Some Who Fancy Themselves Tough Guys Don’t Die Young – E-book Excerpt

The following is another compelling excerpt from the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens

January 14, 2007

Some Who Fancy Themselves Tough Guys Don’t Die Young 

Guns have been in high schools for decades, another signal of the folly and recklessness along the way to adulthood and maturity. A stable home life ups the chances a teen will be better able to navigate those deceptively treacherous years. If not a stable home life, then a strong early foundation leaves a good chance to recover from the relatively risky teen years.

I remember José (not his real name), a rosy-cheeked boy of Spanish heritage who wore a puffy Afro and identified himself as Black. He went — for a while anyway — to my high school. José was growing up in a household of women – his mother and two older sisters – where he was the only male and had no male presence to emulate or to guide him. School gossip was that his father had died.

José was one of the guys who smoked substances that were not allowed in the smoking area just outside the school building. Later, his attendance at school became irregular. After that, he would visit the school although he was no longer a student there.

I remember the day José showed me his gun. Well, showed off was more like it. He handed me a small bag that was surprisingly heavy. When I saw what was inside, I immediately handed it back to him and asked what he was doing with such a thing.

I didn’t see José again for years, until we ran into each other by chance. The rosiness of his cheeks was all gone. The baby softness, which decades before seemed so incongruous with his tough man attitude, was also gone. Now he was muscular and wiry. Of below average height, he looked nevertheless like someone you wouldn’t want to test in a fight.

He said he was living in a nearby basement apartment and that he had recently returned from one of the States out west where he had served time for armed robbery. He said something about lawyers being some of the best people in the world, and especially sang the praises of his lawyer.  Apparently, he had been able to get José off with less jail time than might have been the case, given the charge.

José said he’d learned a lot in jail about how to be a better skilled criminal. What we are interested in we study. What we study we become good at. What we become good at we practice as a skill.

José would pop up in unexpected places at unexpected times over the years. The next time I saw him was about 15 years after his return from the West Coast jails. Then, he looked like a homeless person. When I said hello, he either didn’t recognize me or pretended not to. It was hard to tell. He said he didn’t know who I was. Mental illness was evident.

The last time I saw José was on a subway train. He looked much, much older than his years. His hair had turned mostly gray and his features had become hardened. Given the previous chance meeting years before, I wasn’t sure whether to say hello or not. I looked in his direction a few times, and as I prepared to get off the train he waved and said hello. He asked how I was. I said, “Fine.” I didn’t ask how he was.

Not every youth who wants to be the bad man is killed off before he reaches 25. Some, like José, live past their dangerous youth. Then they have the rest of their lives to contend with. José didn’t study academics or a trade; he studied crime. He had come from a fine family. That’s what the gossip was. But he didn’t look like a man who had come from a fine family.   He looked beaten and worn out by his life choices.

Toronto writer and columnist Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens available at amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.co.uk

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What About Social and Economic Class in The Black Community – E-book Excerpt

Race and class. It’s an interesting mix. Years ago while working at a job with a predominantly White staff, one of them who was wrestling with her own feelings about the Black/White issue proffered that the misunderstanding and mistrust between these two Canadian communities could be attributed not so much to race as it could be to class distinctions. She suggested that fear and mistrust between the two communities were related to the fact that Black people generally belong to a culture dictated by their low incomes which the White, generally middle-class, Toronto populace cannot relate to. She did not make the connection between Black poverty and systemic racism – as if Black people are just naturally inclined to poverty.

In trying to find the root cause of a Black community in crisis, everyone is looking for explanations. Or looking for someone to blame. It’s race hate, some say. Others are convinced it’s the school system along with its recent ‘zero tolerance’ policy. It’s the parents. It’s the police and their disrespectful and aggressive treatment of youth. It’s because Black youth are not living a godly life. It’s the failure of middle-class Black people to reach out and support or give a helping hand to those still languishing in the despair of poverty.

Last week, on a radio call-in program, a caller who identified herself as Black, voiced objection to a high profile pastor’s reference to the problems in “our community”. The caller went to great lengths to distance herself, and her sons, from the criminal and violent actions of youth in low-income areas. “They are not my community,” she said with restrained anger.

The caller stated further that she and her husband raised two sons, one still a teen, the other in his 20s, who have no inclination to participate in the gang lifestyle. When questioned about what she was doing for the Black community she said she was doing her part by supporting a recently arrived Jamaican family trying to adjust to life in Canada.

Anyone who lived in the Caribbean during the 20th Century knows the insistent role of class status there. While arguably less rigid than the British colonial social system upon which it modeled itself — and progressively less so as the century wound down — there were clear distinctions of class. Those distinctions closely paralleled colour discrimination. In fact, there was clear distancing between the various socioeconomic strata in Caribbean society. Those who pulled themselves out of the slave class were anxious to identify with symbols of success. That anxiety to look away from remnants of life in the underclass gave ambition to many and those who didn’t have a gift for making money to buy their way into the upper strata of society saw education — as we do today —as the gateway out of the slums. Once removed, they refused to look back. Consequently, they left behind those who found neither financial nor educational gain. And so it continues.

Here in Canada, Toronto in particular, similar to the culture of (sometimes) subtle, understated racism, distinctions between social and economic classes tend also to be less obvious. But they exist nonetheless. Hence that voice on the radio show, no doubt representative of the many others nodding in agreement that what is happening in low-income housing project neighbourhoods is not their problem, but that of the denizens of those locales.

It raises the question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Many in the Black middle-class do not feel connected to what is making the news these days regarding gang violence, but does it absolve them of responsibility to contribute to solutions in this crisis?

As with many demanding issues in life that are not of one’s making, it is still left to us to deal with them. Assigning blame is useful for knowing the cause or source of the problem, but that is never in and of itself a solution. The problem of Black youth violence, their crippled self-image and the crushing despair that leads them to give life — theirs and ours — so little value is everyone’s problem.