ll keep rolling along
Deep in my heart is a song
Here on the range I belong
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

I remember hearing it sung in the ‘50s by the local Country Western crooner at the annual fund-raising square dance at the Lake Alice School, out in the sand hills near Scottsbluff, NE. We had friends who went to the school, and my parents always grudgingly dragged us out for the party, which I loved and they tolerated. My dad didn’t like the song because the message of “drifting” was hardly the stuff of the Midwest Christian ethos.

“. . . Nowhere to go but I’ll find Just where the trail will wind. . .”  expresses somewhat the way I feel about my life these days. Yesterday I told a young friend (he’s 62) who’s just taken early retirement that finding out how to live in this new situation is the hardest thing we have ever done. It is.

Empty shelves beginning to appear

Empty shelves beginning to appear

It is, not because we are getting old—let’s not get started on aches and pains—but because we are left with the choice (as another old fart friend put it) between passing the time we have left and living a life worthy of who we are.

When my parents were older than I am now, they determined to see every state and national park in California. That may seem like “passing the time,” but it was far from it. My dad was an Eagle Scout, a camper, a lover of the outdoors all his life, and being in those places of natural beauty was a delight, a spiritual experience for him. It was not “drifting along like a tumbling tumbleweed.”

If I live as long as my dad (which is highly unlikely), I have 26 birthdays left. If I live to be an age that’s logical to think about, I have perhaps 10. Let me tell you how fast those years will tumble by.

If you’re not a certain age, you can’t imagine it. Period. You must not think that by reading poetry or seeing movies or playing video games or by going on cruises or anything else you might do you can begin to figure out how the tumbling by of the years feels.

This is not depressing.

It’s beginning to be exciting. In spite of my arthritic hip. In spite of my propensity to fall. In spite of my compressed ulnar nerve. In spite of my not having a husband. Or even a companion. Or a lover.

It’s exciting because I get to decide how lightly I can hold on. How unencumbered I want to be. I have approximately 400 CDs of (mostly) classical music in boxes ready for giving away. There are many more to box. Why? It’s been two years since I put one of them into a player of some kind and listened to it. When I want to listen to music, I find it online.

I’d rather play music than listen. There’s 500 years of organ music I haven’t played yet. It’s time to get crackin’.

I don’t even want to think about books.

The problem is that we want Sam (or someone) to play it again. And again. And again. All of our lives. Memories are what make us who we are, I suppose. But at 70, I want to make sure that I “play it,” not that I “play it again.”

The Sons of the Pioneers had the ambiguity just about right, I think.

Cares of the past are behind,
Nowhere to go but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind.

I don’t think I will find where the trail will wind if I have to worry about a closet full of clothes, or a storage bin full of keepsakes, or a head full of ideas and beliefs that weigh me down or keep me from rolling along.

It feels like a fine balancing act—allowing myself to tumble and be headed in the right direction at the same time. The ambiguity of the song is in the line,

I’ll find Just where the trail will wind.

Tumble and find where the trail’s winding at the same time. There’s the trick.

See a CD you want?

See a CD you want?

“. . . deep calls to deep, a saving breath. . .” (Susan Palo Cherwin)

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

“Love” for animals is a concept many people don’t understand. I put the word in quotes because many people would say it can be used only theoretically, not as fact. I am neither offended nor challenged by anyone who would say the word belongs in quotes because it cannot be real.

In 1957 Kleenex aired a series of TV ads for paper napkins starring Manners the Butler. Kleenex was in a race with Scott to establish market leadership in paper napkins, and they produced the clever “special effects” ad with Manners the Butler as a tiny man helping a housewife set an orderly table.

My first cat, when I was in 5th grade, 1957, was mostly black with a white chest, and I called him Manners the Butler. He was a gentleman cat who knew what he liked and was intolerant of what he didn’t like. He liked me. He arrived at our house when a school friend’s cat had kittens, and my friend convinced me to take one home. In my jacket pocket so my parents wouldn’t see it until it was too late to refuse to let him stay. He lived with us (indoors/outdoors) for about five years.

Manners knew all of my secrets—including the seizures I was having that no one knew about or (parents and doctors) could figure out. He knew when I was happy and when I was sad.

Many years later I broke up with my partner and bought a condo in Salem, MA, and was living alone. Since the time of Manners, except when I was living in a college dorm and not permitted, I had always had at least one cat. When I broke up with my partner, I left three cats behind, one—my favorite—all black and named Otello (the other two were Lohengrin and Brunhilde).

I was debating whether or not to get a cat, and my therapist asked me to describe my relationship with cats over the years. He told me I had definitely used cats as “Therapy Units,” and that getting a cat would give me many TU’s. I found two black and white brothers at the pound, named them Henry and Oliver, and took them home. Both of them lived with me until 2004.

They, and all the cats (and dogs) who have lived with me have definitely been at the very least TU’s, but in reality something much more important.

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Whether or not it is possible or appropriate to use the word “love” for my feelings about my cats, I’m not going to theorize. Anyone who has felt what I have felt for cats (or dogs, or pigs, or parrots) knows exactly what I mean. Anyone who hasn’t had those feelings doesn’t know and can’t be persuaded. The epistemology of the concept is personal. Knowing or not knowing is not cause for judgment. It simply is.

When my cat Groucho died on December 20, I felt grief—not the grief I felt when my parents or brother-in-law or my lover died, but real grief. And here’s the important reality about that: one of my spiritual mentors tells me that every grief reminds us of all the griefs we have experienced before.

In his little essay, “To Go Its Way in Tears: Poems of Grief,” on the website Poets.org, the poet Edward Hirsch calls attention to our societal penchant to

. . . live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. Indeed, it seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief.

This is not an unfamiliar concept, but I like the succinctness of Hirsch’s language.

When Groucho died, I experienced a bit of self-condemnation for feeling as deeply as I did (do) about the emptiness left in my life by the loss of one long-haired basically aloof little creature who—truth be told—like all cats, one could not say returned the “love” I felt (feel) for him.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas (today is the 6th day, remember), either as the “Holly Jolly” secular materialistic orgy or as the “O Holy Night” of sentimental religiosity will probably wonder what’s wrong with me that I’m writing about grief at this time of year.

Well, duh! My little companion died.

As did Michael Brown, Rafael Ramos, Eric Garner, and Liu Wenjin.

Even though I have little (no) belief in the “Christmas Story” anymore, I think the rhythm of the church’s liturgical year offers a glimpse of reality that we might well take to heart. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, when the focus is on doing exactly what the Baby Jesus grew up to preach—feeding the hungry. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorating Herod’s murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem—a reminder of the horrors of lust for power (a reminder we are in process of ignoring at our own peril—as well as the peril of the innocents around us).

A friend once asked me what loving cats (dogs, pigs, parrots) does for me. My answer was (and is) simple. I understand my own mortality by living with and watching my pets through the cycles of their lives. And, when I pay attention, I understand that even my own death will be natural and blessed.

The hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has—amazingly—a section of “lament.” One of those hymns, by Susan Palo Cherwin, seems to me a proper understanding of Christmas. I’m not sure about the “song,” the “tears,” and the “love” of “God,” but I know, without doubt, that facing and feeling the darkness of my life is necessary to arrive at feeling “Merry” about anything.

That darkness increases as I age. So does the merriment—but transformed into reality as opposed to giddiness or frivolity.

In deepest night, in darkest days,
when harps are hung, no songs we raise,
when silence must suffice as praise,
yet sounding in us quietly
there is the song of God.

When friend was lost, when love deceived,
Dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved;
So with us in our grief God grieves,
and round about us mournfully
there are the tears of God.

When through the waters winds our path,
around us pain, around us death;
deep calls to deep, a saving breath
and found beside us faithfully
there is the love of God.

Words: Susan Palo Cherwin (b. 1963)
Music: Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962)
From Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)

If you want to hear how the understanding of the darkness “lightens” with age, you can compare my playing here with my playing the same tune a slight two years ago. I think the difference is stunning.

A Christmas Greeting from Jerusalem

(My friend Samia Khoury from Jerusalem sent her greeting by email this morning.)

palestine-apartheid-wall-23One of the well-known Christmas songs “I’ll be home for Christmas” which my generation remembers for being first recorded by Bing Crosby in the forties, was on the program of the Christmas concert we attended at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies – Brigham Young University.

As I listened to the beautiful tenor singing it, I could not help but think of all those who won’t be able to make it home for Christmas, by no choice of their own. And that is when the song becomes so meaningful when you think of the many soldiers serving on foreign land, the refugees, the prisoners, and the many young Palestinians who have been denied their right to come home or be united with their families because of absurd laws under a military occupation.
Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
So I hope all of you who are gathering with your families for Christmas, will indeed feel grateful for this blessing without having to worry about check points or denied entry.

Have a joyful Christmas and best wishes for peace and good health throughout the New Year.

Samia

"Home for Christmas" in Bethlehem.

“Home for Christmas” in Bethlehem.

Groucho, not Marx, my friend

groucho 003My boy Groucho died this morning.
He was soft, gentle, a diabetic who complained only about his shots.But afterwards I’d brush him and he’d purr.

Does one love a cat?
I think so, but that’s question for philosophers.
I love(d) Groucho.

Here’s a cat poem that makes me happy every time I read it. Mary Oliver’s cat did not look like Groucho. Her cat was a girl, Groucho was a boy. But I think our understanding of cats is similar.

Morning

Mary Oliver

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston

RIP Groucho.

“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

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I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”
BigHeartMinistries

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum.

Like as the hart. . .

Like as the hart. . .

On a clear day in June, 2008, on a highway between the Sea of Galilee and the city of Nazareth the driver of the bus carrying the small group I was with slowed and told us to look left up the hill to see a Gazella gazelle, a Palestinian Gazelle. I saw a tan streak of motion a bit darker than the dry hillside and a couple of tiny patches of white. The Palestinian Gazelle disappeared up the hill faster than I could look.

Our driver said we were lucky—hardly anyone sees Palestinian Gazelles because they are a declining and endangered species. Since that day I have been fascinated by the Palestinian gazelle.

I’m also fascinated by the romanticizing of the demographics of The Galilee. Nazareth is west of the Sea of Galilee. About 150,000 people (mostly Arabs) live there. It’s not simply the mythical place where Jesus walked. Nazareth is a metropolitan area that was ceded to Israel in 1948 even though the population was over 60% Arab—60% of those people Muslim and 40% Christian.

Across the Sea to the east is the Golan Heights, until 1967 a part of Syria. While we are horrified at ISIS taking swaths of Syria in the name of religion, we accept uncritically Israel’s 1967 annexation of the Golan Heights in the name of religion. Fascinating.

A melody that often sneaks from my unconscious to my conscious mind to sing repeatedly is the opening of the anthem by Herbert Howells, “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.” The King James “hart” is the Palestinian gazelle.

כְּאַיָּל, תַּעֲרֹג עַל-אֲפִיקֵי-מָיִם– כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים.
ὃν τρόπον ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ἔλαφος ἐπὶ τὰς πηγὰς τῶν ὑδάτων οὕτως ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου πρὸς σέ ὁ θεός
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum.
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

I used to think I remembered the words of this anthem because the uncommonly beautiful music, once learned, is impossible

Like as the hart

Like as the hart

to forget. It may be the other way ’round.

Jill A. Fisher proposes that there are

. . . four primary overlapping functions of the tattoo. First, the tattoo functions as ritual. . . the tattoo can serve . . . as a physical mark of a life event. . . interpreted as significant by the bearer . . . The tattoo also functions as identification. . . as part of a given group . . . A third function of tattooing is protective . . . a talisman to protect its bearer from general or specific harm. . . the fourth function of tattoos is decorative . . . modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body and Society 8.4 (December 2002): 91-107.)

About ten days ago I had the image of the face of a Palestinian Gazelle tattooed on my right forearm with the Latin Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum (“As a deer longs for flowing streams”) circling my arm below it.

This was not my first tattoo. I had a stylized version of the Arabic words for “peace” and “love” intertwined tattooed on that arm about five months ago.

Since I last wrote about this phenomenon of late-in-life tattooing, I have been thinking about and (frankly, having difficulty) explaining to myself why I’ve had them done. I don’t much care (my sister says we are of a generation that makes one of two assumptions about men with tattoos, neither of which apply to me; she has not told me what those assumptions are) what anyone else thinks of them, but I would like a bit of self-understanding around this permanent modification of my body, especially in such obvious places. Why not on my upper arms or some other place on my body that I can easily cover?

As I have written about before, I had my first tattoo about six months ago—on my left arm, a rather startling image taken from a 15th-century Gregorian chant manuscript, the incipit of the funeral hymn, Dies irae (“Day of wrath, O day of mourning”).

The only other tattoo I plan to have is already prepared for by the illuminated “H” on my left shoulder. It will be the beginning of another Gregorian Chant, Haec díes quam fécit Dóminus (“This is the day the Lord has made”). I decided on the Haec díes because I wanted a chant that begins with “H” and has lots of complicated notation for Joe, the artist at Tigger’s on Main Street in Dallas, to copy. It will stretch from my shoulder half-way around my back.

Ritual. Identification. Protection. Decoration.

I’m fascinated by my own motives. My first tattooing was one week after my final semester on the faculty of SMU ended. The “H” came at the time I made a decision about how I want to spend the first period of my retirement. The Arabic “peace and love” came during the Israeli devastation of Gaza. And the gazelle came at a moment of change and redefinition of my life.
My first awareness of—and secret desire for—tattoos was in 4th grade when the older brother of one of my friends came home on leave from the Navy. I wanted a tattoo like the anchor he had on his arm. My getting tattoos is arrested development?

Perhaps.

. . . that day Will dissolve the world in ashes . . .

. . . that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes . . .

Or perhaps my mind is finding rest somehow that I can’t predict, control, or understand. And these tattoos are either a part of that process or keeping track of it.

An indelible reminder that the end is coming. An acknowledgement that I long for—for what?—I do not know. A declaration that this is the day. An abiding desire for peace and love. In ancient languages. In images of ancient languages?

I did not have a grand plan for these tattoos. I’ve taken each without much thought about how it fit with the previous ones. But “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks . . .” Palestine is desert-like. It’s easy to understand why a Palestinian Gazelle desireth the waterbrooks. Does the gazelle know why, or understand the nature of the water?

Dies irae
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How much tremor there will be,
when the Judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

Haec díes
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.

Peace and love.

It has my back.
Haec Dies banner

“O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—“ (Langston Hughes)

140818-michael-brown-graduation-jms-2128_e9443531d58b213656488e4ce6d17a4fMy anguish, my horror, my sense of complicity—these things keep me from writing. I don’t want to sound like the old (white) schoolmarm, or the bleeding heart (white) liberal, or the judgmental (white) bitch, or. . .

But I want you (my white friends and followers of my blog) to read the indictment below.

Please give the few minutes out of your (white) privileged day you will need to read this statement of truths you and I, the white dominators, need to hear.

We—you and I—can’t say it’s not our fault, that it was begun by our (white) ancestors and we are not to blame—we are to blame. My guess is not one African-American man is reading this. If you are, I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know the right thing, the helpful thing, or the self-aware thing that can possibly begin to right a centuries-old wrong.

So I will try my damnedest to hear Joshua DuBois. If his words are too hard, perhaps I can at least try to hear the lovely poetry of Langston Hughes I’ve copied at the end of Joshua DuBois’s writing.

I want you (my white friends and followers of my blog) to read the truths below.

[Note: Copyright of Newsweek Global: the property of Newsweek LLC and its content may not be copied . . . (I am breaking copyright laws. So be it. I’m willing to take the risk if you will read this)]


Joshua DuBois, “The Fight for Black Men”
dubois_joshua_color

There are more African-Americans on probation, parole, or in prison today than were slaves in 1850. It is not a crisis of crime. It is a crisis of people being left behind.

There is an easy way to meet Joe Jones, and a hard way. Let’s start with the easy way. If you and I were at a cocktail party, I’d introduce you to a tall, bald, black man, standing a shoulder above most everybody else. Knowing Joe Jones, he’d probably be wearing a tan suit and muted tie. Joe’s subdued, square-rimmed glasses fit nicely with his veiled intellect–he’s the kind of guy who readily drops six-dollar words without a hint of pretense.

I’d probably ask Joe to tell you about the nonprofit he runs, the Center for Urban Families on Baltimore’s West Side. CFUF is a national model for helping men and women who are confronting addiction, poverty, and despair turn their lives around, and teaching absent fathers how to reconnect with their kids. Joe’s a modest guy, so I’d have to brag on his behalf, about the bigwigs who have dropped by his center, and all the awards the organization has won.

Finally, I’d say in passing: “You know, Joe has a powerful personal story himself. His own father wasn’t around, he struggled in the streets for a while, and then pulled himself up, and made it out.” Nice and neat. Joe would nod and smile. You’d nod and smile. I’d nod and smile. We’d all be smiling–appropriately inspired.

That’s the easy way to meet Joe Jones. But there’s also the hard way. The hard way is to grapple with the fact that Joe’s family didn’t just emerge from some unseen ghetto thousands of miles away. No, his grandfather migrated to Baltimore from North Carolina, and started a business–a waste-management facility, one of the city’s more successful ones. His grandparents were “models of stability,” Joe told me. A few generations before that, Joe’s family were slaves.

It’s hard to figure out what happened to Joe’s dad, and thousands of other black fathers like him. Joe’s dad was training to be a teacher, but one day in the mid-’60s he hopped into the driver side of a Ford Thunderbird, visibly angry, slung his duffel bag on the passenger side, and drove off for good. Joe saw the whole thing from his upstairs window in the Lafayette Court housing projects; he thought his dad was going to the laundromat, and sat waiting for him, for hours.

It’s tough to stomach what happened later. How Joe, an adorable kid of 13–never a smoker, never a drinker–met a guy a couple years older than him. And this person put it into Joe’s young head that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to stick a needle in his arm, and let a bit of heroin rush in. So, as a 13-year-old, he did. Joe’s two cousins shared the needle with him–their dad wasn’t around either–and his best friend, Barry, also fatherless, did too.

So now Joe’s an adolescent junkie, hanging out on Edmonson Avenue in West Baltimore and shooting up wherever he can find a shadow long enough to hide himself: sometimes in a bowling alley bathroom, sometimes in his aunt’s basement. He was 14 when he was busted for the first time for using drugs, along with his two cousins and Barry. The other boys’ parents bailed them out, thank God, but the police suggested that Joe, the ringleader, should stew for a little while to learn his lesson–you know, “tough on crime.”

Turns out, this wasn’t the best move for Joe. During his few extra days in jail, in the throes of heroin withdrawal that his young system wasn’t handling well, Joe met a local kingpin who taught him how to be a more efficient junkie, and a more effective criminal. Or as Joe puts it now (in his always-impeccable phrasing): “This man created a pathway for me to negotiate the street environment in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me.”

So in the span of a few years, Joe went from a stable household to a single-parent family. From a middle-school honor student to a street-corner addict. From the grandson of a businessman and great-great-great-grandson of slaves to the son of an absent father, and a future deadbeat dad himself. It was a jumble of inputs–bad parenting and bad policy, misguided culture and tragic history–resulting in one clear output: a woefully lost kid.

There is a lot more to Joe Jones’s story–more pain than most can bear; more beauty than you’d expect. We’ll get to all of that, including his fateful encounter with the president of the United States.

But first, a few words about the world Joe comes from: the world of low-income black men. Why talk about this world? After all, it’s simple enough to ignore. We can safely tuck these men away in our inner cities and allow them to interact largely among themselves. We can rush past them in front of the gas station, murmur silently when the nightly news tells us of a shooting across town, or smile when we meet a nice, inspiring man like Joe. We can keep them in these places. It’s safe and easy for us.

Yet if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that when one single group of people is conspicuously left behind, it never bodes well for society as a whole. In many ways, black men in America are a walking gut check; we learn from them a lot about ourselves, how far we’ve really come as a country, and how much further we have to go.

I spent the past few months talking to dozens of experts who are working to address the crisis among black men. It was clear from these conversations that the reasons for this crisis are complex–as are the solutions. But it was also clear that the fight for black men, which is currently being waged by activists, politicians, celebrities, and everyday people alike, can indeed be won.

As with Joe Jones, it starts by understanding their history, and their stories.

THE EARLIEST chapter in that story is a tough one. I’d rather skip it. You’d rather that I skip it. But as Ralph Ellison once remarked, channeling Faulkner, our complicated racial past is “a part of the living present”; it’s a past that “speaks even when no one wills to listen.”

-The facts are a bit overwhelming, but not in much dispute. Africans were imported to the United States as purchased goods beginning around 1620. By 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a free black man, spilled the first drop of blood in the cause of the American Revolution, nearly 18 percent of the American population–almost 700,000 people–were slaves. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, that number had exploded to over 4 million.

Beneath these sterile facts lay a grisly reality. Blacks were systemically dehumanized for hundreds of years, a practice that had unique social and psychological effects on men. They were worked and whipped in fields like cattle. Any semblance of pride, any cry for justice, any measure of genuine manhood was tortured, beaten, or sold out of them. Marriage was strictly prohibited. Most were forbidden from learning to read and write. The wealth derived from their labor–the massive wealth derived from cotton, our chief export throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries–was channeled elsewhere.

But, because slavery ended 150 years ago, we often assume that this dehumanization is ancient history. It is not. As Douglas Blackmon of The Wall Street Journal meticulously documents in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Slavery by Another Name, blacks were kept in virtual bondage through Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and, quite often, a form of quasi-slavery called peonage, which endured well into the middle of the 20th century.

Here’s how it worked: black men (it was usually men) were arrested for petty crimes or no crimes at all; “selling cotton after sunset” was a favorite charge. They were then assessed a steep fine. If they could not pay, they were imprisoned for long sentences and forced to work for free. This allowed savvy industrialists to replace thousands of slaves with thousands of convicts.

While some whites were caught up in this system, the forced labor camps were 80 to 90 percent populated by black men. This practice endured until 1948, when the federal criminal code was rewritten to helpfully clarify that the law forbade involuntary servitude.

Around that time, determined activists–from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer–organized to demand equal treatment. We know the civil rights story well: Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed various forms of discrimination; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which carved a clear path to the unfettered right to vote.

And that, we told black men, was that. Immediately following the civil rights movement, in the early 1970s, we assured these men, with fingers perhaps gently crossed behind our backs, that all the discrimination they had faced was behind them; that there would be no further barriers to opportunity, even unspoken ones; that it was time for them to wake up. Get a job. Get married, and start a family. Build wealth. Take hold of the American dream. We won’t stop you–we promise.

We focused our social investments in this period–our brief War on Poverty–on women and children, because men were supposed to figure it out. But in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these black men didn’t. Just like their great-grandfathers never fully figured out how to teach their sons about manhood while being lashed in a field. Just like their grandfathers never completely figured out how to pass on lessons about building wealth when theirs was stolen through peonage and sharecropping.

Their fathers tried to rally around Martin Luther King as a symbol of what they could be–but he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the post–civil rights era, many of these black men, men like Joe Jones’s father, weren’t quite figuring it out either. And neither are many of their sons and grandsons, those bright if often scowling men we see on our streets.

Why not? The reasons are as complicated as the difficult history, and simple debates about government spending versus personal responsibility are woefully insufficient.

But one of the key reasons has to do with our criminal justice system. And it points the way toward one of the key solutions–perhaps the single most important thing government can do to help win the fight for black men.

No one has done more to shed light on this issue than Michelle Alexander. Alexander may be this century’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, the storied author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin about whom President Lincoln remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?” But instead of making a war, Alexander wrote a book to end one.

Alexander was a young civil rights attorney working for the ACLU of California and trying to find a model plaintiff for a civil rights case against the Oakland Police Department, which at the time was rife with corruption. One day, a 19-year-old black man walked into her office, and he looked like the perfect case to prove that the Oakland PD had gone bad.

The man had been stopped and released dozens of times, for no reason at all. He had been forced to lie on the ground spread-eagle and been subjected to invasive searches, after which the police found nothing. And, important, he had taken meticulous notes of all this–every stop, every date, every badge number. “I was getting more and more excited,” Alexander told me, “because I thought this was our plaintiff.”

However, at the end of his presentation, the man shared one final fact: he had a felony record, having been busted for a drug offense years earlier and convicted as an adult. Alexander stopped him there. “I explained to him that I couldn’t take his case,” she told me. “It wouldn’t be fair to him or to us. With his felony record he’d have no credibility on the witness stand; he’d be cross-examined about his past.”

Alexander tried to explain to the young man that it wouldn’t work out, but he pushed back in protest. He said that the conviction was for a minor offense, and that he’d just taken a plea deal to avoid more jail time. He said his past should have no bearing on the repeated abuse he had experienced.

But Alexander didn’t budge, and eventually the young man had enough. Fighting back tears, he yelled at her, “You’re no better than anyone else! The minute I tell you I have a criminal record, you stop listening. I can’t get a job. I can’t feed my family. Where am I supposed to sleep? How long am I supposed to pay for my record?”

The man stormed out in a huff, leaving Alexander stunned. At that point, something clicked with her, something that pulled together all of her prior experience in civil rights law and history. Alexander realized that, not unlike the peonage system in the early 20th century, the “war on drugs” had created what she calls a “permanent under-caste” of men convicted of drug offenses. Men who, even after their release from incarceration for relatively minor crimes, would never again be able to navigate the world on equal footing with the rest of us. Men like the young man she met but could not serve.

eric-garner-police-brutality-ramsey-ortaThe full explanation of this permanent under-caste of black men and the devastation it has wrought is meticulously and powerfully delivered in The New Jim Crow–Alexander’s book about the war on drugs, which was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year and today can be found in the hands of decision makers across the country, from federal courtrooms to the halls of Congress. In the book, she describes the ramp-up of criminal-justice spending in the 1980s as the result of an intentional political strategy rather than a reasoned law enforcement response. The result has been the mass incarceration of African-Americans, mostly men, with little connection to actual rates of crime.

Alexander shows that there are more African-Americans in the corrections system today–in prison or on probation or parole–than there were enslaved in 1850. As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote because of a criminal record than in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, giving blacks the right to vote. In the three decades since the war on drugs began, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, giving our country the highest incarceration rate in the world–higher than Russia, China, and other regimes we consider repressive. A significant majority of black men in some urban areas are labeled felons for life; in and around Chicago, when you include prisoners, that number approaches 80 percent.

But isn’t this just a function of more crime in black communities? Aren’t we arresting violent super-predators, the type we see on television? Alexander makes clear: in most communities, the answer is no.

“It has nothing to do with crime rates,” she told me. “Crime rates have fluctuated over time–we’re currently at historic lows–but incarceration rates have consistently soared.” People of color are arrested in large numbers for relatively minor offenses–four out of five drug arrests in 2005 were for possession, not sales–and then given sentences that outpace their white counterparts. In fact, in the 1990s, when the war on drugs was at its peak, almost 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for possession of marijuana.

The result of all of this is the “under-caste,” an apt if cringe-worthy term describing the massive numbers of black men who cannot access housing, who are screened out of employment, and who in many states are denied the right to vote. Facing severely limited options and few opportunities for rehabilitation, millions of these men re-offend, creating more victims in our communities and landing themselves back in jail.

These men are increasingly isolated from the rest of America–including from middle-class African-Americans. As the Rev. Al Sharpton, the nationally known civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, told me in an interview, “We’re in the best of times and worst of times, at the same time.” “It’s the best-time times,” Sharpton continued, “because we have a black president, black attorney general, black CEOs. But it’s the worst of times because millions of African-American men are being locked up and left out like never before.”

Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, agrees. In an interview, Jealous declared to me that “black men are the most incarcerated people on the planet warehoused in prison for nonviolent crimes that two decades ago would have resulted in little to no jail time.”

But Jealous is also hopeful. The NAACP is going state by state, attaching practical solutions to Alexander’s thesis. And because of strained prison budgets and concern about bloated government, they are finding receptive audiences not just among liberals but among conservatives too. For example, they are presently working with Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Tea Party Republican, to, in Jealous’s words, “make their prison system dramatically smaller.” “Our allies on the right are beginning to think about criminal-justice reform,” Jealous says. “They are finally getting beyond ‘tough on crime’ slogans, and actually focusing on what works.”

In fact, bipartisan efforts on criminal-justice reform are growing. On the Democratic side, Attorney General Eric Holder has confronted the issue head on, spearheading an initiative to tackle youth violence and create new reentry programs for returning offenders, while working with Congress to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. He’s been joined on the right by Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who has taken a particular interest in “smart on crime” approaches, driven by his relationship with Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization that believes in giving second chances to people who’ve been incarcerated.

Meanwhile, from the halls of Congress to statehouses across the country, people are reading Michelle Alexander’s book. On a recent afternoon, I drove to the office of U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, sitting for an hour with this stalwart of the Congressional Black Caucus whose experience on the issue of black men in America spans from a stint in the Black Panther party to Christian pulpits to losing his own son to gun violence. Rush recently had a spat with a fellow Illinoisan, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who made headlines recommending that Chicago spend $30 million more to lock up young gang members. “I sent him a copy of The New Jim Crow,” Rush told me. “He promised me that he would read it.”

IF MICHELLE Alexander is worried about black men’s criminal records, John Hope Bryant is concerned with their wallets. “I believe that 99 percent of black leaders are digging in the wrong hole,” Bryant told me. “If you’re poor, your health care’s going to suck, your housing is going to suck, your infrastructure is going to suck if you’re poor, everything sucks.”

Bryant speaks like Martin Luther King on an auctioneer’s stand–a frenetic ball of energy and ideas, seamlessly mixing civil rights maxims with financial advice at 100 miles an hour. He started his first business in Compton, California, at the age of 10, when the corner store in his neighborhood stopped selling the type of candy kids wanted. He opened up his own store in his mother’s living room, and in three months was so successful that, in his words, “I put the corner store out of business.”

Since then, Bryant has been convinced that the way out for black men is through a burgeoning bank account, not a social service program. “The whole world pivots on economic issues. If you don’t solve that, you can’t solve anything else,” Bryant says. “But if you do solve that, you have a chance at solving everything else.”

Bryant has put his money–and substantial energy–where his mouth is. He runs the largest network of financial literacy centers in the country–HOPE Financial Dignity Centers–which help low-income Americans access credit for small businesses, manage their budgets, open bank accounts, and purchase homes.

Like Michelle Alexander and others, Bryant is concerned with the mass incarceration of young black men but from a slightly different angle. “There’s a very good chance that we’re actually locking up the only potential we’ve got to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods in America,” Bryant told me. “Drug dealers, gang organizers–they’re all natural entrepreneurs. They get up early, they work late, they hustle–but they have misplaced values and terrible role models.”

Bryant created the HOPE Business in a Box program to help troubled youth start, fund, and operate small businesses. He also thinks that black businessmen should help young black boys ditch the “rappers and ball players” that they currently hold up as role models, and look in a different direction for examples of success. “These young men are the best chance we have to create jobs and GDP in our neighborhoods,” Bryant says, “if we can just get them back on the right track.”

BRYANT’S EFFORT is just one of a growing number of innovative private and public programs that are making real inroads on this issue. Many of these initiatives are taking place under the umbrella of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which has created a Campaign for Black Male Achievement and a Leadership and Sustainability Institute to knit together previously disparate programs for black men and boys, and help the field outlast funding from any one source. The effort is led by Shawn Dove, a burly man who speaks with a thick New York accent that has hints of all five boroughs at once. In fact, he’s lived in all of them, but he cut his teeth mostly at 80th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

It was on that corner that Dove sold loose joints as a teenager, teetering between a strict Jamaican household, where his single mother ruled with an iron fist, and the warm glow of New York evenings and the allure that hustling brings.

One day some friends invited Shawn to a basketball game on the Upper West Side, and he met a guy named John Simon, who ran a youth program called DOME (Developing Opportunities for Meaningful Education). Simon told Shawn that he had the potential for greatness if he would only focus. “I took him up on his offer,” Shawn told me.

From there it was a fast track to Wesleyan University, a stint in the garment industry, and a career as a shining star among nonprofit executives in New York. But several years ago, Shawn received a call that would change his life.

It was from the Open Society Institute–now Open Society Foundations. They were looking for someone to start a project on low-income black men, and wondered if Shawn would be interested in the job. Shawn said yes, and six years later he has helped create an entire field of “black male achievement,” an ecosystem of organizations, programs, and leaders with one straightforward if daunting goal: give low-income African-American men and boys an opportunity to succeed, a pathway to the American dream.

Under this umbrella is a Black Male Achievement Fellows Program, which supports social entrepreneurs in urban communities, in partnership with the Echoing Green Foundation. Then there is “BMe,” a collection of thousands of video testimonials that allow black men to tell their story in their own voices. Dove’s institute has also partnered with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York on the Young Men’s Initiative, a citywide effort to redirect black and Latino boys bound for prison to another path. Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor of health and human services of New York, told me that the Young Men’s Initiative is about building a “continuum of services,” including job training, mentoring, and male-friendly health care to give troubled young men the best chance to succeed. In less than two years of running the program, Gibbs says they’ve seen a “dramatic reduction in the number of young men who are serving time,” as well as a reduction in re-arrests. (The program has sparked a similar effort in other cities called Cities United–in which Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Casey Family Programs, and the National League of Cities are leading participants.)

Dove has also convened other major funders–including William Bell of Casey and Robert Ross at the California Endowment–into a new Black Male Achievement Funders coalition, each with a different approach to a previously intractable problem. Ross, the California Endowment’s president and a pediatrician from the South Bronx who took a three-month sabbatical to study the issue of young black men in America, focuses on behavioral health and education. The California Endowment is funding programs to close the achievement gap in third-grade reading scores and develop alternative approaches to suspension when dealing with troubled boys. “Overly harsh discipline and suspension marginalizes, stigmatizes, and criminalizes these boys,” Ross told me. “When an African-American male in eighth grade has defiant behavior in the classroom, it’s like seeing a burn on their body; we need to treat their behavior as evidence of a problem to be solved rather than a kid to lock up.”

There’s powerful work happening outside of Dove’s network as well. For example, Michael Curtin, CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, believes the food industry can help to empower black men and women. Since 1989, the kitchen has served over 25 million meals to low-income people in the D.C. area–but don’t call it a food bank. Instead, Curtin, a former restaurateur, runs a rigorous culinary job-training program, using the process of meal preparation to help formerly homeless, addicted, and incarcerated men and women learn culinary skills and then find employment in the hospitality industry.

I visited D.C. Central Kitchen recently and saw lines of men and women who were previously on the streets chopping vegetables, barking orders, and managing a full-scale industrial operation. Curtin told me at the time, “When I look back on my personal experience, I recognized that I was incredibly fortunate–I had a phenomenal family, I grew up in safe communities, and went to good schools. I made reckless decisions, but always had someone there to put me back on track. Many of the men and women who come to us grew up in very different circumstances–when they messed up, they didn’t have someone to help get them back on track. What we’re trying to do at D.C. Central Kitchen is provide people with that opportunity.”
THE FIGHT for black men is being waged through policy and programs, as the work of Shawn Dove and Michelle Alexander shows. But there’s also a concurrent fight going on for their culture and soul–and in that battle, Ta-Nehisi Coates is at the forefront.

Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a reluctant spokesman. He has shut down his Twitter account more than once. After penning several landmark columns for The New York Times, he declined the Times’s offer of a permanent weekly slot. And he does not write solely, or even primarily, about race. His recent topics of interest range from the conflict in Syria to Kurt Vonnegut. He speaks fluent French, and analyzes the hit show Mad Men with gusto.

But try as he might, Coates cannot escape the mantle of leading cultural envoy. He writes in a way that’s inherently viral, moving fast from black hands to white and then around the world. What Henry Louis Gates says about race painstakingly, like an intricate symphony, and Cornel West declares elliptically, like a Pentecostal preacher or alto saxophonist, Coates offers straight up, with just a splash of hip-hop as a chaser.

Consider his New York Times essay “The Good, Racist People,” which summed up in nine paragraphs what black men have been trying to get off their chests for the last 30 years. Through personal stories, he cast racism in America as “invisible violence,” perpetrated by well-meaning folks all around. Or his landmark piece for The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President,” about what he calls the “false promise and double standard of integration” in the era of President Obama.

Coates is at the fulcrum of a resurgent cultural conversation about black men, one that is advancing in a number of sectors. There is the painter Kehinde Wiley, who mixes classical techniques with contemporary subjects to create stunning portraits of blacks in America. There are rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar, who are using their lyrics to put new spins on old truths. In sports, Miami Heat great Dwyane Wade has teamed up with a cast of unlikely characters–including Grammy Award–winning artist Lecrae and conservative funder Foster Friess–to launch the “This Is Fatherhood” challenge, which encourages young people around the country, and particularly black men, to tell stories of what fatherhood means to them. In film, the talent agent Tamara Houston has launched a new organization, ICON MANN, to create a space for Hollywood’s leading black male actors to learn from one another and project their values to the world.

But Coates is in many ways this movement’s biographer. In an interview, he told me that the goal of his writing is not to “fix” race relations in America. “I have folks who write me and want me to help out with their racist uncle; I don’t want any part of that,” he said with light-hearted sarcasm. But when pushed, he admitted that he does see himself as “an agent in pursuit of the truth of this country, of which I’m a citizen, in which I was raised, which I love.” “I want to understand it,” he continued. “I want to explore it, and make that exploration as honest as I can.”

I asked Coates about the best way to help black men who are struggling, and he didn’t point to a particular program. Instead, he said, “If there’s one thing that’s missing in our country, it’s an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of black folks. Racism–and anti-black racism in particular–is the belief that there’s something wrong with black people and I mean something in our bones.” He continued, “In our own community, we’ve internalized this. We wonder if we lack moral courage.”
“I want the country to understand that there’s nothing wrong with us,” Coates says, with urgency in his voice. “Things have happened in this country, but there’s nothing wrong with us. My job is to help close the gap between what they see in us and who we actually are.”

“WHO WE actually are.” It took Joe Jones about two decades to figure that out. That’s how long he was strung out–after his dad pulled off in the Thunderbird, his mom went away to work, and he made a series of bad decisions on Edmonson Avenue; after jail made him more of a criminal and a junkie, not less. By 1986, Joe was spending $800 to $900 a day on a mixture of heroin and crack.

There were some bright moments–the birth of his son, a job at the Social Security Administration. But in one way or another, they all were deflated, pricked by the same needle that he regularly thrust into his arm.

Finally, facing a five-year prison sentence for drug possession, Joe argued and cajoled his way into an in-patient treatment program instead. He told me: “There was a six-month wait for the program, but I knew I needed to get in now. The only way you could get in was if you were crazy, so I acted as crazy as I could.”

It worked. And from the moment he got serious treatment, things kept working for Joe. I asked him how it all came together, and he told me it was pretty simple: people listened to him, got to know him, and they liked him.

There was the staff at the treatment center who grew to know Joe Jones as not just an addict but a man, “counselors and therapists who could help me understand why I did the things that I did.”

There was the dean at Baltimore City Community College, who admitted Joe despite his criminal record. He and Joe became so close that Joe ended up counseling the dean when the dean’s son was struggling with his own drug addiction. Joe graduated from the college with an accounting degree, at the top of his class. There was also the young woman Joe met in the financial aid office at this community college–she liked him so much that she later became his wife.

This phenomenon of knowing, and liking, was repeated over and over in my interviews with experts on troubled youth. As Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone–our country’s go-to model for turning around tough neighborhoods–told me, “First you have to know them, and then you have to like them, enough to respect what they’re going through but not accept responses that may be inappropriate.”

Canada continued, “You really do have to like them. Boys, when they’re threatened and angry, they act out in ways that make them difficult to deal with. They can become threatening, sullen, disrespectful. They learn to be frightening as a defense mechanism in the environments they have to navigate.”

“When you don’t like them,” he said, “those are reasons to get rid of them–to put them out of programs, put them out of schools, to call the police to deal with them, lock them up. But when they’re kids that you actually know, and actually like, they will listen to you, and you will listen to them. And that’s where change starts.”

A few people got to know Joe Jones, and then like him. And his life changed. Joe entered a series of nonprofit jobs, from HIV counseling to health care, and eventually began working for the Baltimore Health Department. He persuaded the city of Baltimore to start a fatherhood program, along with programs on maternal and child health. These efforts were so successful that the mayor of Baltimore at the time, Kurt Schmoke, helped Joe spin them off into a larger, independent organization, which became the Center for Urban Families, the organization that Joe runs today.

At CFUF, Joe uses evidenced-based models to help the same types of men and women he grew up around. Funded in part by Shawn Dove’s campaign, Joe’s center has a successful job-training program, including partnerships with major Baltimore employers. They have a fatherhood program, along with programs on maternal and child health. These efforts were so successful that the mayor of Baltimore at the time, Kurt Schmoke, helped Joe spin them off into a larger, independent organization, which became the Center for Urban Families, the organization that Joe runs today.

At CFUF, Joe uses evidenced-based models to help the same types of men and women he grew up around. Funded in part by Shawn Dove’s campaign, Joe’s center has a successful job-training program, including partnerships with major Baltimore employers. They have a fatherhood program that gives dads practical skills to reconnect with their kids and pay back child support. Joe also wrote state legislation called “Couples Advancing Together”; it’s based on a simple but powerful idea that low-income men and women who are romantically involved should develop life plans and financial goals together. Social programs focusing on job training and financial literacy have traditionally served these couples separately, instead of acknowledging that their goals and life plans are inherently intertwined. Joe’s couples-services concept has the potential to dramatically change how these programs work; it passed the Maryland legislature in April and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley in May.
And a few weeks ago, something special happened. The man who perhaps most radically symbolizes both the hope of black men in America and the challenges from which they spring stopped by to see Joe Jones. President Obama, himself a product of a single-parent household, visited the Center for Urban Families to say hello to Joe and the men he serves. Obama met with employers, people being trained for jobs, and dads getting back on track. His remarks were private, candid, and–based on accounts from those in attendance–had quite an impact on a bunch of guys from West Baltimore who were struggling to make it by.

Later that same weekend, Obama traveled to Morehouse College in Atlanta to deliver a speech to the black male graduates there. He was to talk about fatherhood and responsibility, and what African-American men must do to compete in the world. But in one brief, unscripted moment at Morehouse, the two dichotomized worlds of black men–Joe’s new one and his old one; the soaring heights of the presidency and the depths of the streets–briefly and powerfully collided.

I had been a small part of the planning process for the speech. Obama’s relationship with his father–years of absence and brief flickers of presence–is one of the defining aspects of his life. While I grew up with a strong and supportive stepfather, my own biological father had a beautiful, tragic, and deeply complicated story–a black man who received a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and ended his life in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Out of this common set of experiences, I worked for years with the president on his fatherhood initiative, an effort to help absent fathers around the country get back on the right track.

I had the text in front of me as Obama was delivering the speech. So it came as a surprise when, as the president neared his close, something pulled him away from the prepared remarks. He was supposed to be moving to a final story about one of the graduates, but instead started talking about men who had been left behind. I have to imagine he was picturing men like those he saw at the Center for Urban Families, men like those he had known his whole life. Men like Joe.

“Whatever success I have achieved,” the president said, “whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy–the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had.”
He continued, “Because there but for the grace of God go I. I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison”–a jarring thing to hear from the president of the United States. “I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”

Obama’s voice faded off into a trail of emotion and applause, and he returned to the text. But the point was made.
We have walked a winding road with black men in this country, with no small amount of pain and tears along the way. But all Americans have walked that road together. Our connection to each other is, as James Baldwin once said of the relationship between blacks and whites, “far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think.” And it’s that connection, that empathy, that “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality, that must motivate our society’s efforts on behalf of low-income black men. Because our history, our present circumstance, and our humanity demand it. Because there are boys walking the streets of this country with the brightest of futures–the next Shawn Dove, the next Joe Jones, the next Barack Obama–if only they were given a shot.

JOSHUA DUBOIS was President Obama’s first director of the White House faith-based initiative, and is now an author, teacher, speaker, and CEO of Values Partnerships.

“Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

[I should not put this picture here because we will all be so shocked we will say it’s too much, it’s too real, it can’t happen anymore. Ask Eric Garner’s widow about that.]
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