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The Missing Black Male Narrative

young black man 

In mainstream news and local media, the black everyman is plentiful by number. The daily news is full of young criminals, middle and professional class social circles, helpless citizens, earned accomplishments, and quiet nods to a lifetime of sacrifice. As individuals – three dimensional men who justify their own existence – they are barely visible. What’s the last story of note you can remember about a black man, or black men in general, that wasn’t about a famous entertainer or steeped in televised controversy?  Few media outlets dedicate themselves to examining the individual lives of these men as they are living it.

GQ, the ultra-glossy aspirational men’s magazine, does regularly run reportage and life-lesson pieces, independent of status or celebrity influence. Esquire relies on celebrities, but talks to them as men and woman unto themselves. The defunct Men’s Vogue had excellent monthly columns reserved for profiles and reportage of the lives of individual non-celebrities. Outside, Art of Manliness, Men’s Journal, The Good Men Project, and Men’s Health, on the other hand, live and die by the concept of the everyman.  But, commonly, any deep dives into the experiences of black men’s lives depend on pop stars and media darlings.  These one-percenters inherit the heavy burden of representing the breadth and depth of the cumulative black male experience. As a result doing so responsibly becomes all the more important. Yet, even as recently as last month, the largest and most respected of media outlets have tried to squeeze these larger than life personalities into tired narratives, instead of letting what stood out about the individual speak for itself.

New York Times’ September profile of Jay-Z, for example, spends a lot of time reaffirming every notion of what a hip-hop star and celebrity at large like him is supposed to be (dresses younger than his age, perception of artistry vs. menace to society, a famous man blending into the common man’s world, etc.). It only briefly mentions things that uniquely define the man and the artist. Jay-Z says he dislikes that rap is not treated as an artform, is annoyed that people regularly ask him questions he answered in his 2010 memoir, and believes that Obama’s contribution to the irrelevance of the hustler represents progress.  All these things, along with the writer’s claim that the rapper’s lyrics are “built to handle contradiction” are treated as asides of little importance.

It fails to discuss Jay-Z’s uncommon and wildly successful practice of nurturing artists for years before expecting a profit. It doesn’t question his ironic history of dramatic failure in long-term working relationships with artists who were stars in their own right (R. Kelly, Beanie Sigal), Kanye West aside. It never explores Jay-Z’s feelings behind the tireless, mignon-like effort he has put in adding value to the Brooklyn Nets NBA franchise, despite that he only owns a tiny sliver of the team. His actions can be interpreted as a foolish blowhard’s attempt to earn high society credibility, a take-nothing-for-granted sweat equity attitude any man can learn from, or anything in between.  These are issues that speak directly to the way the man thinks, things that only he can clarify. But we never know the answers, because no one asks. The article simply recycles an established narrative, referring to Jay-Z as more of a grounded deity requiring little more than opaque commentary. It gives no indication of a man worth exploring.

To be fair, coaxing fresh material from a seasoned superstar can’t be easy. They’ve answered the same underwhelming questions hundreds of times. They have a brand to protect.  They’ve had years of practice artfully dodging issues they don’t care to address. But it still stands that thorough profiles of men of color are few and far in between. Halfway effective write-ups like the New York Times piece do not help alleviate the problem.  In this respect, major media outlets may have something to learn from smaller, niche websites and magazines. It seems that, recently, in the realm of musicians and entertainers, interviews and profiles of those below the radar have done better to uncover the core of personalities readers can engage with.

Bass Musician’s interview with Marcus Miller, for example, introduces readers to a jazz musician, writer, and film composer many may not know of, but should. He has been around long enough to work with Roberta Flack, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, and a bunch of renowned artists outside of popular music, but fluently waxes poetic on more modern interests like Janelle Monae, Robert Glasper, and pro basketball. It’s obvious he is steeped in knowledge and worldly experience in and outside the scope of professional music and entertainment. By the time you finish the interview, you want to download a copy of Tutu and King of Blue, hop on a plane, and go experience the world you’ve just read about. You want take a second listen to the music you’ve loved for years; the right way this time. 98% of black men could be jailbirds, slingers, and aspiring entertainers without a shot in hell, and it wouldn’t change what you thought of the man. The article lets Miller stand on his own his two feet.

Ebony.com, Nashville Scene, Jazz Advance, and iCrates cover Wynton Marsalis, Rashaan Barber, Hakim Bellamy, and the Detroit music scene in similar fashion. Readers are presented with a learning experience that stands on its own; not a replica anchored to society’s expectations. Why does this happen? My best guess is, without a room built in between cultural floors and ceilings reserved for the entertainer’s public existence, the focus is on the artist themselves. For a long time, rappers were branded macho or conscious and R&B artists were devoted lovers or suave players, with little room in between. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a common behavioral yardstick for today’s jazz artists to be measured against. They are their own muse.

Even the crime that supposedly dominates the black male narrative in the news can be covered more comprehensively. Black crime is low as well as high. There are reasons that people commit crimes and situations that allow it. While the 21 year-old black male who was arrested or killed in Houston may have some things in common with the man of similar description and circumstance in Chicago, I’m willing to bet there are things that are distinct about their situations, their persons, their cities. I say this as a matter of fact more than poetic justice: criminals are people too.  And the situations that surround them are generally driven by all sorts of human motivations, perceptions, and interactions.

The recent spree of violence in Bridgeport, CT and nearby New Haven serve as examples. Individually, the stories in the local media are just blurbs. Together, they tell a more coherent story. A young father anchored to the city by simple economics. Neighboring communities who make every effort to limit his choices. Legal and black market entities that benefit from local violence. Police forces and community members with conflicting priorities. Real, violent, ignorant pride celebrated through music. Policy makers who choose easy and dismissive over difficult and effective. Community members whose decision not to vote make it that much easier for criminal motives to have influence in their neighborhoods. Putting that all together doesn’t justify the violence.  But it does give readers a lot more to think about than “21 year old black male suspect wanted for murder of local teen. Assumed to be gang-related.”

What of engaging stories of the other everymen? The men whose snapshots won’t be seen on TMZ.com or in the local neighborhood police blotter? I spent about a month on Google News and Newslibrary.com looking for just that and consistently came across articles like “Winning Isn’t Everything,” “The Racing Life,” and “The Longest Fight.” They are rich, wonderful profiles that neatly fit into the “quiet nods to a lifetime of sacrifice” category, with the caveat that a solid amount of these deep engaging narratives are about men who are no longer living. That a noticeable chunk of the better profile pieces available seem to cover experiences from the distant past is in itself a problem.

These stories about aged, seasoned, and expired men are wonderful unto themselves. But waiting, in bulk, to profile these men only once they have  passed their peaks or have been recognized as worthy by the rest of society feeds into the false pretense that a man is only worth something once he has attained wealth, shrine, or status. Profiles in the now shape a dynamic present and future built on a historical foundation, rather than a static look into the past. Readers get to tag along for the journey as it happens. It's something tangible, close enough for a young boy or man to feel he can aspire to right now.

What do you think would be more effective in encouraging an eleven year old kid to explore, hands on, the world at large? A five page interview with a 50-something year old musician, playing music the kid and his peers can hardly recognize? Or a two page profile of a 12 year old hip-hop artist raised by a father who has been in the music and entertainment business for nearly as long as hip-hop has been around. To an adolescent, Miller and his craft might as well fit in somewhere between the beginning of time and the civil war. But an AMIRacle might plant the seeds for them to look back to a Marcus Miller once their ears are ready to appreciate his music.

This is not to say that the world needs less coverage of the Marcus Millers, Jay-Z’s, and Wynton Marsalis’ of the world, but that it needs more stories like AMIRacle ,“No Ordinary Joe,” “Papa,” and “Wunderkind.”  It needs even more “Stories For Thirtysomethings,” “DJ Mix Jus,” “From The Streets,” and “The Curse of The Black Republican,”  Ghetto Manga, “Top Prosecuter,” and Dreamer. And many, many, many, maaaany more contemporary stories about men that fall outside the bounds of sports, entertainment, and pop culture. There can never be enough of articles, blog posts, and videos like “The Importance Of Going Places For Yourself,” “Massacre In Jamaica,” “Dreams,” “The Richest,” “Work to Ride,” “Rebirth,” “Starting The Conversation,” “Controversial,” “Learning To Be Black In America,” and “Dirty Little Secret.” How positive or negative these articles appear are secondary. What’s more important right now is that these stories are searching, thoughtful, and sincere. Above all, the world at large would benefit from a future where media regularly explored the lives of these men with as much verve as the public figures they revere. They should, in the very least, find a place to exist somewhere out in medialand.

Image by David_Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.