by CHARLES M. BLOW
Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
The statement is simple, profound and as true as truth can be. And yet we as a society and as individual families neglect the building, facilitate the breaking and balk at the cost and commitment of the repair.
On Thursday (2/27), President Obama took a step toward righting that wrong in regard to young men of color by announcing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.
It is a necessary and noble ambition to begin to draw resources together in a common effort to find best practices for addressing stubborn issues, and to better fund and expand those efforts.
This will not be easy. The issues facing many of these men are so complicated and layered with pain that they are incredibly daunting. There is a deficit of hope and a surplus of hurdles — familial, cultural, behavioral and structural.
But we must start somewhere. As the old saying goes, “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”
Programs like this usually focus on the easier part of the problem, the personal, rather than the harder part, the structural.
Youth Guidance, whose Becoming a Man group the president highlighted during his announcement, says that through its program, “Participants learn about and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations for the future and developing a sense of personal responsibility and integrity.”
These are important character traits, to be sure, but it’s hard not to think that ideally they would be transferred from parents — particularly fathers — to sons.
That’s why I was encouraged that the president spent quite a bit of time discussing the role of fathers in boys’ lives.
He said of his father: “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.”
In a previous column, I wrote this of my own father: “I was forced to experience him as a distant form in a heavy fog, forced to nurse a longing that he was neither equipped nor inclined to satisfy.”
When there is an empty space where a father should be, sorrow often grows. The void creates in a child an injury that the child is often unable to articulate or even recognize. And what children miss at home, they will often seek in the street, to ill effect.
Many boys with that empty space lash out and act up, trying to be seen, searching, as people do, for love and affirmation, wanting desperately to be validated. And too many of us, in turn, see them as menaces rather than as boys struggling — often without sufficient instruction and against a tide of systemic inequity — to simply become men. In such a warped world, basic survival can become a metric of success.
As the president put it, “nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”
But sometimes fathers don’t even know how to be the best fathers. Sometimes they simply engage in an intergenerational transference of pain and need. It’s sometimes hard to give what you yourself have not received.
For instance, according to Child Trends, black fathers are substantially less likely than white or Hispanic fathers to hug their children or show them physical affection, or to tell them that they love them.
I don’t scold these fathers; I weep for them and with them. I understand, on a most personal level, that conditioning. Sometimes men don’t see that masculinity is as much about tenderness as about toughness. Sometimes they don’t know how to manage emotions. Sometimes the world has so beaten them and so hardened them that expressing any vulnerability feels like providing an opening for an enemy.
But I also know that being an engaged father can be a reparative therapy — healing your hurt as you protect your progeny. Our children provide a reservoir of the deepest, truest love in a harsh and unforgiving world. They are our respite from the battlefield.
We, as a society, must change our perspective when considering these boys and men, and more fully engage our empathy. That is both a personal and a structural change.
We can and must break these cycles of pain, building better boys and repairing broken men.
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times FEB. 28, 2014 , 2014 under the title “Fathers’ Sons and Brothers’ Keepers”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”