In the current period of gang violence and murders, I think we have gotten in defensive mode and are shirking our collective responsibility to help black youths toward more wholesome alternatives. The first aspect of this would be to alter the mindset that sees every black youth as a criminal.
That only reinforces a stereotype that could lead to self-fulfilling prophecy where these youth start believing that since they are black they are obligated to be gangsters and to be violent. We need to provide other images for the youth—other alternatives that lead to satisfying outcomes for them.
In our favour here is that the vast majority of black youth are good citizens who are abiding by the law and by the values they are being taught in their homes and in schools. We can start there. These youth can be seen all over the country on afternoons on football fields, in fairly large numbers, organising themselves into pick-up games like we used to do in Marabella throughout my youth.
In Arima market throughout the week and especially on weekends, I see male black youth selling at their booths and in other spaces—yams, dasheen, cucumber, fish, salt meat, fruits, peppers, blue crabs, seasoning, bread fruit—anything that is in season. These are young men in their late teens and early 20s—the demographic that the undertakers are seen regularly picking up from curbsides in hotspots and placing in body bags.
I see young black men on the highways daily, in their turbaned dreadlocks, Bobo Shanti, living out the creed of their Ethiopian-based belief of self-sufficiency. These men are braving the traffic, selling nuts, sugar cake, water and other cold drinks, every day, walking in the sun or rain. I always patronise them.
These are usually very polite brothers. They exchange greetings with you, and always say a quiet thank you when they make a sale. This is a wholesome image that the society should highlight. The young black man showing patience, prepared to walk all day, selling, one item after another, projecting not menace but diligence.
There are young black men in the universities—not enough of them, but they are there—accepting the route of education, and studying hard. It is okay to be an engineer or a doctor or lawyer or teacher if you are a black male.
Recently I had cause to be at the sitting of law exams, set externally by London University. I was pleasantly surprised that a majority of those in the room were young black men. But when did this become a surprise? When did this mindset change in this society of Lloyd Braithwaite, Lloyd Best, Malcolm Jones and Euric Bobb—of supreme black scholars? When did it come about that if you are a black youth in this society you shun studying, leaving that to others?
I think the body language of schools and teachers in the country is the culprit. A black boy of nine, ten, 11, 12 wants to be taught. And he is easy to teach. You can’t tell me a black boy of these ages wants to be a gunman and nothing else. Black boys from Toco, La Brea, Pointe-a-Pierre, Mafeking Village, Sangre Grande, Roxborough/Charlotteville? Gasparillo, Mayo, and yes, Laventille? No, these children want to be taught, but they come up against our schools and the insidious politics of exclusionary teaching in them.
The primary school has become in this country a site of divisiveness, where self-fulfilling prophecy abounds. The African boy is hard-headed and difficult to teach. That is the myth. This is reinforced when the SEA results come out, and the country sees what looks like clear data—that these boys are not teachable or can’t learn like their counterparts. This progresses on to the CAPE and to the island scholarship results. There are people in the country who are perfectly happy with this state of affairs. They like it so.
And the minister runs to the schools in question, and the winner is glorified, and he is not an African boy. The African boy is missing year after year, and we are taking this as ordained by nature. But it could simply be that these children are not taught, or not in the way that yields excellence. I used to be 12, and did not want to be dead in a drain at 19.
Has the DNA of black children changed? I have seen black boys of 12 in our clan, and they believe in education and try hard. I have seen the faces of black boys as they go to school, and they are angelic. And I would teach them all if I could.
I see the urgency on the faces of the mothers as they make sure all of the books are bought. But good luck getting your child into one of the prestige primary schools. And good luck getting all teachers to believe in these children. Yes, we have prestige primary schools where Dwayne and Tiba can’t get in. The processes by which a child gets into primary schools in this country are opaque. It is wrong. The educational playing field is tilted.
If we are serious about the socialisation of the African male, and what he has become in the society, which is someone who does not pass for the prestige school, and never wins the scholarships at A-Level, and lies dead on the roadside at 19, then we should show concern about this, and see what we could do in our schools to help fix it. I am aware this is sensitive territory, but we in this society would be better off if black boys of 12 want to be doctors and engineers and become that, rather than gunmen, and if all teachers come to their task with this mindset.
I also think not enough is being done in our social services to provide public information about gangs, and their methods, and where they are. Many black youth do not have a full appreciation of what they are getting into when they join gangs. They don’t know they can’t leave gangs. The country is too small. Their family cannot relocate to Seattle, as the family in Chicago can.
It is the job of our social services to make this public and clear. Where are the television programmes informing young black boys about this? Where are the billboards encouraging black youth to choose education rather than gangs, for longer life? Where are the images on billboards, of young brothers selling nuts on the corner? Young black boys with their hands up in Standard Four, striving to get the teacher to look in their direction? Don’t tell me young black boys don’t do that anymore.
There is dire need for an examination of the status of black boys in our schools. These boys become the gangsters. I believe this is aided by self-fulfilling prophecy in the schools, where it is taken as a given that they can’t learn. We are afraid of being deemed to be racist by raising the alarm, and that silence leads literally to the psychological and literal deaths of the seed corn of a race.
• Theodore Lewis is Emeritus Professor,
University of Minnesota.