Although I now spend most of the year in a Baltimore suburb, I return every year for a few months to New Haven, Conn., where I lived for 35 years. When I pick up the local paper, the New Haven Register, I am startled by how many local news stories are just like those in Baltimore. New Haven has about one-fifth of the population of Baltimore, yet its main problem is basically the same: shootings and murders of young blacks by young blacks.
When I pay attention to news from other cities, large and small, I realize that almost all are experiencing the same problem. Actually, problem is too weak a word.
In many inner cities, anarchy is a more accurate description. In Newark, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, Orlando, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and other major cities to the west, almost every day there is a story of young black men shooting young black men. So far this year in Baltimore there have been at least 240 murders, compared to 218 as of this time last year.
The immediate cause is well known: some kind of dispute arising out of the drug trade, the main source of income for many inner-city young black men. Young men go out on the street not only with their destructive merchandise but also with a loaded gun tucked into their belts.
And there’s not much police departments are able to do to stamp out the trade once and for all. No matter what the police and protesting members of the community do, the flow of recruits into the trade continues. Selling illegal drugs is an exciting, lucrative and now, thanks to hip hop, a glamorous business. Young black men knowingly accept the risk of death and the probability of time in prison.
But the quality of life for the decent citizens of the affected inner cities is down to about zero. You can get shot by a stray bullet while sitting in your living room.
What can be done? In the short term, not much. For the long term, the focus has to be put on the black boys coming up. For a good many might easily be lured to the trade. Inner-city neighborhoods have to do much more to steer them down a different road.
For three decades, there has been a framework for doing that. In 1966, a black man who gave himself the name Ron Karenga invented the seven-day festival of Kwaanza. By celebrating black Americans’ African heritage, Kwaanza was intended to be a more meaningful African-American alternative to Christmas.
Among the seven principles to be celebrated during the seven days of Kwaanza is that of Kuumba. Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it.
Here, then, is an opportunity for creating a rite of passage for black boys — a rite of passage that can have a lasting impact, as many a young Jewish man can attest to.
In the remaining days of the year that follow Christmas, Kuumba should mark the passage of black boys into manhood — responsible manhood. A serious ceremony should be held that honors every boy who turned 13 during the past calendar year.
A series of ceremonies should be held in neighborhood meeting places, such as churches, schools, clubs and restaurants. The high point should be a formal initiation and the plentiful giving of gifts.
As part of the initiation, the boys should be asked to cross a symbolic white line chalked onto the floor. And they should be asked to speak lines like the following:
Today, I cross this line from childhood
Into manhood, and have no fear of being good.
Today, I take responsibility for all I do
And promise to use what I know and do
To be productive, and not destructive.
At school, I won’t play the fool.
I won’t care about being cool.
I’ll follow all the rules, and
Make myself read and pass those tests.
When I’m done, then I’ll have my fun.
At home, I’ll go about with respect, and
Won’t neglect what I’m supposed to do.
I’ll protect my mother, my sister, then my wife.
I’ll be the man I’m supposed to be, and make
My women proud of what I say and what I vowed.
And in the street, I won’t go with the crowd.
I’ll think for myself and say no to dope.
Today, I pledge to be a man and not a fool,
To be a hard-working man who can help a wife,
A man who’ll live a long and a good life.
Paul Marx, a professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven, is the author of “Utopia in America” (Burke Publishing, 2002).