Playing With Anger

Teaching Coping Skills to African American Boys through Athletics and Culture
Howard C. Stevenson Jr.


Boys, Not Men: Hypervulnerability in African American Youth

Howard C.   Stevenson Jr. Gwendolyn Y.   Davis   Teresa   Herrero-Taylor   Russell   Morris

Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.

—Luis Buñuel

My Last Sigh

Being Black and male is surreal. You are desired and you are despised. You are mostly hunted for sport and for the development of others. Your rarity in certain contexts makes you a marketable commodity worthy of desire and loathing. You are assumed to be hostile and you are assumed to be careless. You are followed as often as you are left alone. You want what everybody else wants but it feels as if the world looks upon you as if you want it with malice. Like W. E. B. DuBois once said, “in amused contempt and pity,” you feel ashamed of wanting what everyone wants. Peace from the hunting comes too often as you give up, stop running, and face every attacker with such ferocity, that you agree to die in a blaze of glory. Or you make a secret pact with every onlooker and attacker to die in a blaze of glory just to save face. If the attacker is a shoe commercial, a shoe, or an evil eye glance from a policeman, or another brother on your neighborhood block, your biggest struggle will be to ponder whether your fight for life and death will match or surpass the meaning of your surreal existence.

Our musings here reflect how identity struggles for Black young men can often reveal a life-and-death debate. To be fortunate enough to have identity musings without a polarized life-and-death struggle is rare for many African American boys. Racial profiling of young Black males while they drive, walk, shop, talk, stand, and gather in groups has reached such epidemic proportions that even paranoid Black Panthers might underestimate its magnitude (ACLU Pedestrian and Car Stop Audit, 2000; Schmitt, Langan, & Durose, 2002). It's become another of America's interesting pastimes. Even America's overindulgence of aggressive masculinity and male gender patriarchy yields no protection for Black men. A person can't simply be male if he is Black. We have yet to observe a male code of silence and camaraderie like the “blue wall” evident in many police forces which requires the threat of imprisonment before it will crumble.

The struggle of African American identity or identities in the bodies, souls, and minds of male adolescents is a complex one. For one, scholars and identity researchers from anthropology to psychology, using a variety of empirical methods ranging from ethnography to survey research, are debating whether such an identity even exists. Social theorists who apply no particular empirical research strategies still use keen insight, observation, and analysis of the social and historical expressions of contemporary culture as evidence (Asante, Crouch, Early, Hooks, West, etc.). The arguments often center on whether to consider identity a unified entity since context influences our self-expressions and self-interpretations. Frankly, gender and race are inseparable as far as identity is concerned, or so we will argue, if youth accept the larger definitions of what Black manhood means. That is, we believe, if the larger societal definitions, questions, and ponderings of Black maleness are accepted, life and death struggles are the only identity options.


Some argue that because Black youth can behave very differently depending on the context, to conceptualize group identity is to be an essentialist, which to some scholars is a fate worse than death. Essentialist views are those that suggest the cultural expressions and strivings of a group of people can be identified from a particular set of values and behaviors with enduring historical and relational connections. The other extreme of the perspective is that there is no need to structure any one sense or definition or construction of identity or culture and to do so only simplifies a very complex reality. Those who propose the multiple identity perspectives are rarely eager to entertain any essentialist notions. Those who propose a strictly essentialist viewpoint are not willing to concede that a lack of cultural cohesion exists among African Americans apart from their contextual interactions.

With respect to African American boys, the intellectual debate on identity is often lost in the natural and unpredictable realities of racism in America (Meeks, 2000). Some researchers and clinicians barely acknowledge the gendered impact of racism and others ignore the topic altogether. Many see it as an excuse that supports a learned helplessness ideology. We do not. Black boys must manage in a world that fears and falsely idolizes their identity projections. Their stylistic machinations, verbiage, protests, and movements are feared and desired, desired and feared. What we are proposing is that both essentialistic and multiple identity perspectives and the derivatives of them are relevant. This “both-and” perspective has some African American psychology underpinnings, has been written by the authors elsewhere, and will be discussed in more detail in chapter 1 (Nobles, 1991; Stevenson, 1998b; Stevenson & Davis, 2003).

To settle solely on the essentialist viewpoint would be to narrow the possibilities and multiple expressions of Black youth as they move from one challenging social context to another. To settle solely on the multiple identity perspective is to adopt a Foucaultian view that identity is “becoming” without acknowledging that Black youth live in a static world that expects them to be somebody specific and somebody static. That is, while Black youth are becoming, the world is imaging them in some very rigid ways, and they unfortunately are also imaging themselves in some of the same rigid ways. Why? Because they are engaged mostly in reacting and doing, as opposed to simply reflecting. Power, thus, or empowerment becomes possible primarily if they step outside and reflect upon the straight-jacketed images or boxes, the rigidity, the stasis and be somebody who is dynamic and undefinable.

In fact, in the mind of the adolescent, doing rather than being may best represent the identity striving. This becoming occurs in abstract and across time, but most youth are being or doing, not solely becoming. In fact, all of us are being and doing. The difference for adults is a keener ability to reflect upon experience so choices are choices and not rush judgments (or at least we like to lie to ourselves that our judgments are superior). The luxury of acknowledging the becoming process is one that requires reflection, looking back, on one's life. Black adolescent development in urban contexts in which family support is limited rarely allows for such reflection when the fight for identity expression and the social demands to be or do are so great and so weighty. It is a burden to carry the mantle of growing when ducking is your priority.


Multiple identity theorists miss the boat, in our opinion, because although they are right to think theoretically about the phenomenon of multiple identities, they are often wrong about how youth appropriate or access or express these identities in a racist, sexist, misogynistic world. It is less comforting to consider a world in which some of us are freer to express multiple identities in contexts that encourage this expression. Conversely, others of us must enjoy the “playground” that is available to us—the front step in neighborhoods where playing down the street is a dangerous thing. Social interactions, in our opinion, push all of us, and Black youth in this instance, to be, not become, to do, not just plan what to do. Black youth are often pressured to present a clarified identity with specific actions, not an ambiguous or multidimensional one, because the social interactions and context often demand it. Cunningham (1999) and Spencer, Cunningham, and Swanson's (1995) work on reactive coping helps to illuminate this idea of doing as an integral part of one's identity striving. In Spencer's Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST), identity striving is coping. This model appreciates the static and dynamic nature of identity for Black youth (Spencer, 1999; Youngblood & Spencer, 2002). In PVEST, there is an opportunity to appreciate identity within a “both-and” reality.

Sometimes for poor Black boys, there are serious emotional, social and psychological costs to shifting their presented identity. It could mean that they face, ever so momentarily, the perceptions of animalism and criminality of a Black-male-phobic public as well as the abyss of nothingness or nihility in themselves. To shift may represent some reflection of their current lesser position in society as well as their future. It could also mean a diminution of social status among peers and a change in presentation could give them reason for distrust (Stevenson, 1997). Cunningham (1999) has found that when Black adolescent males are using exaggerated macho identity stances, they are in fact—coping. This coping is essential in social and ecological environments in which danger to their personal and familial safety is high. Maintaining a stable identity presentation allows predictability among peers, provides a set of strategies (albeit limited) to manage societal hostility (e.g., cool pose and reactive coping), and builds a fragile and temporary but demonstrably confident self in socially stressful contexts. To summarize, identity shifting has some very powerful and scary consequences for young Black boys. The very angst of having to monitor these public and private identities leaves many boys “missed, dissed, and pissed” (Kunjufu, 1983; Stevenson, 1997; Wilson, 1990).

“Pissed” is defined as an underlying expressed and unexpressed seething anger related to conscious but mostly unconscious feelings of devaluation experienced since early childhood from societal, familial, and interpersonal rejection. “Missed” is defined as the societal systematic conundrum of misrepresentation and misinterpretations of Black male behavior. “Dissed” represents the disrespect and distortion of Black male imaging across the American image landscape. This distortion is like identity quicksand for males who are unaware of or unprepared to manage this reality. The feeling that one has to constantly fight life's battles by oneself, must always be “on guard,” and must retaliate against multiple attackers reflects a heightened sense of fear that represents being dissed. Doing Blackness and maleness with intensity is one way Black boys cope with being missed, dissed, and pissed.


In mental health and other social institutions, there are several reasons to account for the missed, dissed, and pissed reality of African American male adolescents and the way social systems respond to them, but one stands out above the rest. A phenomenon that has caused more confusion for effective psychological assessment and treatment of African American males is the strict reliance on either-or principles. Those values influence how we conduct assessment and treatment strategies, the most popular of which involves the separation of internalizing and externalizing behaviors. This separation is very much situated in Western dichotomies of spirit and flesh, thoughts and feelings, good and bad, strong and weak, and normal and abnormal. Often, clinical psychologists and other mental and social health clinicians and researchers are trained to understand that there are two kinds of troubled youth in our world—internalizers and externalizers. Internalizers are often known to be anxious, depressed, withdrawn, shy, sullen, bored, unconscious, quietly irritable, catatonic, and compulsive.

Externalizers are often believed to be aggressive, outwardly angry, hostile, conduct disordered, oppositional defiant, loud, active, remorseless, and volitional. Mental health and juvenile justice systems reflect these dualistic diagnostic categories when judgments are made as to the appropriate “treatment” for acting-out versus non-acting-out youth. Kunjufu was absolutely correct to consider this mental health reality as a conspiracy to murder African American boys. Black emotions are aggressive and violent while White youth aggression is “a pain in the ass.” The fear of the potential violence of disenfranchised, gun-toting angry White males in high schools has not reached the level of heightened extreme fear and stereotype that has accompanied the public images of Black male youth, in our opinion. Who could forget Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old White male from Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, who on May 21, 1998, fired 51 rounds of ammunition at a hundred or so students in the cafeteria, wounding 22 and killing 2. What is most relevant about this case here is not the shooting violence at the school, but the fact that Mr. Kinkel was not thoroughly searched by detectives at the scene of the crime. This “mistake” led to Kinkel almost killing a police officer at the police station when he took a knife he had taped to his leg, and lunged to stab him. Thanks to pepper spray and nifty police work, Kinkel was subdued and then thoroughly searched. It appeared that despite Mr. Kinkel's shooting spree of gun violence, murder, and assault, he was not deemed dangerous enough to warrant a thorough body search. We wonder if a Black male caught in the same circumstances would have been so easily dismissed. We think not.

Thus, we have considered that Black youth are struggling within a narrow and surreal existence. While many, not all, but significantly more White youth have greater latitude for psychological development, experimentation and meaning-making through mistakes, most Black youth do not have such luxury, especially if they are poor (Baer & Chambliss, 1997). While White male youth have the equivalent of two football fields worth of freedom with which to make serious life-changing mistakes (e.g., property crimes, misdemeanor, interpersonal aggression, substance abuse, and school disruption) without the risk of losing their future, Black males have a long yard. In fact, to carry this football analogy further, every day could be labeled “Fourth and long.” But to bring it back to the “hood” analogy, the only safe space to play is on the front steps or stoop of their houses.

Black males are twice as likely to be arrested and seven times more likely to be held in detention facilities as White youth (Children's Defense Fund, 2000). Black males consistently receive more severe and lengthier punishments than White males who commit the same offenses (Children's Defense Fund, 2000). Black males are overrepresented at every level of the juvenile justice system, constituting 70 percent of all juveniles in American correctional facilities (Children's Defense Fund, 2000). In Pennsylvania, a recent civil rights report found that a Black youth is six times more likely to be locked up than a White peer, even when charged with a similar crime and when neither has a prior record (Steffensmeier, Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998). Moreover, Black males report experiencing racial discrimination at higher levels than any other group (Krieger, Sidney, & Coakley, 1998). The Wall Street Journal reported on a study that found that a white ex-con was called back for a second job interview as a dishwasher or driver 17% of the time, while a crime-free Black applicant was called back 14% of the time (Wessell, 2003).

Our systems are flawed as to identifying adequately the social and mental health needs of African American youth for several reasons. One reason can be found in the insidious nature of racism. Research shows that African Americans, especially Black boys are often feared as criminalizing men or animals (Baer & Chambliss, 1997; Finkelman, 1992; Greenberg & West, 2001; Kennedy, 2001; Meeks, 2000; Sampson & Laub, 1993). Sampson and Laub (1993) found through investigation of juvenile court proceedings and records that black males are perceived as threatening members of society who need to be controlled. Romer, Jamieson, and de Coteau (1998) found that the percentage of crime committed by African Americans in a northeast city is significantly lower than the percentage of news coverage on three major local news networks compared to Whites. A viewer could form the impression simply by watching the local news that African Americans commit crime at higher levels. Furthermore, African American males are often targeted as threats and menaces to society by many social authority figures ranging from police to school teachers and that this social construction of Black males as “menace” has both public health and economic marketing implications (Gibbs, 1988; McIntyre & Pernell, 1985; Potts, 1997; Rowan, Pernell, & Akers, 1996; Sampson & Laub, 1993).

Anne Ferguson's (2000) telling account of how 11- and 12-year-old Black boys are criminalized and expected to land in jail as a group is even more chilling when you consider her book Bad Boys is focused on how schools can be the culprits of the projections. The rash of police shootings and killings of innocent, unarmed Black males, the subsequent media whitewash of the social implications of the loss of Black life compared with Whites (West, 1993), and the refusal of major institutions (police) to admit wrongdoing or change their practices in the face of overwhelming statistical or video evidence are just a few of the evidentiary issues to support the racism argument (ACLU Pedestrian and Car Stop Audit, 2000).

A recent ACLU Audit and Monitoring Report on Police Pedestrian and Car Stops in Philadelphia County revealed that African Americans and Latinos are being stopped at 2 to 3 times (in some districts, up to 10 times) their rates of population compared with Whites and that this is most pronounced in Philadelphia districts in which African Americans and Latinos make up less than 10 percent of the population (ACLU Pedestrian and Car Stop Audit, 2000). Despite the percentage of African Americans in a particular district, the arrest rates for Blacks exceeds the expected population percentage in each of the 23 districts in Philadelphia County and in only 2 districts does the arrest rate of Whites exceed the White population percentage.

Serious researchers and clinicians interested in the identity development and psychological intervention with Black boys cannot wait for “White” power structures or people in powerful positions to actually understand and challenge a systemic view of racism. To wait for this phenomenon is akin to watching polar ice melt and reveals only an ignorance and inability to interpret the American racial milieu across the past three centuries. It may happen, but why wait for it? Why wait for more Black male youth to fall prey to stereotypes that have daily negative physical and mental health consequences? Questions like these and answers to these questions represent key reasons why this book was written.

Intervening with racism may require a psychological arming of the victims more than it involves the upending of the social status quo (White & Jones, 1999). Too often, Black interventionists, civil rights leaders, and protesters leave the children unprotected while going to fight on the race-relations battlefield. The understandable explanation is that children will pick up meaning by watching, by implication, or by indirect socialization. Mostly this is true, but when we win some of the battles and lose the war, our children suffer the most, because all children witness is their loved ones withering slowly to nothing. The message to helpers, Black or otherwise, should be, “Don't leave the children unprotected.” Besides, you can't upend the status quo if the status of the children is suspect, because no child will be left behind to follow in your footsteps. As in the “in the event of an emergency the oxygen mask will fall from the ceiling” pre-takeoff speech on most airlines, we should breathe first, then give the masks to the children, rather than first leave our seat to try to fly an oxygen-depleted plane. Socialization of culture, in our opinion, should be explicit, not assumed if we realistically expect to reduce the psychologically asphyxiating effects of racism.

A second observation of the way the “either-or” projections of American social systems hurt Black boys is that professionals and researchers remain clueless about the social and cultural context demands of Black males, about the functionality of violent behavior, and about how this information is translated into action. Moreover, who cares about the intellectual debate between various identity perspectives when our societal media landscape perpetually essentializes violence and attaches it as endemic to Black manhood? While social scientists and activists say and do nothing? The intellectual conundrum of the public fight for understanding Black male identity ought not to be discussion of whether Black identity is essentialistic or multidimensional. This is an important but insufficient discussion. The key intellectual debate or challenge ought to be about the fact that Black male identity is conspicuously invisible and too often structurally attached to the most violent behaviors we abhor (see chapter 2; Franklin, 1999; Franklin & Franklin, 2000). “Hostile attribution bias” as a term has been very helpful in distinguishing aggressive and nonaggressive youths, but it may not be as applicable to the behaviors of male youths who live in dangerous contexts. The training of professionals is helpful but can't fully encompass the larger subtlety of modern societal racism. True intervention in this conundrum of missed, dissed, and pissed requires that Black families start the training at home first. To expect the mental health establishment to appreciate these larger societal machinations is overly optimistic.

A third way projections hurt Black youth is the consistent and predictable insistence of professionals (from education to mental health to juvenile justice) that internalizing and externalizing behaviors are different diagnostic categories and do not tend to coexist in an individual. This insistence is coupled with the ignorance of how ecological contexts influence behavior. Most of the aggression we see in Black youth is accompanied by depression symptoms, fear of annihilation, loss of family support and psychological distress. It is not sociopathic, which is the common misconception of professionals who have no training in the complexity of urban youth culture, who avoid discussion of race and racism, or who fear getting their intellectual and physical hands dirty in the nexus of intervention and education. So, approaches that attempt to understand and address the depression rather than control the aggression are more likely to be successful. Unfortunately, our culture has moved toward control and patrol, not understanding the synthesis of opposite emotional struggles. Therefore, there is a narrowing of the ways in which Black youth are treated based on the narrow diagnostic expectations in traditional mental health and educational contexts.


Cornell West discusses the problem of nihilism in poor, minority communities as a danger too often overlooked. Nihility is defined here as the state of or fear of nothingness or nonexistence (West, 1993). We believe that we have observed this in African American boys who have a history of anger- and aggressive-laden social conflicts. We believe that the fear of nonexistence often underlies their actions and presented identities. It is these being or presented identities that we are most interested in as we understand the hypermasculinity, hypervulnerability, and fears of nonexistence for African American males in high-risk urban contexts. Majors and Billson (1992) have applied Goffman's (1959) notions of “impression management” to Black male identity strivings. They discuss the phenomenon of dramaturgy and the pressure to present and perform one's identity and the stress raised by this presentation to the world. Unfortunately, false images of manhood perpetuate hypervulnerability. But what is hypervulnerability?

Our experiences with the boys have taught us that their emotional lives are under siege daily. The constant verbal assaults from peers, friends, and sometimes family about their physical features, fashion, walk, talk, or ideas bring about a hypersensitivity to humiliation. Hypervulnerability is a combination of feelings and experiences that surround potential humiliation. Specifically, hypervulnerability includes but is not exclusive to the following situations or experiences:

When we use the term “hypervulnerability” this is what we mean. Hypervulnerability is the intense psychological and physical exposure of one's cognitions, feelings, and actions to annihilation and dehumanization from one's family, friends, neighborhood, society, and the various images that these social institutions blatantly and unwittingly promulgate and manufacture.


We believe that the more males experience the pressure to show themselves and demonstrate masculine competency, the greater the hypervulnerability. The problem with these dynamics and the “drama” that accompanies them is that African American boys and men are borrowing from the American society's ideas of insecure masculinity that reside in popular icons like the Marlboro Man, James Bond, Wallstreet Man, and the President. These images and the drive to emulate them are not without reward, mind you, because to accomplish these images can yield much in material and social advancements. The tragic reality is that all men (financially successful or not) in America fall short of being what these men represent. The goal of insecure masculinity is to “look good” despite any internal reality to the contrary—much to the delight of Fernando (played by Billy Crystal) of Saturday Night Live, whose life motto is “If you don't feel good, at least look good.” Another oft-quoted phrase “All men are great in their imagination” is especially apropos for these dynamics. The failure fear of men of all ethnic and racial backgrounds who quietly idolize these images across the socioeconomic spectrum as evidenced by the concomitant power struggles of domestic violence, alcoholism, substance abuse, and child abandonment only solidify the futility of placing one's trust in insecure masculinity development (McCreary & Wright, 1997; Oliver, 1984; 1989).

Boys cannot be expected to develop into men if the rituals, strategies, communications, and relationships are based on a historically moribund, culturally enslaving, intergenerational dynamic of insecure masculinity (Kindlon & Thompson, 2000; Pollack, 1998). The goal of this theme is to “look good” and approximate being “The Man.” While Black youths add some “cool pose” flavor to the mix of insecure masculinity, it is our belief that they do not change the basic nature of it. And yes, given the way in which suburban White youth buy rap music and borrow urban fashion strategies, other young boys and men of every ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic group seek to emulate the cool pose. But this amounts to no more than the phenomenon of the cool pose blind leading the blind, who are all being led by the simple, but life-polarizing mission of insecure masculinity. Here the ongoing identity struggle between life and death raises its ugly head. Childhood should be full of surprises not solely choices between good and bad. We ask Black boys to become men without a childhood or a tear and wonder why they die so young. Well? It's hard to be what you don't see, but it's even harder for boys to be men before they finish living or doing boyhood.

The fear of the future is not addressed and is often denied because it raises too many questions and too much pessimism that “now” preoccupies the minds and actions of many Black youth. Now is the most important moment not just because I'm an adolescent, but because tomorrow is bleak. So how can I be now? What must I do now, in order to be now? Vulnerability is now-oriented. So many boys ask, “How do I protect my vulnerability now?” So it is our assertion that it is not that poor Black youth don't think about their future, it's that for many poor Black youth who have not engaged or been engaged by the educational institutions of our society, the future is bleak, and to ponder it is too emotionally disturbing. So protecting one's vulnerability is being the man.

The best that many of the Black male youths we work with can hope for is to fool most of the people, most of the time. They have surmised this over time, often without adult feedback and supervision—but again they are pondering how to cope in the world with blinders on, with only limited knowledge. The problem for African American boys pretending to be young men is that their access to the tools and resources to “look good” are limited and so the cost of pretending is greater and requires greater risk, imagination and ego-boosting psychological resources. To wear cool fashion and to make money in the quickest means possible is not original, individualistic, or entrepreneurial, if the only jobs and occupations for Black youth are narrowly scripted. This presents what Stevenson & Davis (2003) have defined as a “Catch-33.” They are not “leading a charge” or “making their mark” so much as they are following a script that is not as developed and broad as the scripts that the rest of the adolescent and male world has to follow; thus, the relevance of the concepts of cool pose or reactive coping or “bad boys” for African American boys and men (Ferguson, 2000; Majors & Billson, 1992; Spencer et al., 1995).

Unfortunately, the script is designed within White society's projected fears of Black manhood, not the self-determined efforts, experiences, and potential of Black manhood. As such this script is corrupt and any Black male who follows it or lives his life to reject it may be corrupted along with it. To do this script or to play this role or its antirole evil twin brother is to self-destruct in the most consistent historical fashion. Lurking behind this identity striving is DuBois's brilliant rhetorical question of “How does it feel to be a problem?” (DuBois, 1903).


The vulnerability that African American young males experience is overwhelming (Meeks, 2000). We believe that it is this vulnerability that precipitates violence and negative social interactions. That is, vulnerability at multiple levels and the need to protect oneself from the reality, tragedy, or possibility of one's limitations takes precedence over social etiquette or civility. The now calls one to fight the fight. The fear of despair and nonexistence underlies the need for immediate protection. The work of Hawkins, Hawkins, Sabatino & Ley (1998) and Simons et al. (2002) shows that lower perceived future opportunity and discrimination predicts depression in Black males and females. This blocked opportunity despair may be at the heart of the nothingness fear.

“Imagination is the last great weapon in the war against reality” (White, 2000). From a clinical perspective, however, we observe that the abundant expenditure of psychological resources to self-defend one's insecure masculinity through cool pose strategies is simultaneously self-destructive. To use a less than adequate Star Trek analogy, most of the resources that Black male youth expend, are in self-defense, not self-development. The ability to reflect, ponder, and face their situation is there, but it is not refined enough to manage the larger complexities of a White supremacist society. They cannot fight back with adequate weapons because all of their psychological and physical energies are focused on the shields of preservation.

This raises the issue of the “both-and” theoretical constructions of reality presented earlier. What must it be like to live as a Black male in a world in which the very “necessary” strategies known to be effective in promoting dominance and competence as a “real man” are the very same nihilistic strategies that ignite self-destruction, or at least ignite the fear of self-destruction?

And for what—to fool most of the people, most of the time? What's up with that? What if only some of the people are fooled some of the time? What if nobody is fooled? All this to avoid feeling the despair, the nihility, the nothingness? What then? What level, quality, and type of psychological reconceptualization or imagination or behavior must be created to remasculinize? These are a few of the relevant questions we find to be central to understanding how to reconceptualize hope for young Black males.

The lack of access to the goals and means for men on the periphery of societal existence and on the outskirts of the mainstream experience has been written by sociologists for decades (Merton, 1959), but often without a contemporary focus on the cultural-ecological implications for Black boys and men (Majors & Billson, 1992). The struggle of African American identity in the bodies, souls, and minds of adolescent boys is unique beyond comparison. Erickson has been quoted as saying that “A bad identity is better than no identity at all.” Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century religious philosopher states it differently when he says, “At the bottom of enmity between strangers lies indifference.” This statement is true for loved ones as well as strangers. It is this indifference to self and fear of obsolescence that many of our youth struggle to avoid at all costs.

The fear of despair or the thought that they are without identity or existence rests at the heart of most of the conflicts we see among the young boys in our work. Many are just a step below clinical depression. And without intervention, support, or what is better thought of as love, it is the “dancing with the devil” or “flirting with death” that brings about the most meaning. Kierkegaard remarks again regarding death when he states, “Because of its tremendous solemnity death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances.” It is our contention that the outward appearances of Black male youth are limited and truncated compared to others and while they can reshape these appearances, true freedom can come only if they re-create their image and redefine the questions for themselves. They must expend most if not all of this energy on their own perceptions, not the perceptions of others. History teaches us that it is a humongous waste of time and talent to try to reshape the larger societal racist perception. “Hate the game, not the player” is a familiar retort among young folks today. We think the creation of another game is in order because as the African proverb goes, “By the time the fool has learned the rules of the game, the players have dispersed.”

In social and developmental contexts where the demands for dominance and male superiority rank higher than loving one's family, the “bad identity or no” phrase is no small statement (Oliver, 1984; 1989). For Black male youth who could kill each other for disputes involving sneakers and who live in a society in which American men and women kill each other under the influence of road rage and domestic insecurities, the fear of nothingness is no small social problem. Yet, we Americans are more afraid of Black angst than American angst and we are illiterate and blind to any similarity it has to our own angst (Baer & Chambliss, 1997). We just rarely apply these existential ideas to the arena of Black male psychological functioning.


One issue we have consistently found to precipitate Black-on-Black violence is that for many boys, the homies many boys trust the most are ultimately not trustworthy. Again, another example of hypervulnerability is the fear that the friends you “hang with” or your family could betray you. This reality fits with the finding that friend-acquaintance homicide is six times higher for Black youth than for Whites (Children's Defense Fund, 1999). We expect that this is true for those youth who haven't developed bonding relationships with homies beyond the superficial hanging together types of relationships. The recent alleged murder of Baylor basketball star, Brian Dennehey at the hands of a best friend, during the summer of 2003, is but one of many accounts of friends turning on each other. Of course, there are friendships that develop that are closer than family and that have long-lasting and life-supportive characteristics. But where the fear of betrayal or the withholding of trust predominates one's best friend relationships, we propose that hypervulnerability is mediating this experience. Hypervulnerability is the flimsy crazy glue that holds this relationship together and fighting against the ultimate death is the cause celebre.

So in the oldest of American male traditions—the rugged individualism of Marlboro Man, Lone Ranger, and James Bond, many Black male youth with serious hypervulnerability challenges, are left to protect themselves at all costs, and at all times—alone. It is not uncommon in our CPR (Cultural Pride Reinforcement) group therapy component to have the boys get “touchy” and snap at the group leaders or each other over minute misunderstandings. It is clear that they are defending themselves when no defense is necessary, at least in the eyes of outside observers. Lurie (1999) raises this when he discusses conversations among psychiatrists regarding the lack of emotional connections with others that conduct disordered youth experience. One of the psychiatrists reports:

In effect, they have learned that their emotional distress is dangerous to them, and this is why they have difficulty forming close relationships with other people. Furthermore, even minimally stressful situations (especially those that involve humiliation) can provoke a fight-or-flight response, in which a child reacts violently toward other people, behaving as though they were dangerous objects in the environment.

These dynamics reflect what researchers have identified as “hostile attributional bias,” but the overwhelming sense of vulnerability is more cultural and environmental than that term suggests (Garber, Quiggle, Panak, & Dodge, 1991). It presupposes that the threat experienced by these boys is not present in-the-moment or in their immediate existential experience (going to school, waking up, going to the corner store). We take a slightly different view of these phenomena. In a both-and psychological reality, boys (or anyone for that matter) who are under stressful situations do not experience fight or flight reactions, but experience both fight and flight reactions—in the moment. If a person is fearful of engaging the aggression then we assume the potential for prevention is high. The minute misunderstandings are able to be corrected and understood. Unfortunately, out of fear or ignorance, our mental health profession refuses to go deeper with these youth and is culturally misattuned to their dilemmas (Zamel & Stevenson, 2003). Moreover, hostile attribution bias is not a bias if a person is living within a dangerous context, which is why even depressed individuals might evoke it but not act on it (Garber et al., 1991). The bias is present because of real threat in the environment. Even the toughest Black males are afraid of being victimized (May & Dunaway, 2000). That is why we prefer hypervulnerability as it may more accurately reflect what is psychologically going on within the Black male youth before, during, and after angry and aggressive conflicts and within their surroundings.


Plato (427 b.c.–347 b.c.) said that “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Traditional culturally incompetent strategies of psychoeducation, psychotherapy and intervention are not effective for Black male youth who live in a different world than the one that created these strategies (Lurie, 1999; The President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003). This is not to say that Black male youth cannot be insightful, cannot appreciate discussing their emotional pain, or cannot learn how to increase self-control through the therapeutic challenge of cognitive distortions. On the contrary, African American boys are still boys who desire and respond to affection, protection, and correction (Stevenson, Davis, & Abdul-Kabir, 2001). It simply means that our strategies have missed the mark of what is psychologically and dynamically going on for them. In the article, “Missed, Dissed, & Pissed,” Stevenson (1997) points out how Black youth are misunderstood, disrespected, and angry at their misrepresentation and unique struggles in American society—due often to the fact that they undergo different experiences than other groups. So different and culturally relevant intervention strategies are not only necessary, but without them, other traditional approaches are likely to perpetuate the perception that Black male youth require control and prison, not caring and prevention.

Given our view on the detrimental effects of societal and institutional racism, culturally relevant interventions must become meta-analytic, culturally socialization-based, and relationship-centered (Stevenson, 1998a; Stevenson & Davis, 2003). Black males must relearn that they are not members of a lost generation; that they deserve to be touched emotionally, physically, and intellectually; and that they are capable of learning about and critically outmaneuvering the subtleties of American racism. That is, playing a different game. They need to be reminded that they are still boys who need what all boys need not by accident or as an afterthought, but in perpetuity—care and compassion. Affection, correction, and protection. Imagine that—that one major contribution to the health of African American male identity is to challenge all relationships that seek to dehumanize them and image them as something else besides who they really are—boys. One project, PLAAY (preventing long-term anger and aggression in youth), which attempts to address these issues through the use of athletic movement and cultural socialization, is the subject of this book.

As Desmond Tutu once said, “We tend to see children as statistics, but they really are not. They are somebody's child. And if we do not do all that we can to salvage them, it is as if we are spitting in the face of God.”


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Playing With Anger -- : Teaching Coping Skills to African American Boys through Athletics and Culture


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