A Message to My Brothers and Sisters This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 18, 2013
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“Black people are lazy.” “Black people are criminals.”
“Black people are uneducated.”

Do I have your attention? Chances are, you weren’t expecting to see that. Maybe you expected me to discuss how black people are so wonderful and have so much to offer the world. Well, sorry to disappoint, but that’s not the point of this essay. While I agree that black people do have a lot to offer, the current condition of our race is saddening and embarrassing. It’s time we took responsibility for ourselves.

The year is 2013, and the current public impression of black people is not the best. We’re viewed by some as lazy, ignorant, and obnoxious. Many people think that black people are only good for catching a fifty-yard pass, dropping the latest inane verse about their supposedly great wealth, or being the butt of some joke about dark skin and curly hair. To be frank, these views aren’t that different from the public opinion of blacks thirty, fifty, and even a hundred years ago. Different situations, to be sure, but the same general idea. What has changed, though, is the black community itself.

I want you to think of how many times you’ve heard your grandmother, grandfather, or anyone old enough to have experienced the Civil Rights Movement, say that things used to be different. That black people took pride in who they were; that they were self-reliant; that they cared for one another. I’m sure many of you have heard this. We were young, for one. And in schools we’re always told how the Civil Rights Movement changed things for black people in America for the better. What we, the latest generation, have to realize is that what our elders said is completely true.

The black community, during the Civil Rights Movement, had a certain kind of strength. They came from a long line of downtrodden people. Their lineage was steeped in sorrow and helplessness, but they took pride in their struggle. They knew that they were worth less than dogs to many white people in America, but they didn’t let that keep them down. They were cheated, beaten, spit on, lynched. This and much more was done to my ancestors, and they stalwartly endured it and became stronger.

Knowing that no one else would, they took care of themselves and each other. Families stayed together and supported each other. The youth didn’t kill each other over frivolous things, like today. Children respected their elders; elders were worth respecting. And they were willing to endure many hardships to survive. It wasn’t uncommon to see young black children walk five miles to school. How many of us would be willing to walk even a mile to got to school? Not many.

Today’s black community is nothing like the strong people who gave us what we have today. We kill each other indiscriminately. Families fight and break apart. And the sense of trust and commitment within neighborhoods just doesn’t exist anymore.

We have lost the strong leaders who once rallied us together. Leaders we were proud to follow. Leaders who took on their burden not for money or acclaim, but because they saw a wrong and knew they had to fix it. The days of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are over. They, and many others like them, took it upon themselves to initiate change. Most of them faced danger, ridicule, and humiliation. Some paid the ultimate price. They knew the risks, yet they did it anyway. Can any current black public figure say the same? Would any of these rappers, athletes, and other black celebrities willingly put their lives at risk for the good of their own?

Black musicians used to be of the highest caliber. The days of Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday are past. Now we have Soulja Boy, Beyoncé, Nikki Minaj, and Lil Wayne carrying the torch. They’re good entertainers, but compared to the musicians of yesteryear, they don’t stack up. These artists were pioneers who revolutionized music, epitomizing excellence, whether through voice or an instrument. Many black artists of years past are included among the best and most important musicians of all time. Will the same be said of those of today?

It’s a similar story with our athletes. Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Jesse Owens didn’t do it for the money. They did it to prove that they were just as worthy as white athletes. They carried themselves in ways that you couldn’t help but respect. Today, black athletes don’t have to prove their worth, but they still represent us as a race. Many are paid millions, are adored by many, and have the world at their fingertips. Yet they commit ­infidelity, abuse animals, and throw tantrums when they get offered $2 million less than they wanted. It seems that we have lowered our expectations for those on the center stage, and it shows in their behavior.

Lastly, black people need to take responsibility for ourselves. Too many times have I heard that white people don’t care about us, don’t help us, and will keep us down. This is just ridiculous. The idea that a group as large as white society in America is conspiring to keep another group down is ludicrous. That they’re all working together to keep black ­America from advancing strikes me as an attempt to shift the blame from ourselves.

Whatever reputation we have, we earned. We are lazy. We are uneducated. We are obnoxious. We are criminals. And the reason we are those things is because we won’t take responsibility for ourselves. We are the product of people who were slaves. We are the product of people who were used and abused. We are the product of people who weren’t even considered real people. But, we are also the product of people who survived, people who fought for change, and people who made that change happen.

The blood that runs through my veins is the same that runs through all blacks. This is the blood we received from our forefathers. This is the blood of survivors and fighters. That is the stock we come from. It’s time we acknowledge that and do for ourselves now, as those before us were strong enough to do.

I wrote this essay because of the unique position I hold. I am very different from those around me. I love to learn. I dislike today’s rap and hip-hop. I never liked sports growing up, and though I now run cross-country, wrestle, and play lacrosse, these aren’t considered “black” sports. Although I use slang, I am capable of conversing in proper English. I am markedly different from those around me, so I made friends elsewhere. My friends all live in the suburbs and are of a similar mindset. We love to learn, share a world view, and have common life goals. I really thought I found somewhere that I could belong. And yet, it didn’t feel right.

Despite our similarities, I come from a completely different world. There are so many things that I can’t do or talk about around my friends because they wouldn’t understand. Whenever I use slang, they laugh, saying how weird it is to hear it from me. When I’m listening to Tupac or the Wu-Tang Clan, they gasp. I guess they imagine me nodding my head to Bach and Verdi. Many are surprised to find I live in the ghetto and not the suburbs. And I never, ever talk to them about my life outside of school. What would be the point? It’d be like trying to describe snow to someone from Hawaii. Unless you’ve experienced it, you just can’t imagine it.

Being stereotyped like this infuriates me. America is so used to the ­accepted race stereotypes that because I don’t fit the mold, they don’t consider me part of my culture and history. Because I can speak eloquently, I can never use slang? Because I appreciate classical and swing music, I can’t listen to the genre pioneered by my people?

Must I live in the suburbs to be an intelligent black kid? I’ve been called many things: white, Oreo, and sell-out. I have been told I’m whiter than actual white kids, and that some white kids are blacker than me. This, to me, is the ultimate insult. If being black simply means that you listen to the newest drivel called rap, walk around with your pants sagging, and project yourself as an ignoramus, then yes, some white people would be blacker than me. But that’s not what it means to be black.

Being black means belonging to a group of people who started on the bottom and worked their way up. It means having an ancestry steeped in great men and women. It means taking pride in your heritage and making sure the sacrifices of those who came before were not in vain. Being black means being better than what we are now.

I hate how easily people accept racial stereotypes. But what I hate most of all is that we allow it. We must change that. All of us. We are so much more than we allow ourselves to be. But for this to work, we can’t rely on anyone except us. No more blaming white people for our problems. We must use the strength we have within us, the strength that carried our people through slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, to where we are now. The strength that created visionaries like MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, talented musicians like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles, athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

Young black people, stop allowing yourselves to be classified as criminals and bums. Stop giving people the impression that we’re uneducated and uncivilized. Let’s show them what we can be, what we have been. Together, we can make being called “black” something to be proud of.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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