By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
As several mentoring programs in Hampton Roads gear up for their annual spring fundraisers, Oliver Cross II is too busy studying, working, and raising a family to linger on the brutal challenges many young African American males face.
Cross, 33, attends Old Dominion University part-time. He also works full-time as a security guard; then he heads home to his family. Cross does not need to flip through reports and studies to determine why many young African American men embrace, reject, and finally move on past the harsh stereotypes.
“I thank God my grandmother instilled in me the lesson that the streets were not the way,” said Cross, a criminal justice major, who recently celebrated his first wedding anniversary. “My grandmother did a lot of praying for me. We attended church each week in Baton Rouge, La. My uncle was the pastor. He later became the bishop.
“My wife helped me get back on track,” Cross said. “My wife is a blessing. I’ve seen doors open that I thought would never open. When I look at the future I see doors opening that no man can close. I know through God all things are possible.”
Several mentors steered Cross away from the problematic streets as a youth including his mother and father who lived faraway in Norfolk. His father was in the Army before he passed. Although his grandmother has passed, their lessons and examples have helped him steer through the complexities that many young African American men face.
“I’m able to study and hold down a job,” said Cross who works eight to nine hours a day and attends classes twice a week. “It gets tiring. But I think of how much my grandmother prayed for me. She taught me you have to work. Things will not be handed to you. In the end, everything that I’m doing is going to pay off for me and my family.”
The problem is some young African American men do not have supportive relatives to steer them away from influential but sometimes troubled peers.
This is where mentoring groups come in. Scholarships and guidance are provided by the Peninsula Chapter of the 100 Black Men of America Inc., as well as the Hampton Roads Committee of 200 + Black Men. In Chesapeake, the New Chesapeake Men for Progress also helps young people gain traction.
All three groups will host their annual spring fundraisers in April and May.
The Virginia Peninsula chapter of the 100 Black Men of America Inc. will host its annual gala on that evening April 14 at the Newport News Marriot City Center starting at 5:50 p.m. The Hampton Roads Committee of 200 + Black Men will hold its annual Scholars Breakfast on May 19 at the Virginia Beach Convention Center at 9 a.m. The New Chesapeake Men for Progress will hold its annual breakfast May 5 at the Chesapeake Conference Center at 9 a.m. Tickets are still available for all of the events which historically sell out.
“I joined 100 Black Men because I wanted to help young black males turn their lives around,” said Robert Ayers, an Army retiree who joined the mentoring group about 15 years ago in Newport News.
“This was an area with a high need,” Ayers explained. “I was one of the founding members, and I’ve been active ever since. We’ve brought kids into the program and they’ve stayed until they graduated from high school. There were two cousins, for example, who were raised by their grandmother. They are both engineers. One graduated from North Carolina A&T University. The other one graduated from Morgan State University
“Many young people have finished college with our help,” Ayers continued. “When we see them at the annual gala it is a privilege to see them again. The young men who participate in the gala wear tuxedos. They play pivotal roles in the program. They are dressed up. We teach them it is important how you present yourself. They see and learn an entirely different way of life.”
Outside of Hampton Roads turnaround stories appear online. For example, the Troy Shawn Welcome Story tells how one troubled teen endured pressure on the streets but went on to become a high school principal at an alternative school in the Bronx. “I’m determined to be the man my father never was,” he said. Supportive teachers and classmates helped him do an about face, he says in his You Tube video.
The complicated but largely ignored issues that young black males face is tackled head-on in Education Week, a 31-year old newspaper aimed at K-12 leaders and policy experts. The Feb. 3 edition includes several young black men who describe their challenges in Voice of Young Black Males.
First there are the thug heroes who slouch across TV screens and sign autographs at awards shows.
Second there is the rap culture that celebrates drugs, anti-social behavior, and violence. Finally, there are many African American homes with negligent, absent, or dysfunctional parents. Somehow young impressionable black men are supposed to leap over all of these hurdles and blockades. But two young men in Education Week say it’s hard to take in all of the mixed messages.
Prince, 13, an eighth grade in Washington, D.C. who lives with his mother, stepfather and a sister, said, in Education Week, “The rap culture” teaches young black males to live on the street and not worry about education. Black males aren’t successful because of drugs and stuff. Their parents aren’t doing right. They see their parents and friends smoking and cursing. They do the same thing. They want to be just like their friends.”
Damon, 13, an 8th grader in Washington, D.C., said in Education Week, “Good black role models are hard to find. Boys drop out of school because they’re following what they see, and they do not see black males who are traditionally successful.” Damon lives with his mother, grandfather, two sisters, and a brother.
“If the people they hang out with are bad and do wrong things, I think they’ll try to be like their friends, and they’ll start being off task in school,” Damon continued. “They can still be good in school, but do bad stuff outside of school, and that makes them stop doing good in school.”
Various reports agree with both young men who identify school as the point of tension. School is problematic for some young black men because it may come equipped with a tightrope that ignores invisible but firm realities that run through a race-conscious society.
This is why many males develop two selves, said Dr. Edward E. Bell, speaking in a 2010 report titled Understanding Black Males. “One self (does) what community and peers expect, the other self (does) what the school expects.
“When the African American male cannot bring the two selves together, the one-self emerges when it is time to enter the school building,” Bell explained. “Common courtesy, raising hands, active listening, being self-disciplined, being prepared, and waiting your turn are only a few of the needed social skills that African American males must possess and display in today’s classrooms.
“As simplistic as these may sound, these traits must be internalized by African American males,” Bell explained. “When these skills are not developed at home or in the community, it becomes difficult for African American males to transfer those skills into the school environment.”
Still, many young African American successfully go across the tightrope and become successful, according to a 2007 Columbia University report. “Many African American males learn and succeed in school despite circumstances that include low socioeconomic status, minimal teacher expectations, and inadequate representations of their successes.
“Achieving the American dream is very real for them,” the report continues. “Individual determination, hard work, effort, and support are key ingredients. Not only do they survive their high school experiences, some excel academically to the point where they earn admission to the most selective colleges. Research is needed to focus on African American young men who are both economically challenged and academically successful.”
Herman Ward, spokesman for the New Chesapeake Men for Progress, said his organization will award scholarships totaling $10,000 this spring. The group will also give several $200 book vouchers to college freshmen.
Wendell Braxton, president of the Peninsula Chapter of the 100 Black Men of America Inc., said community support is always strong. Last year the 700-seat capacity facility was sold out.
“It is supported widely by the community and corporate sponsors,” Braxton said. “Some of our members are dedicated and go over and beyond what is required.”