Much has been written, discussed and debated about the state of the African-American male in recent years-and not all has been positive. In fact, a great deal of it has been negative. Often we hear of how black men are fathering children, sometimes in disturbingly large numbers, out of wedlock, and do not provide at all for their children. We often hear about the high incarceration rate among black men. We hear about the increasingly negative and misogynistic tone in the music of much of today’s black male artists. We hear agonizing stories from women who have been beaten, cheated on and “played” by black men.

Based on all of this, the state of the black male appears to be in an abyss. “Pimps,” “Baby Daddy’s,” “abusers,” and “cheaters”-is this truly the state of black men? For too many black men, the sad truth is yes. But the stark and often completely overlooked reality is that it is not true for a great many others though even that assertion tends to draw a suspicious eye in our society. The black man who says truthfully that he doesn’t cheat is sometimes told, “Yes you do, all men cheat, and if you haven’t up till now, you soon will.”

The black man who chooses to spend his time in grammar school, high school and college going to class and studying is sometimes looked upon as a “nerd” or “un-cool”-not only by his male peers but by some of his “black sistas” as well. The underlying point is that, despite such common beliefs as “Behind every good man is a good woman” and the like, black men-and black men alone-have to completely and thoroughly redefine who we are and what makes us who we are. This is our mission and no one else’s.

And that, in part, fueled the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. The “Day of Atonement” on Oct. 16, 1995 was meant as a day when black men began the process of essentially re-establishing responsibility for our actions, thoughts and behaviors. If you look at how black men are portrayed by the so-called mainstream media, we’ve done the opposite. But if you look beyond the negative stereotypes and bad attitudes held by some black women and the destructive behavior of way too many black men to begin with, you will see there are many good, decent, hard-working and, yes, faithful black men in our society.

But there’s always a pitfall.

The black man who doesn’t care for his children, whether he’s with the mother or not, is fairly criticized. But at times, the good father is unfairly criticized, or caught in the wider net of “the irresponsible black man.” If people are honest-both men and women-we can admit to hearing plenty of black women reply to the question, “What about the fathers who do care for their children?” with, “So? That’s what he’s supposed to do; he shouldn’t get credit for that.” Perhaps not. And should we stop praising black women for being the “backbone of the race,” or for being “the ones who held the race together?” Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do as strong black women?

If raising a child is “the most important job,” then we should praise and respect all of those who do-male or female, father or mother, custodial or non-custodial parent.

In the final analysis, as black men, we must start re-examining our own behaviors, especially young black men. Sleeping with a large number of women, the size of your penis, the amount of money in your pocket, and the kind of car you drive do not define you as a man.

So what does? The key is that it has to come from within. It’s not good enough to say, “A good black man is defined by having a good, high-paying job.” There are plenty of bad men with good, high-paying jobs.

Here are a few words for black men:

1) Honesty. Are you basically a truthful man or, if things go wrong in your life and by your own hands, do you blame others? If you’re honest, you look and say, “There’s no one to blame but me.”

2) Responsibility. At a certain point in a man’s life-and that oftentimes depends on the individual man-you have to establish yourself in a positive manner in the world. Whether your goal is to be president of the United States or employee of the month at Walgreens, you have to find a path, job or career opportunity and make something out of it.

3) Integrity. No one is perfect and let he who has not sinned cast the first stone. However, we essentially know what the right type of behavior is and what the wrong type of behavior is. It’s not about doing everything right always. If you’re human, you won’t. But as I say, when it counts, do what you know is right.

4) Strength. It would be disingenuous not to point out that some definitions of a “strong black man” are completely off base. Being a strong black man has nothing to do with how you compare with strong black woman. In other words, black women are strong in their own right, as they frequently share with us: “I don’t need a man for this, that or the other.”

So what should be the representation of the strong black man? Will you take a stand and stick with it even if things get rough? For example, can you be abstinent (for yourself, not for a woman) if you have to? Can you get back up if you’re knocked down? Behind every strong man is a strong backbone.

5) Dignity. This is not a thinly veiled attack against black men who wear their pants off their butts and fishnets on their heads. That has nothing to do with carrying yourself with dignity. If all you have is rags to cover your back, your dignity still comes from within. Too often, black men are made to feel ashamed for what they don’t have-a car, a place of their own, striking good looks or those high-paying jobs. If you’re solid with the four previous words, your dignity is already intact. Sometimes acting the fool to have fun can be a healthy release, but acting foolish on your life path slowly strips away your dignity.

If this isn’t how you want to define yourself, it’s part of how I and many others black men define ourselves. But if you look into your own soul and at your moral center, you’ll find who you are as black men.

This column was originally printed in the Nov. 16-30, 2003 edition of The North Lawndale Community News.

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