Handle With Care: When Black Men and Boys Unravel in Plain Sight, What’s a Community to Do?

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

June has been a big month for more reasons than one, not the least of which is Men’s Health Month. Health and male empowerment advocates have worked diligently to raise awareness of men’s health issues with twitter chats, webinars, in-person events, and virtual town hall meetings. It’s unknown whether Ezra Edelman planned the release of the newest ESPN 30 for 30 film, OJ: Made in America, to coincide with the observance of Men’s Health Month, but it is sure an intriguing coincidence.

Much of the pre-release commentary about Edelman’s film compared his offering to FX network’s recent foray into the OJ Simpson saga, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Media and sports analysts noted that FX’s version focused on the trial and the high drama and personalities associated with it, whereas the ESPN documentary examines Simpson himself and attempts to shed light on why and how he became the person he is and was when Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered. For five haunting, increasingly disturbing episodes, viewers were able to see a man who started out with so much promise and untold potential to positively impact not only his immediate environment but the lives of many young black boys and men. And for part of his life, he did that. But the film allowed us to witness and understand something about OJ that our social and geographical distance might have obscured: there was a thread of arrogance and narcissism rooted in fear and insecurity brought on by emotionally jarring personal experiences which, when tugged at by fame, notoriety, and rejection unraveled a life right before our eyes. And similarly distressing scenarios have continued to play out in the lives of too many other black men and boys.

Murder is often the ultimate high-stakes manifestation of deep mental and emotional disturbance left unattended though not always unnoticed. Every day parents and other relatives, friends, romantic partners, coaches, and teachers across this country—primarily in high-stress, problem-prone cities—look into the faces of young boys, teenagers, and adult men who have begun to feel to them unreachable and unknowable. The short emotional fuse, or the flashes of aggression that show up in disproportionate ways are often handled to minimize disruption and embarrassment. Or, the subtle but consistent charm and emotional manipulation is met with verbal defenses meant to protect others’ emotions and preserve relationships. Of course, not every—or even most—male who exhibits these types of behaviors ends up killing someone, but many do; and if not killing, then engaging in other forms of violence, self-harm, and anti-social behavior.

Many black mothers feel like Michelle Clarett, mom to Maurice Clarett. Maurice was a shining star at Ohio State University during the 2002 football season. He was part of that year’s Bowl Championship Series winning team and was named Big Ten freshman of the year. During his recruitment and freshman season, he developed a close personal relationship with then head coach Jim Tressel. Maurice was charismatic, charming, and talented. But by the time he arrived at Ohio State, his thread had already begun to loosen, and he showed signs that maybe there were mental and emotional issues that should be addressed. During the 2002 post season, Clarett got into hot water when he openly criticized university administration officials for not assisting him with funds to attend the funeral of a very close childhood friend. Several of his statements, like, “I guess football’s more important than a person’s life to them” personally hurt and embarrassed Coach Tressel, strained their relationship as well as Clarett’s standing with the university, and ultimately resulted in his suspension from the team. In another mesmerizing ESPN film, Youngstown Boys, which chronicles Clarett’s situation with Ohio State, Mrs. Clarett tells how she could see the devastating impact her son’s suspension from the team and deteriorating relationship with Tressel was having on Maurice, but she wasn’t sure exactly what to do. She knew he was covering up his profound disappointment and sense of betrayal by drinking excessively and associating with people who were not healthy for him to be around, but besides encouragement she was at a loss as to how to help. When asked to describe how the events affected him, she responds that her son “was completely dismantled” psychologically by the experience. As his mother, she witnessed the increasing negativity which devolved into depression, but so did other people around him. His situation and the lives of so many other black boys and men are forcing us to admit something needs to be done, and we are compelled to ask, “What should we do?”

Top row, L to R: Chris Brown, Kalief Browder, Maurice Claret. Bottom row, L to R: Martin Lawrence, OJ Simpson, R Kelly

Top row, L to R: Chris Brown, Kalief Browder, Maurice Claret. Bottom row, L to R: Martin Lawrence, OJ Simpson, R Kelly

Perhaps the most significant thing that can and should be done is to not let people struggle alone. The black community must break down the barriers that isolate boys and men, and those caring for them, from support and resources. It has always been said, “What happens in this house, stays in this house.” Forsake that damaging tradition and give young boys, especially teenagers, permission to talk about their experiences and feelings to someone not part of the household. It has always been said, “Stay out of people’s business.” Ignore that. If a young man is drinking, smoking, getting into trouble, get.into.his.business. Find out what’s going on in his life. Introduce him to men who might be in or come from similar circumstances. Teach him how to write about what he’s thinking to help relieve some of the mental and emotional pressure. Don’t always expect him to go to where help is; bring help to him.

Men like Maurice Clarett might be difficult to handle, but their lives are worth the sacrifice and investment. We can’t afford to watch more multitudes of lives be stolen from ourselves.

As a community, we can all reflect on the lives of these men and let them represent boys and men we know personally:

Chris Brown

R Kelly

Herschel Walker

Kalief Browder

Lee Thompson Young

Eddie Long

Michael Jackson

Prince

Kanye West

Kendrick Lamar

James Fortune

Maurice Clarett

Martin Lawrenc

DMX