The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America

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9780743428170: The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America

With a compassionate eloquence reminiscent of James Baldwin's Letter to My Nephew, Ellis Cose presents a realistic examination of the challenges facing black men in modern America.
Black men have never had more opportunity for success than today -- yet, as bestselling author Cose puts it, "We are watching the largest group of black males in history stumbling through life with a ball and chain." Add to that the ravages of AIDS, murder, poverty, illiteracy, and the widening gap separating the black "elite" from the "underclass," and the result is a paralyzing pessimism. But even as Cose acknowledges the obstacles that confront black men, he refuses to accept them as reasons for giving up; instead he rails against the destructive attitude that has made academic achievement a source of shame instead of pride in many black communities -- and outlines steps black males can take to enhance their odds for success.
With insightful anecdotes about a broad range of black men from all walks of life, Cose delivers a warning of the vast tragedy that is wasted black potential, and a call to arms that can enable black men to reclaim their destiny in America.

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About the Author:

Ellis Cose is a columnist and contributing editor for Newsweek, and is the national bestselling author of Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, The Rage of a Privileged Class, and The Darden Dilemma: 12 Black Writers on Justice, Race, and Conflicting Loyalties. He has appeared on Nightline, Good Morning America, PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and other national television and radio programs.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: A Group Apart

I'm not exactly sure when I realized that black males are special, that the world sets us apart from normal humanity, that we evoke, in not quite equal measure, inescapable feelings of envy and loathing. It dawned, I'm sure, like most great truths -- in barely perceptible stages, tangled up inextricably in the mundane puzzles and preoccupations of life.

I do recall some of the childhood incidents that awakened me to that truth, incidents that, sometimes in painful ways, spelled out the difference between black and white. One began on a pleasant enough note. I had gone to Marshall Field and Company, a large department store in Chicago, to buy my mother a gift. As I roamed through the impressive emporium, assessing what my few dollars could buy in such an expensive and intimidating place, I realized that I was being followed -- and that my stalker was a member of the store's security force.

From one section of Marshall Field's to another, the guard shadowed me, his surveillance conspicuous and obnoxious. Determined not to be cowed, I continued to browse, trying as best I could to ignore the man who was practically walking in lockstep with me. Finally, unable to contain myself, I whirled to face him. I shouted something -- I no longer remember what -- a yelp of wounded pride and outrage. Instead of responding, the man stood his ground, staring at me with an expression that combined amusement and disdain.

We must have glared at each other for several seconds, as the realization slowly seeped into my brain that I was no more a match for him and his contempt than a mouse was for a cat. I shuffled out, conceding him the victory, my previously sunny mood eclipsed by barely controlled anger.

Decades after that day, I remember my emotions precisely -- the impotent rage, the stinging resentment, the embarrassment, the intense disappointment at myself (for not standing firm in the face of the man's silent bullying, for allowing a bigot to make me feel like a fool, for being unable to crack the guard's smug self-assurance). Yet, as acutely as I recall my feelings, I cannot recollect a single distinctive feature of my tormentor's face. I doubt that it's just the passage of time. On some level, I wanted to forget -- or at least forget the parts of the experience not useful to remember.

I have written about this incident previously, in The Rage of a Privileged Class. I dredge it up again because it was, for me, a defining moment. It was far from the most dramatic encounter of my youth, but it forced me to think deeply, in a way I previously had not, about how easily I could be stripped of my individuality, of my humanity, about how easily racial preconceptions could render irrelevant (at least at first glance) any truth about who I truly was. In the guard's eyes, I evidently was nothing but a thug, and his job was to run me out of the store -- to protect Marshall Field and Company, its clients, and its merchandise from this trash who had wandered in from the streets.

Some years later I experienced a similar humiliation. A maitre d', claiming he recognized me as a troublemaker, refused to seat me, and ordered me out of a San Francisco restaurant. When I declined to leave, he called the cops -- who eventually persuaded me to go. The small financial settlement I got after filing suit against the restaurant did nothing to assuage the anger that raged inside me for months after the incident occurred. At the oddest moments, the smirking face of the blond-haired maitre d' would creep into my mind, and I would fume anew over the fact that it took nothing more than the word of an arrogant white man with an inability to distinguish one black face from another to get the cops to literally kick me to the curb.

To be a black male in America is to recognize such treatment as a routine part of life. For, with minor adjustments of fact, the experiences related above are essentially universal among black urban American males. Some 52 percent of all black men (and 25 percent of black women) believe the police have stopped them unfairly, according to a poll taken by the Washington Post in 2001. And when you add to that the countless number who have been hassled unjustly by store clerks, bouncers, and other undiscerning gatekeepers, you pretty much have the entire black male population of the United States. For those of us who are the target, a steady diet of society's contempt is not shrugged off so easily. We tend to react in one of two ways: We either embrace the role we are told constantly that we are expected to play, or we reject the script and endeavor to create our own. For those unwilling to push themselves into the realm of self-invention, models of behavior abound.

Why are so many pimps black? Because sex is one area where (whether merited or not) we have been granted dominance, one area (and you can add certain sports to this) where countless white men envy us (or at least the myth of us) and fear we may outshine them. Pimping is easier (psychologically, at least) than proving ourselves -- than winning acceptance -- in arenas, such as the classroom, where we have been told we do not belong. We can draw comfort from the cold fact that whatever else they may think of us, whatever they may make us think of ourselves, they can never take away the awesome power of our physical gifts.

Like most men, I don't particularly mind being thought of as sexual. There are even circumstances in which I don't mind being thought of as a thug. There are times on the street late at night where such a stereotype provides a measure of protective coloration, so to speak. The problem is that the stereotypes carry a set of connotations -- self-fulfilling prognoses -- not all of which are either flattering or life preserving. And it is those connotations that are likely to get you tossed out of restaurants, refused admittance to stores, and pulled over by the police. It is those associated expectations that foretell a future circumscribed by the limits of someone else's imagination, those self-fulfilling prophecies that will have you hustling for pennies instead of reaching for greatness.

We can reject those expectations or we can succumb to them; we can follow the path of our presumed destiny or somehow find another route. The wonder is that so many of us refuse to give in, that we summon the strength to resist society's expectations and discover how truly wonderful -- and special -- we can be.

Being a black man in America has never been easy. It certainly wasn't for our forefathers. Yet at a time when the entire might of a race-demented society conspired to destroy their dignity, millions managed to hold their heads high. They refused to allow their humanity to be stripped away.

Every generation has its demons. Ours tend not to come clothed in white sheets dangling nooses from their arms. Many of our demons reside deep within us, invisible yet powerful, eating away at our confidence and sense of worth. In the worst case, they drive us to destroy ourselves -- or our brothers. And even when they don't kill us outright, they place us at a greater risk -- of miseducation, imprisonment, and spiritual-emotional devastation -- than any large population in America today.

It's not my intention to minimize the very real and formidable challenges that women face -- particularly women of color, who make up the fastest growing segment of America's prison population, who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune much more deeply, very often, than do men. But that is a subject for another day.

So, for those who are black men, for those who care about us, I invite you to contemplate where we are headed and where we should be going. And I also invite you to spend some time appreciating our accomplishments, as well as our potential, and acknowledging all that we have become and overcome.

We strut through the world like some dusky colossus, looming larger than life itself: a nightmare, a fantasy, an American original -- feared, emulated, shunned, desired. We are Colin Powell and Willie Horton, Louis Farrakhan and Tiger Woods, Jesse Jackson and O. J. Simpson, the deliverer and the doomed. We are as complicated, as intriguing, as American history, and in many respects, are every bit as confused. Jazz and rap, art forms that we created and in which we excel, define American music, just as basketball and boxing, two activities that we dominate, are the face of American sport. We set the standard for style and make concrete the meaning of cool. White men in boardrooms envy our style and confidence. (Ally McBeal's nerdy law partner isn't the only one carrying around the likes of Barry White in his head.) White kids in the suburbs want to talk like us, want to walk like us, want to dress like us. Some of them, in their pursuit of ghetto chic, are even flashing rapper-wannabe gold teeth. Yet, as much as they want to be like us, they have no desire to be us. (Well, maybe some of them do want to be Tiger -- or Michael.) For as special and gifted as we are, we occupy a tenuous place on this earth. And admired as we may be in the abstract or performing on the court or floodlit stage, when we walk the streets at night, we are more likely to inspire anxiety than affection.

Cradled in America's ambivalence, we embody her contradictions. We swagger as if we own the universe, yet struggle with our own feelings of powerlessness. And we struggle as well with the knowledge (both exhilarating and overwhelming) that we are deemed extraordinarily dangerous -- perhaps the most depraved group anywhere -- judging from the numbers of us (approaching a million) in prison and in jail; some 11 percent of all black American males in their twenties and early thirties are currently behind bars. But we are also -- think Martin Luther King, think Nelson Mandela, or for that matter Bagger Vance of the eponymous legend or John Coffey of The Green Mile -- a shining, global symbol of morality and compassion. Some of us -- think Cornel West (part pr...

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