Two years ago, I lost my greatest hero and role model in life. After a short battle with cancer, my father passed away due to complications from chemotherapy, leaving me without the most important male presence in a young man’s development. By the time he died I was 18-years-old and technically an adult, but as we all know, very few boys have become men at that age.
I needed another role model. Not just because I’m supposed to have one, but also because I desired it. I was hungry for guidance and a direct example of how to be a man, like a primal instinct. Time and again, as I reached out and tried to fill this void. I was lucky to find people willing to teach me.
In high school I was exposed to a network of incredible African-American men any person should be honored to meet. Chief among these is Trevor Coleman, an author and communications director at the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending. He was a close friend of my father and has become like a second dad to me. Mr. Coleman introduced me briefly to people such as Judges Eric Clay, Damon Keith and Ted Shaw, who’s a professor at the Columbia University School of Law and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund director.
In college I’ve been able to work under incredible professors, such as Matthew Countryman and Harwood McClerking, while being mentored at the ACLU by attorney Mark Fancher. While some of these men have played far more significant roles than others in my life, it’s safe to say that all of them have provided me with endless motivation, encouragement and vision.
While network news pundits and our uncles at Thanksgiving dinner proclaim that there aren’t enough positive Black, male role models outside of pro-sports, Hollywood and the music industry, I’ve met and been mentored by more great African-American men than I can count. The problem isn’t a lack of role models; it’s a lack of visibility. The news and television love covering Black athletes or musicians — almost as much as they love covering Black criminals — but it seems that hardworking, intelligent, admirable Black men just don’t fit into their programming.
Furthermore, one of the worst and most pervasive stereotypes of Black men in America is the portrayal of their role as fathers and role models. The media portrays Black males as dead-beat dads, philanderers and absentee parents to illegitimate children. The men I’ve had the honor of being mentored by are not just successful in their professions, but they’re also men of integrity and father figures far beyond what is required of any individual. They’re family men who provide an excellent role model for their children, while mentoring myself and countless others.
What the news also conveniently forgets are the stories of African-American men who have made mistakes and are working tirelessly to break away from the life that the media seems to believe is their only option. Every week working in Detroit I meet people in bad situations — often young men with children — who are doing everything they can to avoid falling into the stereotype society has created for them. Though I wouldn’t call these men “mentors,” they command the same respect that any other hero of mine does.
One day over the summer while visiting a soup kitchen on Detroit’s East Side, I watched as a 21-year-old broke down sobbing in front of his pregnant girlfriend and a community organizer. He told us about how he was trying so hard to avoid committing a crime to pay off tickets he had because he knew that without the money he would go to jail, lose his job and have to start all over again. As he sat there crying, the community organizer explained to him that he had been in the exact same position a decade ago — trying to avoid falling into old ways while taking care of his daughter, cutting grass and washing cars for cash. It was a struggle, but earlier that spring, his daughter graduated from high school with a full ride to college.
I was moved by that event in a way I can’t really explain. The pure strength and commitment they showed to themselves, their family and their community was beyond anything I had ever witnessed and inspired me the same way that my father and other role models have. Whether we’re talking about educated men at the top of their fields or just guys trying to get by for their families, ignore what the media says — there are amazing Black role models all around us. We simply have to open our eyes and look.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.