“The first movement he made the following morning was to reach under his pillow for the gun. In the gray light of dawn he held it loosely, feeling a sense of power… And if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him. It was a big gun, with a long barrel and a heavy handle. He raised and lowered it in his hand, marveling at its weight.”
from “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”
by Richard Wright
Wright’s 1961 short story is chilling, even haunting, in light of recent gun violence, but it also lends some sanity to the ongoing “solution to shootings” debate.
In recent days, we’ve heard that the answer lies in one or more of the following:
■ placing an armed guard in every school
■ limiting media coverage of shootings
■ bolstering mental health services
■ renewing the assault weapons ban
■ arming teachers
■ outlawing high-capacity magazines
■ ending easy access to guns
■ eliminating gun sales by private sellers
■ curtailing violence displayed in media and games
■ outlawing citizen-owned guns entirely
Many of these are supported by large sects of people, but that is the problem. Sects of people believe and support different solutions, meaning any solution will be near to impossible to implement. Maybe a better approach would be to find common ground first, a consensus in the midst of this nightmare, and then address our differences working from that foundation, a foundation I believe we can find in Wright’s short story.
The protagonist in the story is a young black man named Dave who yearns to be a man in a world where his physical attributes make this goal impossible. In his despair, he attempts to become his desired self – masculine, powerful, respected – by purchasing a gun. His faulty logic and subsequent actions lead to failure, rather than success, and the story ends with Dave jumping on a train, heading for “somewhere where he [can] be a man.”
Manhood. Across time, across cultures, the socialization of young boys has included some rite of passage into manhood. Some rituals are more gruesome than others, but the specific practice is not what is important in this discussion. The fact that young boys need some type of validation, some sort of recognition, that they have passed from one stage of existence to another is quite apparent. Maybe this is where we falter – and where we can unite.
In America, many boys only receive masculine recognition if they are athletes, if they show sexual prowess with women, if they drive “manly” vehicles, if they hunt, if they demonstrate alpha male tendencies.
Blessed are young men who have older males in their lives who also validate them for demonstrating high intelligence, musical abilities, relational insight, or technology-geared brains.
Unfortunately, the latter doesn’t happen as often as the former, especially during the teen years, and as a result society ends up producing young men who are essentially like Wright’s Dave, seeking some way to be recognized as men.
One company, Bushmaster, recognized this crisis of worth in modern men and developed a “man card” marketing strategy, a campaign linking gun ownership and aggressive behavior to manhood. Bushmaster’s website, until just a few days ago, offered an application process for those wishing to be “card carrying” men. The idea was to validate those who demonstrated alpha male tendencies (example: trashing the car of someone who insults you) and invalidate anyone who demonstrated non-alpha male behaviors (example: avoiding conflict). Consider the company’s ad copy that displays an assault rifle next to the words, “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.”
Surely, we can all see the danger here. In the minds of impressionable young boys, there is an object, a firearm, that can make the world take notice of you, something that will finally give you the respect you deserve, something that will make you a man.
So what are some common-ground actions we can take against such cultural fallacy?
First, just as we regulate the marketing strategies of cigarette and alcohol companies, it is time to do the same with gun companies. We cannot afford this idea of manhood being validated by a gun to draw one more breath, not in this culture where so many young men are struggling for nothing more than to be recognized as a man.
Second, and this one is much harder, we need to activate our communities in addressing this faulty logic concerning manhood. Some ideas might include implementing or expanding the following:
■ Recruit respected community members to mentor young men, especially those who have an absence of healthy, male influence.
■ Educate parents, teachers, coaches, and organizational leaders on the importance of leading young boys into a healthy manhood, including clear instructional role-playing identifying behaviors that are detrimental to the process.
■ While working to prevent bullying, implement programs that empower the bullied. One-sided intervention lends more weight to the idea of being a victim.
■ Continue the push toward educating fathers concerning their socialization responsibilities and importance.
■ Validate single mothers who are trying to fulfill both socialization roles by advancing support programs for these prevalent family units.
■ Anything your community views as beneficial to addressing the need for healthy rites of passage.
The time to act is now. We really do not have the luxury of waiting on the perfect top-down solution that we all suspect will never materialize anyway. There are solutions awaiting us now in our own communities, in our own homes, in our own classrooms, churches, and organizations. The question isn’t what the President is going to do, what the Congress is going to do; although, their action is important. The more pressing question is what am I going to do? What are you going to do? We have young men out there who are desperately seeking an answer.
(Disclaimer: My statements in this article do not deal with gender equality or the passage of young women into adulthood. The discussion is limited to males for the purpose of keeping the topic linked to findings concerning school shootings.)
In America, boys receive masculine recognition if they are athletes, if they show sexual prowess with women, if they drive “manly” vehicles, if they hunt, if they demonstrate alpha male tendencies.
Where on this socialization ladder do males with high intelligence fit? Those with musical abilities? What about the ones who are incredibly insightful but introverted? What about those with technology-geared brains?
Unfortunately, the latter group doesn’t seem to fit in at all with our survival-of-the-fittest culture. They are the Daves who are desperately seeking some way to be recognized as men.
You employ cliche and stereotype to support your contentions. In my opinion, your contentions are, therefore, trivialized.
However, I do agree a mentoring program would serve well.
All the best,
S. Thomas Summers
Thank you for your respectful input. I revisited the blog and also noticed I employed extremist language that weakens my argument. Concerning the stereotypical devices, I agree that the scenarios fit that bill; however, having worked with teens for several years, I know that they tend to live in the stereotypical – one of the problems. Please feel free to revisit the post and let me know what you think.
One needs to delve deeper into an individual teen. Not because a teen is a teen, but because a teen is a person and all deserve to be treated as an individual. This is why I think mentors are desperately needed.
I have been a high school literature teacher for 20 years and believe if you look at a student as a person rather than a teen/student, stereotypes disappear.
Happy New Year!
S. Thomas Summers
Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War
I absolutely agree and see and experience the same truth one-on-one with my students. The behavior to which I’m referring in the post is the more general, group-think version my students share in their writing and discussions – the measurement of people according to social groups, the tendency to validate certain groups over others, the interaction with other groups that causes them to feel less than valid. This is what I’m trying to address on a broader scale, and like you, believe it can best happen through one-on-one relationships.
Thanks again for the dialogue. You seem to me a kindred spirit.
I was drawn to your post because of your opening quote. I was happy to find that Richard Wright is followed by grounded opinions regarding the recent tragedy. I was wondering what your ideas were in regards to the pervasive violence that plagues our country. Specifically, I can’t help but think about how we are one of the most violent nations in the world. Globally, white males (I write white males because those are the ones that carry out these kind of massacres in schools and post offices) don’t commit such devastating acts of violence in such high numbers without explicit reasoning. Yet our society seems to drift along like a supertanker destined for disaster. There is a litany of things we need to take the long road to remedy all listed by Billy Joel years ago when he sarcastically claimed that We Didn’t Start the Fire. From the way video games desensitize gamers to availability of guns over fresh vegetables in many American communities – all of these small pieces that make up America implicitly contribute to violent tragedies.
I am a former educator in a neighborhood where the corner workers could easily supply me with a gun. When I forgot to bring my lunch, however, I couldn’t find a sit down restaurant or decent supermarket for miles. I am sad to say, I lost my belief that I was making a difference and shifting the trajectory of the American supertanker. I had reason to question my effectiveness since it is fact that less than 10 % of those in my class, grade level, school, and district went on to thrive by any decent measure of success. With that stated, I wonder about the utility of building mentorships and guiding the rites of passage for males who, after all of the encouragement we can muster, have to be men in this broken society.
I’m afraid I am not being very solution oriented here. I understand that we can’t wait for the powers that be to make changes that will save us but is the action you advocate enough?
Thank you for the incredibly honest, heart-felt response. Your comments deserve a much more detailed response than I can offer right now, but briefly, here are my thoughts. Your question (is what I’ve suggested enough to combat the senseless violence plaguing our nation) is certainly a valid one, and one to which I must answer no. I can only say that I believe it is a start, an action that has the power of shifting the tide one person at a time. I keep reminding myself that we didn’t get here overnight, and I have to be willing to invest the time necessary to dismantle this “supertanker” one part at a time. As far as teacher efficacy goes, you are not alone. This is the number one complaint I hear from teachers – I’m not making a difference anymore. More to say, but please forgive my signing off for now. I have a family gathering but will respond to you more appropriately on Monday.