05 March, 2017
RESURRECTING A LEGACY . . . SAVING OUR SONS
It was not supposed to be this way. Or so I thought. When I looked at the future, I saw myself working behind the scenes helping my mentor, L.T. Henry, transform his vision of a world in which Men who were Fathers from all walks of life began working together, sharing information, supporting one another, and freely talking about issues directly and indirectly related to raising children – the village’s “heart soul’ – it’s bridge to the future. A classically trained jazz musician who performed briefly with The Philadelphia Orchestra; a former drummer for internationally acclaimed songstress and television and film actress Ms. Della Reese; author; photojournalist; and sales and success motivation trainer; L.T. Henry or “L.T.” as he was affectionately referred to by the souls whose lives he positively transformed, shared with me his vision for the world – IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD®. I was one of those fortunate souls with whom L.T. shared his wisdom and invested his time and energy. He taught me how to “dance with life” . . . create options . . . step out on faith. Life was meant to be lived “on purpose” and with compassion. Life was about always seeking out the truth and being courageous enough to stand unflinchingly in your own truth. It is how I have tried to live my life during the past 17-1/2 years since L.T.’s death on 1 March 1999.
I instinctively understood the importance of L.T.’s vision – IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOO®. A few years before his death, he remarked to me: “Other Men have the same questions that I do. Men – particularly Men who are Fathers – will start talking to each other . . . sharing information . . . working together and supporting one another. I don’t know how it is going to happen, but I know it will happen.” While I instinctively knew that L.T.’s vision was important, I did not know why. I had no idea that I would be left to do the work alone. Yet, I knew that I could not allow his vision to die with him. The past 17-1/2 years of my life have been spent resurrecting L.T.’s vision – IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD® -- and perpetuating his legacy, It was the least that I could do for a Man who had done so much for me.
On 15 October 1999, I stepped out on faith and launched the first issue of IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD®. L.T.’s entry and sojourn in my life had completely changed my concepts about everything. His exit from my life would dramatically change the way I looked at the world once again. One month after the launch of IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD®, I began receiving letters accompanied by essays and poems penned by Incarcerated Fathers. They asked if IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD® would consider their submissions for publication. Their submissions were thought provoking, moving, and masterfully crafted. I published their literary works and sent a copy of the quarterly Fatherhood and Men’s Issues Journal to them at no charge. Weeks later, I would receive a letter from these gentlemen, thanking me for publishing their work and acknowledging receipt of a complimentary copy of IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD®. But what they had to say next in their letters was, to say the least, jaw dropping, and would propel me on a journey to seek answers and solutions:
“ . . . I am 23 years old and I have been incarcerated since I was 16.”
“ … I am 35 years old and I have been incarcerated since I was 19.”
I was publishing the essays and poems of Incarcerated Men – the majority of whom were Fathers – from Maine to Hawaii -- and they were all telling me the same story! It was incredulous that young men – Our Sons – who were 16 or 17 or 18 or 19 or 20 from Maine to Hawaii were being trotted off to prison and no one was talking about it. One day they are with their families or hanging out with friends, and the next day, these same souls are behind prison walls. Not seen. Not heard. Just gone. How could that many people get into so much trouble, disappear, and there be no discussion about it? No yelling and marching in the streets. More importantly, what was going on at home and in the schools and communities of these young men to cause them to slowly descend into the dark abyss of hopelessness, and emotional, psychological, and spiritual toxicity?
Magically, souls started showing up in my life who offered answers. A number of these souls had solutions.
So, why weren’t there mass demonstrations in the streets of our cities protesting the disappearance of Our Sons from our neighborhoods and families? I was told that the souls that these young men left behind were tired – too tired to yell and march. They were inundated with so many problems as they struggled to keep a roof over the heads of the remaining children in the household while they eked out a living to pay the rent or mortgage and put food on the table.
Okay, I could understand that. But, how is it that so many of Our Sons are getting into trouble? How does a soul get into that much trouble? It was a question I had to ask at the risk of being accused of “blaming the victim”. Well, a plethora of answers came flooding in:
“It’s the educational system. It’s not a level playing field for boys. If a boy – who may have a high IQ -- cannot read, has problems reading, or has problems expressing himself through the written word, he is immediately labeled as ‘dumb’, or ‘unteachable’ and carted off to a special education class. The number of prisons being built are based on the number of boys who cannot read or have difficulty reading when they are in the third grade. It is assumed that if they cannot read at that age, they will commit a crime that will land them in prison. Boys are disproportionately diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, placed on Ritalin or some other psychotropic medication, and characterized as behavior problems and ‘unteachable’ than their female counterparts.”
“Many of these young men come from fatherless homes. They feel abandoned. While mothers, on the whole, do a great job of raising their sons, it takes a man to teach a boy how to be a man – just like it takes a woman to teach a girl how to be a woman. These young men are lost and they are angry.”
“It’s the way some of them are being treated by their mothers who are angry at the men who fathered the children. They take out their frustrations on their sons. They yell and scream at their sons, verbally abuse them. Some mothers physically abuse their sons.”
The Universe decided to provide me with a graphic example of how and why Our Sons get into so much trouble and a glimpse of their journey from childhood to manhood. In February 2006, I along with my colleagues met with a mother who brought along her 2-1/2 year old son and her mother. We walked into a large empty office to conduct the meeting. I selected a chair in the back of the office along a wall – behind the mother, her son, and her mother. The young man was animated and playful. At some point, he decided he wanted affection from his mother. He crawled over to her chair, tugged gently at the sleeve of her jacket, and then laid his head on her knee. She responded by yelling at him: “Get off me! Get off me!” At the same time, she balled up the fist of her right hand. It appeared that she was preparing to punch him. The young man moved away from his mother. Five minutes later, he decided to attempt to gain affection from his mother. In full view of everyone at the meeting, the young woman – with one hand -- grabbed the back of the red jacket the young man was wearing as she prepared to lift him up in the air. This mother was getting ready to “body slam” her own child. Instinctively, I got up from my seat, placed my pen and legal pad on the chair, and walked a few feet toward the child, who could not see me. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I called out to the child: “Hi!” The sound of my voice forced the child to swiftly turn his body around in the direction of the sound of my voice. His swift movement created a powerful inertia that forced his mother to release her grasp from his jacket. Needless to say, the young man moved away from his mother. I watched him as he walked to a corner of the room far away from his mother and grandmother. He was now sitting on the floor motionless. The young man’s grandmother witnessed the incident. What did she say? She turned to her grandson and calmly remarked: “Your mother is going to get you!” She did not console this child. Nor did she chastise her daughter for her abusive behavior. As I looked at this young man, I could see what he had to endure behind closed doors at home and I could also see his future. Unless someone intervened, he was destined to become a very angry and violent young man who would probably not excel academically, drop out of school, not respect authority, self-medicate, and land in a correctional facility. But more importantly, what kind of Man would he evolve into? Would he evolve into a Man who worked at reaching his full potential and live his life “on purpose” – a spiritually grounded Man who empowers his community? After years of being on the receiving end of abuse from his Mother – his first female role model – would he be able to enter into a healthy relationship with a female – his future wife and the future mother of his children? Would he be a soul who loved unconditionally? Would he be loving and nurturing to his children? Or would he, himself, become an abuser and create chaos and havoc?
Although a decade has elapsed since I encountered this young man, I still think about him. The 9.56 million souls who are male and 14 years of age and younger who reside in our global village also occupy my thoughts.
Academic underperformance, juvenile delinquency, truancy, the administration of psychotropic medications as a means of resolving behavioral problems perceived to be symptomatic of Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosed by educators and school administrators who are not licensed psychiatrists and psychologists, and rising incarceration, homicide, and suicide rates are issues that are not endemic to American boys and adolescent young males. As an example, boys and adolescent young males are underperforming academically in Australia, Samoa, Lesotho, and the United Kingdom. And suicide and homicide have become the second and third major cause of death among Our Sons, aged 16 through 19, in many of our global village’s industrialized nations.
So, how do we save Our Sons? How do we keep them from being “dumbed down” by an educational system that is not “boy-friendly”? How do we keep them alive, and out or prison?
We can start by telling Our Sons the truth about what really matters in life. There are only three things that the world really wants to know about them:
1. What do you know – how smart are you?
2. What do you have to offer – what skills and talents can you bring to the table?
3. Can you be trusted?
Of the three questions, the third question is the most important. Why? Because, believe it or not, the world really runs on trust. Our Sons seek affirmation and validation. They ask the proverbial question that all souls ask: “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?” It is not a question that they articulate with words.
Our Sons may seek out affirmation in the same manner as the two year old young man I encountered ten years ago. His mother responded by pushing him away and attempting to physically abuse him. That is not the message we should be sending to Our Sons. We should embrace Our Sons, counsel them, make them feel safe, and emphasize in word and deed how important they are to the family and the village.
We cannot leave the responsibility for educating Our Sons solely in the hands of educators and school administrators. We should introduce Our Sons to the world of literature when they are infants by reading to them from books as they fall off to sleep at night. Let’s not rely on Sesame Street or pre-school to introduce Our Sons to the alphabet, spelling, and the numerical system, Mothers and Fathers or older sisters and brothers or uncles and aunts should teach Our Sons how to write and spell and introduce them to the alphabet and numerical system when they are toddlers. If educators and school administrators will not set rising expectations for Our Sons, then parents and family members must. If Our Sons are not excelling in certain subjects, then let’s get them tutors. If the schools cannot and will not provide tutors, then surely, we can – and must -- find tutors for them in our neighborhoods, our religious institutions, and business communities. We should establish a rapport with Our Sons’ teachers and the principal of their school. Attend scheduled parent and teachers meetings. We should be monitoring homework assignments and test scores. There should be an ongoing dialogue with Our Sons about their day at school. What did they learn? What are their favorite subjects? What subjects are they having problems with? How are they getting along with their classmates? We should also know who their friends are and their friends’ parents. Let them know that failure is not option and that they can come to us to discuss any problems they are experiencing in school or outside of school.
Let’s rethink how we are socializing Our Sons – the global village’s Next Generation of Leaders, Husbands, and Fathers. For the most part, Our Sons are being stifled psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. Our Sons – like Our Daughters -- emerge from the womb as “whole souls”. “Whole souls’ have a full range of emotions which are freely expressed. They laugh spontaneously when they are happy and cry when they are hungry, hurt, lonely or sad Yet, when Our Sons reach a certain age, they are not allowed to express their full range of emotions. Crying becomes an unpardonable sin. It is not “manly”. Many of Our Sons learn that no matter how much they are hurting – physically and emotionally – they cannot express their pain or ask for help to cope with feelings of abandonment, depression, and alienation. It is dangerous to ask and expect Our Sons to repress their emotions. Souls who repress their emotions either implode by self-medicating with food, drugs, alcohol or sex; slip into the deep dark abyss of depression, or commit suicide as a means of ending their painful struggle. Those souls who do not implode, explode by engaging in acts of violence which creates public safety issues and traumatizes the village. On the one hand we ask Our Sons to repress their emotions. Yet, when they mature into Men who “keep their emotions in check”, we accuse them of being detached and emotionally unavailable. Does this make sense?
It is imperative that we create an environment that is conducive to Our Sons’ free expression of the full range of emotions they emerged from the womb with – an environment that does not call their manhood into question when they allow themselves to become vulnerable. Vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness. Now, let’s be clear. This is not about feminizing Boys and Men. It is about preventing them from imploding or exploding. It is about helping them reach their full potential. And as Men and Boys embrace their vulnerability and their full range of emotions, society must accordingly adjust its definition of masculinity.
Fathers play a very important role in the lives of Our Sons. Fathers offer Our Sons valuable life lessons about honor, sacrifice discipline, loyalty, and teamwork and prepare them for their future roles and responsibilities as Leaders, Husbands, and Fathers.. Our Sons’ relationship with their Fathers shape critical decisions they will make once they mature into adults – such as selecting a career and a wife who will become the mother of their children. Our Sons’ relationship with their Father will determine how they raise their own children. Boys and young adolescents who grow up without Fathers or Father Figures in the household are wounded psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is imperative that Mothers and Fathers who are estranged from one another, learn to cast their personal differences aside, and co-parent Our Sons. At the same time, Our Sons need to be given coping tools to deal with their feelings of abandonment and anger that is exacerbated by confusion about their future roles and responsibilities as husbands and fathers..
We must equip Our Sons with the emotional, psychological, and spiritual tools they will need to cope in a healthy manner with rejection and disappointment when Life “slaps them around”. Our Sons need to know that no one gets through Life without being “slapped around”. We must show them how to learn and recover from their mistakes, transform adversities into triumph, and create options. At the same time, we need to help create “real life options” for Our Sons by facilitating field trips to businesses and academic institutions and providing them with access to and internships at engineering firms, academic and medical institutions, law firms, broadcasting and communications organizations, and information technology companies which will lead to full-time employment. It is not enough to set rising expectations for Our Sons and encourage them to excel academically. We must give them something to aspire to.
Loving, mentoring, nurturing and saving Our Sons is an arduous task.
We cannot and must not give up on them.
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