“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.)