Spring 1997 - Volume I, Issue 1
a psychologist I was trained to understand that perspective is everything. I
also learned and over time came to understand that people are compelled to share
their perspective through the telling of stories. Stories seem to provide the
connection between the facts of their lives. That is, the telling of stories
seem to contribute to their sense of wholeness or integrity.
When I sit with an individual in the stillness
of the therapy hour, I am there to help the individual put his or her life in a
meaningful context by helping him or her to tell me the best story he or she
can. I have decided to change my role as a trained and skilled listener and
instead tell you a story. A story that will provide you with a rare glimpse of
an increasingly common and shared perspective by many Black men of their present
status and future in America. In other words, I challenge you to become the
listener and discover the meaning and value of this story.
Several of my female friends
and friends of my wife constantly ask me "what's up with the brothers?" I
believe that they ask me the above question because I am their friend who also
happens to be a psychologist whose clinical practice primarily involves working
with Black men and their families.
also believe that my friends ask me the above intriguing question because they
are attempting to achieve through dialogue with me a "deeper" understanding of
the origin of the sad and the deteriorating state of the Black male-female
relationships. In particular, my female friends seem to be concerned and
confused about the nature and quality of their relationships with Black men.
Concerned because they really do care about Black men. Confused because they do
not understand why many Black men display a lack of willingness to make an
emotional commitment to them. Additionally some of my female friends are also
angry because they feel helpless and increasingly hopeless about finding a Black
man to share their lives with.
the past decade several Black social scientists has painstakingly described in
the literature this change in the social structure of Black male - female
relationships. However, it has been only within the last couple of years that
this social anomaly has emerged as an integral part of the dominant discourse at
cocktail parties and family gatherings all over Black America. This social
phenomena has happened largely as a result of the work of Terry McMillian in her
award winning book and her recently released movie entitled Waiting to
As a Black man, husband,
and father I was also troubled that some Black men tended to avoid (consciously
or unconsciously) involvement in committed relationships with Black women. As a
result, I contacted some of my colleagues and informed them that I would be
interested in taking referrals for an all Black male support group. I told them
that I was interested in learning from Black men directly their perspective on
the nature of their relationships and their relationship difficulties.
Specifically, I was interested in understanding the factors that contributed to
some Black males difficulty in initiating and maintaining caring and loving
relationships with Black people in general (parents, siblings, wives, children)
and Black women in particular. I was at the most cautiously optimistic and at
the worst guarded that I would get any referrals. Why? Because I was aware from
training and experience that Black clients who are referred for any form of
counseling typically do not show up and if they do over 50% do not return after
the first interview. Not very good odds.
weeks later to my surprise I was sitting with a group of Black men representing
diverse social, educational, economic and political backgrounds. During the
early phase of the group many of the men appeared guarded and surprised. Guarded
because I had asked them to violate a major taboo in male culture: to talk about
feelings. Surprised because I was willing to listen to them. Most revealing were
their statements that they had gotten used to being at best ignored or at worst
feared by both Whites and Blacks in society. Simply, as Black men they were
aware that they are not heard or seen in this society. They were invisible
because they were not valued. But I realized as I listened to their sad and
painful stories that what was even more destructive to their sense of self and
their soul was that they had gotten used to being invisible in American
The men from poor working
class backgrounds described in graphic detail how they were reminded daily of
their marginal status by Whites and to our collective shame and detriment, by
Blacks as well. With respect to Whites, some men in the group described how
their education under conditions of cultural oppression and institutionalized
racism had not adequately prepared them to be productive members of society.
They described how stagnant or declining wages, the loss of jobs and the growing
chasm between rich and poor had contributed to their sense of alienation and
isolation from their families and communities. They believed that these factors
contributed to Black women not seeing them as potential mates. Some men were
courageous to report that at times they wondered and yes doubted whether they
could fulfill the role of husband and father as well. Although they were fully
aware that race and gender matter in American society, that their socioeconomic
options were limited, they experienced shame and guilt. They felt ashamed
because they believed that their marginal economic status did not make them
appear like men in Black women eyes. Guilty because they felt that they had done
something wrong. That they had failed to live up to the expectations of their
families and communities.
contrast, professional men in the group stated that although they believed that
their education had benefited them, they continued to experience
institutionalized racism and discrimination due to the color of their skin. They
described the impact of downsizing, restructuring and re-engineering on their
ability to not only survive but to thrive in corporate America. For example, one
member of the group stated that he "had not reached a glass ceiling with respect
to his career. Rather, he had hit a brick wall." Other members described the
high price they had paid to be "successful." For them to "make it" it was not a
question of integration but of assimilation into mainstream American society.
They believed and felt that they could not afford to be Black. As a result they
became invisible. They also became very depressed and angry. This should not be
surprising to relatively conscious Blacks and Whites in America. Race matters in
America, as author Cornel West has so eloquently stated.
In addition, the recent work of Williams Julius Wilson,
a Harvard sociologist has helped us to understand the important and defining
role that work plays in the life of an individual regardless of his/her race. In
a recent New York Times Magazine excerpt of his work entitled When Work
Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor Dr. Wilson stated:
"Where jobs are scare, many people eventually
lose their feeling of connectedness to work in the formal economy; they no
longer expect work to be regular, and regulating force in their lives...in the
absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less
Although Dr. Wilson's
work focused primarily on what happens to the poor when work disappears I think
his findings have significant mental health and policy implications for
professionals as well. I have observed that many individuals regardless of their
socioeconomic background tend to experience significant intrapersonal and
interpersonal social disorganization as a result of their uncertainty about
whether work will disappear for them in the near future as well.
In addition to the absence or uncertainty about
the world of work the Black men in this group described how the absence of their
parents in general and their fathers in particular during their childhood and
adolescence had negatively affected their identity. The unavailability of their
fathers as a function of consequences not choice negatively their self concepts
and self-esteem. For instance, one group member with tears in his eyes and rage
in his voice described how he felt that his father had emotionally neglected and
abandoned him and as a result had failed to properly prepare him to cope with
the challenges of life as a Black male in White America. As a psychologist, I am
fully aware that the above experience may not be unique to Black men.
Nevertheless, the absent of a loving and strong Black family in general and a
Black father figure in particular is negatively affecting an increasing number
of Black boys and girls. Resulting in many Black men and women as adults
experiencing problems being able to form committed relationships, creating and
maintaining stable families, and strong communities.
In addition, some men felt that over the last two
decades, as a result of major structural changes occurring in the economy (poor
education, loss of jobs, migration of middle income families to the suburbs,
drugs and violence), the Black community, as an extension of the Black family,
did not provide them with the vitally necessary knowledge, guidance, support or
role models to learn how to become faithful husbands, loving and responsible
fathers, and productive members of society.
have come to appreciate and understand that as a result of the many negative
sociocultural factors described above that many Black men as adults tend to use
their relationships with Black women as the context to resolve historical and
socially constructed emotional and behavioral problems in living. Problems that
are intimately associated with their individual and collective struggle to
increasingly feel in control and to feel valued and loved.
The Black man is in trouble. What can be done and who
should do it? Although I believe that the support group provided a necessary and
supportive community to help the men begin to understand and to change their
identity and their behavior, it was not sufficient. What is required? We must
remember that it is important to see the struggle of Black men and their
families within a historical and sociological perspective. Black men and women
must begin to understand the role of the federal government, education and the
community in our struggle for racial and economic equality. Black men and women
must support affirmative actions measures until America gets the work, race, and
the fairness issues right. What John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard economist,
calls the "The Great Society." The Million Man march in many respects was a cry
from Black men. Black men saying I want to do the right thing: I want to work, I
do not want my race to be an obstacle for upward mobility, and I want to be
treated fairly when times are economically good and when times are economically
Black males need to create
organizations or other social mechanisms to develop leaders for the Black
community. They desperately need a place where they can get together as men to
discuss social and economic policy as it relates to their group interests. In
other words, to look at ways to develop our community but to also secure a more
independent position economically in America. This is nothing new. As I go
across the country I see other ethnic groups engaging in such economic activity
sometimes even in our community. Black men need to rebuild what Dr. Courtland
Lee, a Black psychologist, calls the triangle of support: strengthen families,
strengthen schools and strength institutions (church). Black men and women need
to create a public space where they can examine the nature and quality of their
relationships. To develop plans for the success of the next generation of our
Black youth. To create and develop mentoring programs to expose Black boys and
girls to positive role models.
Black men and women must begin to understand the
structural relationship between work and the creation and maintenance of a
stable family and community. In other words, when work disappears many times so
do fathers. They must understand the responsibility of both the Black family and
community as cultural institutions to provide its members with a sense of their
personal and collective identity. Black men and women must develop an
unequivocal commitment to develop our children for the 21st century. The Black
church must reexamine it historical mission within the global community because
it has lost its way and as such can not fulfill its role as a cultural
institution that provides direction and comfort to the human soul.
Recently my wife and I returned from a trip to
South Africa. There were two important lessons that I learned and would like to
share with Blacks in America. The power of beliefs and rituals.
Allow me to digress for a moment through the
use of a story to illustrate my point:
was walking along the Indian ocean and I met a brother from Johannesburg, South
Africa and we started talking about what life was like before and after the
elections in 1994. He said: "you know why the movement against apartheid started
in Soweto? Because in Soweto people were reared to always believe that they must
be the light in the corner." He explained that "when things seem desperate you
must, by your example (behavior), be the light in the corner that provides
others with hope that tomorrow will be better than today even though there is no
real reason to be optimistic."
other lesson was the power of rituals. Every significant event in South African
society begins with a grand ritual (story telling, song, music, and dance) as a
means of denoting that something or somebody is being transformed. Being
changed. Being changed for the better. Blacks in America should develop rites of
passage programs for Black youth to instill a sense of connection to and
responsibility for their family and community.
Boyd, H., & Allen, R.L.,
(1996). Brotherman: The odyssey of Black men in America - An anthology. One
World: Ballantine Books.
Cose, E. (1993). The Rage of a Privileged Class. Harper Collins.
Galbraith. J.K. (1996). The good society: The
humane agenda. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Langley, M.R. (1994, April).Effects of cultural/racial identity, cultural commitment and counseling approach
on African-American males perceptions of therapists' credibility and utility:
Summary. The Psych Discourse, 25, 7 - 9.
Langley, M.R. (1994,
Winter). Invisibility blues. Lesley Magazine, 18 - 19.
Langley, M.R. (1994). Psychotherapy approaches with African-Americans: a
historical perspective. Proceedings of the First Annual Symposium for Mental
health Professionals of Color (pp. 171-214). Boston, MA: Massachusetts
Department of Mental Health.
Langley, M.R. (1993). The cool pose. An
Afrocentric Analysis. In R.G. Majors & J.U Gordon (Eds.). The
American Black male: His present status and future. Chicago: Nelson Hall.
Lee, C. C., (1992). Empowering young black males. ERIC/CAPS
McMillan, T. (1992). Waiting to exhale. New York: Viking Penguin.
West. C. (1993). Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press.
(1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. Random House
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Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Spring 1997 Issue Main Page
Cornel West - Diversity Day Keynote Speech
Maxine Greene - Teaching as Possibility
Judith Beth Cohen - What Students Think is Funny
Carroy U. Ferguson - Learning for Urban Adults
Sheryl Boris-Schacter & Susan Merrifield - Diversity Initiative
Marjorie Jones - Education for What and for Whom
Merlin Langely - Ode to Black Men
Barbara Vacarr - Stories of the Holocaust
Sebastian Lockwood - Night Sun
Luis Lopez-Nieves - The Extremely Funny Gun Salesman
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Merlin Langely served as an Associate Professor in Lesley University's graduate Counseling and Psychology programs, as well as an Instructor in Harvard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Langely is currently a Professor in the Department of Social Work at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
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