By Bernard Gassaway, Ed.D.
Nationwide — I can’t remember if any of my childhood friends had fathers.
I can’t recall ever being exposed to the Boy Scouts or Little League Baseball as a child. My “little league” activities took place on a concrete sidewalk. We played full court basketball by placing two metal garbage cans about twenty feet apart. We played one-on-one and three-on-three. We also used the rungs in fire escape ladders as makeshift hoops to play our version of NBA. It was amazing to score a jump shot through one of the rungs, given the size of the basketball. For the most part, only a few people complained about the rattling of the fire escape caused by the basketball hitting it.
We later graduated to a schoolyard located down the block. We called it the Jew Yard because it was in the back of a Jewish school. I also remember playing two-hand touch football in the same yard. I specifically recall scraping my knees after running too fast for my little legs. There was broken glass all over the yard. After I looked at the blood running from my knees down my legs, we continued the game. I laugh because today mothers would take their children to the hospital for the same scrapes. I did not cry because that would not have been cool. I had to suck it up.
Most of my childhood activities occurred on one street block in Brooklyn: Pacific Street between Nostrand and New York Avenues. We rarely ventured off the block. We did so only to go to school, to the supermarket or to the check-cashing place with our mothers. None of my friends’ mothers owned cars. There was one family on the block with a car. We considered them rich because their mother had a job. Even with this family, I do not recall them having a man in the house, just a strong woman.
My mother would use our welfare status to send me to camp each summer. I have fond memories of camping. I don’t recall making friends. I do recall having fun. I somehow was able to feel at home in the woods. I was very observant. I was obedient.
When I was away at camp, my mother was able to get some rest, though she had six other children to worry about. In fact, she probably worried about the neighbors’ children as well; that’s the way it was. It was like a village of women looking out for each other’s children.
I guess I never really thought about the significance of not having a father in my life or in the lives of my friends. It’s hard to miss what you never had.
Not having any formal lessons on urban living etiquette, there were certain rituals that we experienced in our neighborhood. One ritual was the obligatory fight. We practiced for this eventuality. Boys fought. We did not fight to the death. It was simple: if you were losing a fight, you would say, “You got it.” Or your friends would break up the fight and say, “It’s over.” Moments later we were playing together. You passed the fight test whether you won or lost.
What I describe as my turbulent youth occurred between 1974 and 1976. When I turned fourteen years old in 1974, I was a man and you could not tell me anything. My mother described me as being out of my mind. Upon reflection, I know that my mother did not recognize her baby boy Bernard. She definitely loved me. I know she did not like my ways—not many people did other than my closest friends.
I was fourteen when I began to venture freely beyond Pacific Street. I left the protection that was expected and guaranteed on the block. Our block was our safe zone. It was our cocoon. When we left the block, we were vulnerable. We were among other vulnerable youths and potential adult predators. Beyond the block, our mothers had no way of contacting us… no cell phones. Can you believe there was a time when cell phones, Facebook and Instagram did not exist?
People who shared experiences that were similar to mine are now fathers and grandfathers. Our children are growing up in a time that was much different from ours, though in many ways there are some similarities. Boys, and now girls, fight. Unfortunately, like most things, they have taken fights to a new level: stomp… kill… stomp… kill… stomp… kill. They carry or have access to weapons, particularly guns. We did not have guns; hand-to-hand combat was sufficient for us.
I thank God I was not born during this era. With my mentality as a teenager, death would have been a certainty. It was a reality for many of my peers. However, even with my risky and unlawful behaviors, I managed to avoid a lengthy prison sentence and death.
I would attribute my ultimate success to a mother who never really gave up on me, even though she said when I was 14 or 15, “I will not beat you anymore. I will put you in the hands of the white man.” She meant the police. That was prophetic because the police had no problem with popping me in the mouth when I talked back or kicking me in my ass after chasing and catching me.
Fast forward to 2016, I am rapidly approaching fifty-six years of age. I spent the better part of my adult life working within the New York City public school system as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and senior superintendent. While I have worked to teach boys and girls, I became an educator to work with boys so they would not treat their mothers as I treated mine. I felt obliged to dedicate my life to the memory of my mother for all of her sacrifices so I might survive my urban conditions. It is ironic that I decided to become a teacher given all the hell I caused my teachers and my mother for school-related incidents.
Upon reflection, I realize that many of the boys who I taught that had the most trouble in school did not have fathers in the home. This caused me to wonder why “we” are so dismissive of the role of fathers in the home. We pretend that it doesn’t matter, as I did when I was a child.
I strongly believe that until we “fix” the absent-father syndrome, we will always have turbulent and troubled Black boys trying to navigate these urban concrete communities on their own.
In 2016, I wonder how today’s urban Black boys will describe their experiences. Does the protection of the block still exist? Are the mothers still holding down the village? Are there more fathers in the lives of Black boys? Are fewer Black boys becoming entangled in the court system? Are Black boys doing better in school? Are school officials embracing Black boys? Do Black boys learn about themselves in school curriculums?
Today’s urban Black boys, in part, may not be prepared to raise tomorrow’s urban Black boys because of the absence of men to show them the way. I do not believe that the problem can be addressed comprehensively by various initiatives such as: “The Black Male Initiative” or “My Brother’s Keepers Initiative.” We need Black men—fathers—to raise their Black boys. That, I believe, is the only solution to reducing crimes and killings among our vulnerable urban Black boys.
Also, if Black fathers were significantly engaged in public urban schools, school officials would not be as dismissive as they are with Black mothers—I have witnessed this phenomenon.
While the significant absence of fathers is not unique to urban Black boys, it is profound in urban communities across this country. Today’s urban Black boys need fathers now, tomorrow, and forever!