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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Bonded, not bloodied, during trip with teen sons

April 18, 2002

"If you hear any noise, it's just me and the boys." - George Clinton

I set a firm departure time of 7 a.m. Naturally, it was close to 9 when we set out.

We took a road trip the other day, just my teen-age sons and me. You might, if you have a higher tolerance for buzzwords than I, call it an exercise in male bonding. I just called it an opportunity to listen to them — and be heard by them — without distraction. So we drove with no agenda and no rules, except one: They would not be allowed to hide beneath headphones. Instead, we would … talk. For music, we'd each have equal access to the CD player in the dashboard.

This was a major concession for me. One I regretted bitterly not an hour later as jazzy instrumentals gave way to the vehement cursing of some attitudinal rapper. My sons occasionally sneaked sidelong glances at the old man to see how he was handling it.

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I didn't give them the satisfaction of complaining. Much.

After all, I had asked for this. I'd had — buzzword alert — "issues" to work out. Indeed, the music rather neatly symbolized them.

In a way, I suppose the disconnect I feel toward some young black men is the same one fathers have felt toward sons from day one. The one encoded by phrases like, "When I was your age …" and "I remember when. …" But there's more to it. Mine is the fear of the relay runner who wonders whether anyone will be there to take up the baton when he finishes his leg of the race.

What, in other words, is to become of young black men? According to an infamous Justice Department statistic, one in three is either incarcerated, on probation or on parole. A few years ago, Jerome Miller, co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va., predicted that the majority of those ages 18 to 39 will be in jail by the year 2010.

This is a crisis. And it's not abstract for me. It's personal. As close as those two teen-age sons of mine.

Sometimes they make me crazy. Sometimes they make one another crazy. And sometimes they make me wonder whether they are truly ready for the world they are about to enter.

And yes, every parent, black, white or chartreuse, wonders the same things. But the stakes are so much higher, the margin for error so much less, with young black men.

What's frightening is that, as a father pulls them toward higher ground, they are pulled in another direction by a pop culture made by and for them, a culture that is materialistic, misogynistic, pornographic and violent.

A culture that proclaims itself authentically black when the truth is, it could not be more anti-black if it were made by the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, every other lyric on my son's CDs was the so-called "N-word," a lamentable self-definition from those who think they've defanged the term because they spell it with an "a" on the end.

I was secretly pleased when we stopped in Shreveport and the boys' maternal grandfather described for them the racism he faced as a youth. For many years, he said, "I never knew I had a name. I thought my first name was nigger, and my last name was boy."

My sons didn't reply. But three days later, on a country road in Alabama, the 19-year-old asked what it was I disliked so much about his music.

It's not the language, I replied. I've heard those words before. No, what bothers me is that rappers use those words and say nothing. Nothing good, nothing challenging, nothing insightful. Use them only to sell a poisonous caricature of black life to black kids searching for identity and white kids looking for vicarious danger.

That's an act of betrayal.

There was a beat of silence. My son said thoughtfully, "I feel you." As I understand the language of the young, this translates as, "I understand your point. I agree with you."

It was a small triumph made smaller when they put on another CD. But I am fighting for their lives. I'll take any triumph I can get.

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