In 1909, Harvard-trained historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois described his experience as a schoolboy in New England. Due to a slight in his classroom, the young Du Bois began to recognize racial difference. In the end, he wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
In an era followed by a civil rights movement intended to eradicate the sense of social inferiority, many black youth have given up on securing dignity or respect through academic and professional accomplishment, and others continue to feel the ambivalence first described by Du Bois.
According to Vershawn Ashanti Young, associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky, the media images of black males create gendered and racialized binaries that have led him and others to acquire what he calls an “enforced schizophrenia.”
Fast Forward 105 Years
My work among black males confirms Young’s argument: Those young men feel these differences are irreconcilable, and this assessment can create a psychological trauma, which leads to the denial of their emotional life, as well as mental and social isolation. The message heard in the mainstream media is one of deficiency. I, however, believe that’s far from the case.
African-American youth are forced to navigate through a dominant culture that isn’t set up for them, and when you feel pushed out or marginalized as a human being, your survival instinct comes into play. Black males are trying to do their best in a culturally challenging situation, but my goal as a community health provider is to help them live.
If you doubt the veracity of what I deal with on a daily basis as a community health provider, I challenge you to conduct a short thought experiment.
Imagine a young black male in the inner city; one similar to the character evoked in Bill Cosby’s infamous pound-cake speech. When you imagine this young black male, what do you see? Do you see him in the way he is truly thought of? Or do you see him in a way that you feel he should be perceived?
If you’re imagining him as he is truly thought of, then it would be safe to assume that you imagine him as an athlete, gang member, or rapper, or he could be a combination of all three things. You know — dark, muscular, and physically imposing. A young victim of street fashion wearing the latest fads. We can assume that most people imagine him living in a low-income, single-parent household with his mother and a father who is either incarcerated or just not involved. Most may also assume that he’s undereducated.
Whether or not the images of black men circulating in the popular imagination are true, these images reflect dominant perceptions on black men in the United States even when these men are participating in activities that lead to social mobility to change their own life narrative.
Stated differently, most young black males’ identities have been given to them prior to birth and before they’ve been involved in any negative or positive activities. The pressure of dealing with the need to both resist and conform to dominant images of black manhood can have a devastating effect on the emotional well-being for black men, who will often act out these images due to communal and societal expectations.
Set Up to Fail
I believe this crisis we have with young black men should alarm everyone: They are being born into a society where they are set up to fail. That’s not just a black community problem; it’s a societal problem.
According to “The Secret Epidemic: Exploring the Mental Health Crisis Affecting Adolescent African-American Males,” Claire Xanthos, PhD, a health services research specialist and author of the paper reported that studies show the following:
- African-American males ages 15–19 die from homicide at 46 times the rate of their white counterparts.
- During 1980–1995, the suicide rate for adolescents African-American males ages 15–19 years increased from 5.6 to 13.8 per 100,000 of the population. While adolescent African-American males historically have had lower suicide rates than adolescent European-American males, suicide is now becoming equally or more prevalent among African Americans.
- African-American male achievement begins to decline as early as the fourth grade. In 2001, only 42.8 percent of African-American males graduated from high school, compared to 70.8 percent for their white counterparts.
- Adolescent African-American males are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder than white males.
A New Framework
Confronted with the overwhelming evidence of how norms around black masculinity impacted the well-being of African-American males, a local psychologist/therapist, community members, and I began to develop a new framework for dealing with community mental health. I refined this framework in graduate school in hopes of developing a team to create a dynamic context for promoting community health among African-Americans in the Rainier Valley in Seattle, Washington.
I felt this framework was necessary, because having grown up in Los Angeles and its gang violence, drugs, alcohol, and fatherlessness, I struggled with what black manhood meant ― and society didn’t give me a positive image of what it meant either.
In early 2014, Jerry Evergreen, clinical director of Mirror Counseling Services, and I plan to lead an effort to create a community mental health organization called Matumaini Counseling. We plan to create a safe space in the community where folks can talk in confidence and explore some of the struggles and traumas they have experienced.
At Matumaini Counseling, we will provide in-depth, “wraparound” mental health counseling with clients and those who care about them. Wraparound services coordinate treatment planning with community organizations, schools, social services agencies, and criminal justice agencies.
We’ll also provide a range of counseling modalities, such as art therapy (e.g., drawing, painting, hip hop music), recreational therapy, individual and group therapy, and family therapy. We will also provide workshops and summer camps on athletics, community building, and alternatives to youth gang violence.
With this approach, we are redefining community mental health. We are going to gear our work around the community needs.
Traditionally, community mental health organizations plant themselves in a community to focus on one-on-one counseling relationships with individuals or families. Often, the clinicians aren’t connected to the community. That won’t be the case for Matumaini Counseling.
I’ve had success with this approach at Einstein Middle School in Shoreline, Washington, while running a seventh- and eighth-grade boys life-skills class that included behavior modification, anger management, leadership, self-awareness, and communication. At the prestigious Bush School in Seattle, Washington, Director of Diversity Eddie Moore and I ran a coed life-skills and a basketball camp for a diverse group of young people. The camp combined athletics, student-development theory, and pop-culture symbolism to teach students the values, ethics, and principles associated with becoming a responsible and productive young adult.
As a psychotherapist interested in the mental and spiritual well-being of young black men, I take seriously the idea that negative representations circulate through mass media and within popular culture. Together, they map a mythological and stereotyped identity onto black men.
But by developing a holistic and rigorous approach to clinical counseling, my hope is that Matumaini Counseling will give other stakeholders a more effective framework to utilize and separate fact from fiction in their work with young black men.
James Preston Norris is executive director of Matumaini Counseling. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, he has a passion to give back to his community by using his experience, training, and skills to provide mental health services to male youth in Seattle’s inner city. During the past seven years, he has worked for the King County Jail, and completed a graduate program in clinical psychology at Seattle University.