We need to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper


I’ve been told I should be the first among many to celebrate President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. After all, I came from a “broken family.” In fact, I am a Black man who was functionally fatherless twice over, and earlier in my life I wrapped my vision of racial uplift around the ways that men like my fathers were damaged by a system that both feared and fetishized them.

My brother and I were abandoned in a welfare shelter by our mother, Gertrude, who had lost her own mother when she was a young girl.  As a consequence of suffering that I can only imagine, she was institutionalized at a mental facility when she was just 13.  At 16, she left the state, beginning a life long struggle with heroin and alcohol addiction.  Ultimately, she bore at least seven children, and either formally or informally traded her beauty for the money and temporary security she could garner from the men willing to pay.

Tough childhood
My brother and I were rescued by Eva, our great aunt, who raised us on welfare in Camden, N.J. while working side jobs as a domestic to keep food on the table. Charlie, her husband, lost his handle on life. After attempting to murder my brother and me and then commit suicide, he too was committed to an asylum.  And, the clearest memory that I have of Luke – the man I knew as my “biological” father – was the summer day he took me at the age of 5 and my 4-year-old brother Larry to a bar, and forced us to drink straight Scotch for his amusement.

It’s reasonable to assume that I would understand and actually encourage MBK’s male focus. But my vision of racial justice changed the day I realized that notwithstanding my politics of racial solidarity, I failed to include, much less center, the very women who bore and nurtured me, the women who struggled against, and sometimes failed in the face of stifling conditions that threatened their very existence.

Don’t forget the women
I am not saying that young Black boys and men deserve anything less than we are now getting. And, most certainly, my own biological dad and step-father might well have been better situated to raise me had they had opportunities that allowed them to pursue richer lives. Certainly, it is worthwhile to be gender-specific in thinking about what kinds of interventions might have made their lives more productive in their own right, not to mention how they might have enhanced their ability to be good fathers to me and to Larry.

And although these efforts are largely situated in the long debate about anti-Black racism, it does make sense to broaden the frame to look at other communities of color as well.  But, how can any of us in good faith think that beginning and ending the quest for racial justice by bettering the lives of males even remotely justifies the deafening silence that obscures the lives of women like my two mothers – lives that were traumatized and devastated because they were poor, Black and female?

These were the women who tried to care for me despite the barriers they faced – one sacrificed what little she had to provide a home for me, while the other lost a battle with the demons that ushered her to an early grave.

Luke Charles Harris is co-founder of the African American Policy Forum and assistant professor of political science at Vassar College in New York.



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