I am as upset as anyone about the George Zimmerman verdict, but I’m determined to do something constructive about it. Walking around moping, cussing, and complaining is not going to help anyone, so I’ve decided to make a survival guide for young black men, young men who look like Trayvon Martin, who don’t understand our criminal justice system and therefore don’t understand what they need to do to stay out of harm’s way and stay alive. Please share this with your sons, grandsons, nephews, cousins, and any young man of color in your life. Help me make the best of this situation by reaching back and helping the next generation.
Young black man, I’m sorry. I hate to break it to you, but because of the color of your skin, things are a little different for you than for your peers of other races. In fact, they’re so different that your life could be in danger. You need to take the following steps to protect yourself and not come off as a threat to society.
Make sure you have a “regular” name. And if you don’t…
- If you’re a minor, convince your parents to change it. Immediately. This is not an option.
- If you’re 18 or older, change your name NOW to Billy, Joe, Bob, John, Toby, or something that will make you less threatening and more marketable to the powers that be. You see, the name “Trayvon” is way too “ethnic”, way too “hood” to be taken seriously or regarded as anything other than a threat to society. And by all means, you don’t want to be a threat.
Besides, you want to grow up and get a good job one day, right? If your name is “too ethnic”, your chances of doing so will be severely compromised.
Learn how to use the King’s English. You need to become an articulate speaker and thinker, not just because doing so will help the trajectory of your life, but even more so for your survival. Becoming a good speaker and writer will open up innumerable doors for you, but most importantly, it will afford you much credibility with the right people. You can’t go around sounding too “black”. That’s not a good look. You don’t want to be a threat.
You need to live in a “nice” neighborhood. Well, actually, you can live in a not-so-nice neighborhood if you and all of your neighbors are black, but it’d be most advisable that you find a nice neighborhood that is majority black. Contrary to popular belief, such neighborhoods do exist. Communities in Southfield, Michigan; Lithonia, Georgia; and Prince George’s County, Maryland are just a few examples.
I added the caveat that this “nice” neighborhood needs to be majority black because while it’s wonderful to live in a diverse community, some people may be intimidated by your color, and you don’t want to find yourself in the same situation young Trayvon ended up in because of people who don’t look like you questioning your activities and your whereabouts for no apparent reason.
By all means, please fellowship with people of other races and cultures. Get to know them. Learn from them. We can only become better people when we explore the varying worldviews and mores of everyone around us.
When it comes to living with them, though, guard yourself and proceed with caution because, again, you don’t want to be perceived as a threat.
Wear decent clothes. I cannot emphasize this enough. I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing, you need to be cognizant of how you’re dressed at all times. Wear some plain, neutral-colored shirts with very little writing or artwork on them. You don’t want anyone to mistakenly associate you with some kind of gang or something. That would be bad. Get yourself several pairs of Dockers and wear them as often as you can with a decent looking shirt that’s properly sized and preferably tucked in.
If you must wear jeans, make sure those bad boys are, again, properly sized, and, for heaven’s sake, please put a belt on! Sagging is completely unacceptable, at any time, for any reason, not just because of the origins of sagging and its original meaning, not just because nobody wants to see your underwear, but because people take your style of dress into strong consideration when determining whether they will perceive you as a thug.
But, Reverend, whites, Asians, and other races of young men wear sagging jeans, as well. Why can’t I? What’s wrong with me doing so?
Well, young man, you’re going to learn, as you get older, you’re going to have to accept the fact that because of your skin color, the rules aren’t the same for you as they are for everyone else. They just aren’t. I don’t care what people try to tell you about the Constitution or our criminal justice system; don’t be fooled and don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
You will always be expected to live your life at a higher level than everyone else because you just won’t have the same kind of hookups and breaks in life that other people have. Some of our nation’s presidents have admitted to drug use or overconsumption of alcohol in their younger, less mature days, but with respect to Trayvon Martin, many in the media put him on trial, long before George Zimmerman was ever arrested, and deemed possible use of marijuana as a reason for Zimmerman’s considering Trayvon a threat and eventually murdering him.
You’re not going to be able to recover from the mistakes of your past the same way others do, so don’t make the mistakes in the first place. Mistakes are supposed to be the steppingstones to a better, more mature, successful life, but because you’re black, those mistakes will just make you more of a threat to society. And, at all costs, you need to avoid being a threat.
Be aware of your surroundings. Old-school values and traditional tenets of parenting have gone by the wayside over the years, as things that were so fundamental to those my generation and older are just not today. 15-20 years ago, this would have gone without saying, but here goes. Don’t let yourself be caught outside walking around after the street lights have come on. When it gets dark, take your behind home. If you didn’t make it to the corner store to grab your skittles and iced tea before 6pm (9pm in the summertime), they can wait until tomorrow.
And if you absolutely must be out late, don’t you dare be caught wearing a hoodie. You’re black, it’s dark, and you’re wearing a hoodie. Oh no, you’re a triple threat! If you want to stay alive, you don’t want to be a threat in that sense.
Ah, what the heck, who are we kidding here? You’re always going to be a threat, and there’s just not much you can do about it, so you might as well be a threat for the right reasons.
Work your tail to the bone in school. Mediocrity, just getting by, skating through until you “figure things out” doesn’t work for people of our skin tone. You need to figure out what you want to do in life and do it quickly so you can focus all your energy and effort on that one thing. It may change along the way, and that’s okay, but whatever that one thing changes to, your focus on it better be razor sharp. You don’t have time to flounder through life before you get focused; focus on academic excellence early so that when your dreams do become clear, you’ll already be well on your way to achieving them.
And furthermore, your grades need to be top-notch. You can’t afford to slack off in school because unlike your white or Asian counterparts, you don’t know important people in high places who are going to hook you up with opportunities merely because of who your parents are. You will get far in life solely because of what God has placed in you and how well you use it. A 4.0, therefore, needs to be your benchmark. Be a threat in the classroom.
Do something productive with your weekends and your summers. While all your friends are sitting up watching cartoons and music videos Saturday mornings, you need to be enrolled in some kind of enrichment program that will prepare you for the next level. I grew up aspiring to be an engineer, so for me, my Saturday mornings that weren’t spent at church were spent in a DAPCEP class learning about the business and practice of engineering so I could prepare myself for future success in my discipline. My summers were spent doing the same thing.
If you need to get a job to help your parents or yourself with bills, that’s understandable, but during your summers, you need to supplement your job with an internship, even if it’s only ten hours per week, doing something related to your future aspirations. Get that experience now so people won’t be able to tell you later that you don’t have enough of it.
What you do to better yourself while others remain stagnant will give you the advantage you need with college admissions officers and hiring managers. For you to succeed, you need to be better than everyone else. You need to be superlative. You need to be a threat in your professional development.
Work harder than everyone else around you. When you get out of school, and it’s time to make something of yourself, make the most out of that first job. Go to work early and leave late. Whatever your boss tells you to do, do that and more because as a black man, a performance evaluation filled with “meets expectations” will not get you anywhere. You need to exceed expectations. Be a threat on your job.
Aside: If you end up working for a black employer, don’t take that as a invitation to loosen your collar and start slacking. Don’t ever slack! You need to work even harder to affirm the credibility of that black employer to those who would accuse him or her of trying harder than normal to “look out” for black people.
Don’t ever get complacent. Just because you get an education, a good job, a nice house, a fine wife, and a beautiful family, it doesn’t mean you’ve “made it.” The substance of your “I’ve made it” moments should not consist of the things you have, but rather the impact you’ve made on the lives of other people. You haven’t made it until people younger than you can attest to how you have personally blessed their lives, for we live our lives not for ourselves, but for those who come after us.
What is that greater purpose to which God has called you? Answering that question might require you to leave that cushy job and start your own business. Or, it might necessitate your answering the call to Christian ministry. It might also mean going against the grain and doing things that are unpopular but beneficial for your future. Be a threat to the status quo.
Your peers might see your passionate pursuit of excellence and accuse you of “selling out” or not being “black enough”, but that’s okay. I had to go through it myself, and it was extremely hard at the time, but I think I turned out alright.
Trying to survive out here as a black man in America is not easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. What happened to Trayvon Martin could happen to you, or to me, or to any person of color because your very existence is seen as a threat to society. You might as well embrace that perception, pursue excellence and be a threat for the right reasons.
So, what other “survival tactics” do young black men need to learn? Have I left anything out? Please leave a comment and let me know.