Associated Press/Photo by Frank Franklin II

Role model in chief

Culture | Will Barack Obama give African-Americans a new definition of masculinity?

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

In New York on election night, a burly young black man stood in a big, gutted garage decorated with white paint and graffiti art, crying while he watched Obama's victory speech. In a mostly African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, black men stood next to corner delis on streets littered with McDonald's wrappers and cheered. In Harlem, New York Times' City Room blog reported, another young man bounded down the streets, shouting, "Fried chicken in the White House!"

An African-American man-growing up the son of a single mom-with a Harvard degree and a stable family will be leading these men for the next four years. He will be president of a country where young black males are more likely than any other group to murder or be murdered, according to the Bureau of Justice. Fifty percent of black children live with their mother alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and a quarter of black people live in poverty. Sixteen percent of black men haven't graduated from high school.

How will an Obama presidency change the way black men see themselves?

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Some black commentators are optimistic. In The Daily Beast, African-American writer Touré said black men have believed that America closes her opportunities to them, but that Obama's election will make black men rethink their definition of black masculinity: "This is a country in which a black man can become president and being a black man no longer needs to be about being angry with the country."

Obama has spoken to these men before. Last Father's Day, he told African-American men that too many of them have "abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men" and weakening the foundations of the black community. In an interview with MTV just before the election he told young black guys to show some respect: "Brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on."

Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, said remarks like this are true but don't get at the problem: "They should pull their pants up. They should be responsible, but they've got to stop hating."

Peterson doesn't think that Obama's election alone will make black men let go of their anger, noting that black men already have examples of success-
Clarence Thomas for instance, a Yale graduate and Supreme Court justice who grew up in poverty and without a father-but they have rejected them. "Real masculinity cannot come from another person," he said. "You can't get it by looking at some other person just because they are the president."

African-American pastor Clenard Childress, who has spoken out against Obama, said he can't discount the inspiration of Obama's story. Childress, pro-life activist and pastor of New Calvary Baptist Church in Montclair, N.J., said, "He went through the system and he prevailed over the system," something Childress honestly didn't believe Obama could do.

But Childress thinks, "The legacy is far more important than the election because the first cannot be the worst. There's so much dependent on him." Obama's presidency, he says, will not be good for the black community if he continues to push a pro-abortion, pro-homosexual agenda that hurts African-Americans: "He has to prove that he has not sold out to the values of the black community for his own political gain. . . . He has to rule with a degree of integrity."

A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., said the legacy can't void the achievement: "The fact that white America is willing to trust and vote for a black leader-you cannot nullify that reality." Bernard noted that while many African-American males have resolved the identity crisis rooted in slavery, those who are still acting out of anger and alienation "can now no longer lean on the so-called glass ceiling" and "can no longer play the blame game."


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