Let My Homies Go
Theatre IV – Black Fatherlessness
(Excerpted from Harlem Meets Mayberry)
If you are anything other than a fatherless black man, there’s a kind of courage you’ll never have to muster up. It’s the kind of courage that fatherless black men in this generation must have in order to win the War on RD. We should salute the fatherless black man even before he has done his first courageous deed, because his is truly a tough row to hoe.
Upon the fatherless black man (FBM for short) of this generation rests a burden unlike any placed upon any other generation of men in history. His time is up. His time has come. It is his time to break the multi-generational curse of rampant fatherlessness. It is his time to fly in the face of a deeply ingrained cultural code. It is his time to become a man unlike few men he has ever personally known.
Today’s FBM faces a challenge more difficult and more frightening than merely rolling a resting stone. He must stand in the path of a huge, runaway boulder. He must risk being steam-rolled, bring the boulder to a stop and then reverse its course. Today’s FBM is the new Indiana Jones, but unlike Indy, outrunning the boulder is not an option for him. He must turn, face it and beat it.
The biggest challenge that the FBM faces as he considers the runaway boulder of fatherlessness is the siren call of Baby Daddy: Baby Daddy is seducing young black men with the imitation, “Come! Be like me.” Baby Daddy lives in a relatively small, all-black world where conformity is a given, judgement by his peers is quick and absolute, and the penalty for non-compliance is severe. Baby Daddy is a young black man, and he is always, subtly, recruiting other young black men to join the counterproductive ranks of Baby Daddyhood.
Mild non-compliance makes the FBM an Uncle Tom. Serious non-compliance makes the FBM a b****. Grievous non-compliance makes the FBM something even more un-mentionable. There is no judge and no trial, just a hastily-formed jury of “peers” dishing out the standard penalty for non-compliance, and that penalty is ostracism.
Ostracism is the modern equivalent of being put “outside the camp” or “outside the synagogue.” It is the forfeiture of one’s place in the universe. It is the severance of emotional security. It is desolation. More than almost any other fear, the FBM fears ostracism by his peers because many times his reality is that the approval of his peers is all he has.
Fortunately for all of us, the FBM has a great role model to help him overcome his fear of being put outside the camp. That role model is the first-century Jew who chose to follow Jesus.
We forget how great was the dread of ostracism among the Jews of Jesus’ time. It was so great that when Jesus gave sight to a blind Jewish man, the man’s own mom and dad were afraid to give Jesus public praise (Jn. 9:21). It was so great that even one of our heroes in the faith, the apostle Peter, gave in to it for a season.
Even after Peter had been given the keys to the Kingdom, even after he had performed miracles and led thousands to Christ, Peter gave in to fear of ostracism. He gave into it and found himself sucking up to the Jewish leaders, following their traditions and thereby throwing his followers into a state of confusion and his fellow apostle, Paul, into a state of indignation.
The maverick apostle Paul was so befuddled by Peter’s hypocrisy that he “opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong (Gal. 2:11).” And what did Peter do? Peter came to his senses and manned up, and if Peter could do it, today’s FBM can do it, too. But he will need a Paul in his life. And he will need our help as well.
Helping the FBM overcome his fear of being put outside the camp will not be as simple as saying to him, “Come to Jesus.” Virtually every black man in the United States already knows who Jesus is. Virtually every black man in America has had more than one chance to come to Jesus, and most have accepted the invitation at one time or another, but for many the conversion didn’t stick so well.
In my interaction with FBM’s I have always been struck by their collective spiritual equity. When I am in the presence of a fatherless black man, it is always obvious to me that “others have done the hard work,” and that his spiritual coming-out party, his return to sincere Christianity, is a very real possibility (Jn. 4:38).
Here are some of my positive stereotypes about the fatherless black man, stereotypes born of observation and repetition and shared by millions of informed white people: 1) He is more inclined than most people to welcome a spiritual conversation at the drop of a hat. 2) Whether he is a partner in a law firm or an inmate at the county jail, he is apt to have fond religious memories to go along with his painful religious memories. 3) Even if he is a prison inmate or a weed dealer, the FBM is more apt than most to know spiritual songs, to be able to quote from the Bible and to recall times of personal revelation and personal inspiration.
Beyond these positive stereotypes, the FBM very likely has a soft spot in his heart for Jesus. He fell in love with the Jesus his mother and pastor and family “sold” him as a child or as a teen, but the Jesus he was sold did not square up with the Jesus he met in the real world, and so he has grown cold but not dead; the Holy Spirit still lives inside him!
Now, the outsider can’t help the FBM simply by saying “Come to Jesus,” because many such men have already come to Jesus and then walked away. Nor can the outsider help the FBM by demanding, “Leave your playground and leave your playmates.”
The only way that an outsider can help the FBM is by cultivating empathy, and empathy begins with understanding that for many fatherless black men, their playgrounds and their playmates may be just about all that have. They are the FBM’s “camp”, and he cannot bear the thought of being put outside that camp.
Before we can empathize with the FBM, we must be very clear what empathy is. Empathy is not sympathy. It is not looking at another person and feeling sorry for him in his situation. Nor is empathy simply looking at another and thinking, “this is the way I would feel if I were in his shoes.”
Empathy is the result of virtually becoming another person for a time. It is adopting their cumulative experiences and understanding their perspective as a result of those cumulative experiences. Empathy is a temporary journey into another’s “skin.” Empathy brings another pair of enlightened eyes to the task of assisting its object to embrace deeper truths and thereby achieve a greater degree of freedom. If person B (us) has genuine empathy for person A (FBM) then and only then is person B is fit for meaningful service in the Fatherlessness theatre of the War on RD.
Jesus had empathy. Jesus was called Man of Sorrows not because he was sad but because he had empathy. Jesus was not sad; he was “anointed with the oil of joy” and laughed often, but he also had genuine empathy. He had real, inside-the-other’s skin empathy. And if you and I are to help empower the fatherless black man to follow the difficult course laid out for him, we must strive for the kind of empathy Jesus had.
When Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he was talking about a process, not a one-time event. If we can cultivate empathy for the fatherless black man, we can then help him to begin the process of gradually embracing the truth and gradually being set free to exercise the courage that is already in him through the Holy Spirit.
Once we’ve cultivated empathy for the FBM, we can begin to brainstorm about ways to make life outside his current camp look more attractive to him than life inside it. But before we go rushing to the rescue with our Bible bullets and our magic speeches and our mile-wide, inch-deep “concern” for him, let’s pause. Let’s remember than in our desire to help the FBM, as with our desire to do any good thing, “it is not good to have zeal with knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” (Pr. 19:2)
Let’s not have zeal without knowledge. Let’s not be hasty and miss the way. Let’s work on empathy for the FBM, and let’s pray for God to give us knowledge and show us the way. He will.
Be street smart yet harmless. Peace.