MAXWELL:  A month for more than just rhetoric

2/26/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Many of my black pundit colleagues have given up on Black History Month as a viable event. I have not.

I know that many whites resent the celebration so much that everything about it is counterproductive _ if one purpose is to inform whites about black history and culture.

Frankly, I had planned to let Black History Month pass without writing about it. But all that changed on Feb. 22, when 17-year-old Ronald Durham was gunned to death outside Campbell Park Recreation Center in St. Petersburg. Jimmie L. Flournoy Jr., 16, has been arrested for the killing. I had kept my fingers crossed in hopes that we would get through February without another violent black-on-black crime.

I did not know Ronald, but I have known many boys like him. They are kids who _ because of familial circumstances over which they have no control _ were given a bad hand from the beginning. Ronald’s father was rarely in the child’s life, and his mother did not help him much because she was addicted to crack cocaine.

Ronald’s death truly breaks my heart because, by all indications, the young man was turning his life around, as outlined in an article he had published in the St. Petersburg High School newspaper, Palmetto & Pine, one week before his death.

Titled I got out of a gang, the article showed a troubled boy whose father had thrown him out and who had gone to jail for beating up a school employee. “I started to sell drugs and make a profit and carry a gun,” he wrote. “I was the youngest in the hood. Carried a gun because I was down for whatever.”

Ronald described the big turn in his life, when he met a special girl and landed a legitimate job: “I remember when I used to sit around with my friends and say that I would never get a job working for minimum wage when I can make fast money. I found out that’s not the way to go if you don’t want trouble.”

Ronald would not write another


I do not know all of the facts surrounding his death, but I do know that the stuff of his life, along with that of the tens of thousands of other black children like him, is what Black History Month should be about, if it is about anything.

No, I do not have a lot of answers. I do know, though, that African-American adults need to triple their efforts to rescue our children from self-destruction. Ronald’s death was not an isolated incident during Black History Month. Nationwide, dozens of other black males killed their brethren, destroying young lives and entire families forever.

A major problem in black culture is the high number of children who do not have parents or other relatives to care for them. Blue Popsicles, a book I read recently, states that more black children are waiting for adoption than at any other time in history. As of March 2000, for example, more than 53,000 African-American children sought adoption.

Too many of these children languish in foster care, group homes and juvenile detention facilities. They never experience a sense of “home” and permanency.

Many black churches are trying to locate families for some of these children, but their success is spotty at best. Blacks with the economic ability and social connections could do more, but, unlike their white counterparts, they use their wealth and clout for other purposes. In short, the adoption rate among blacks _ who are qualified to adopt by state standards _ is shameful. Black History Month could be used to highlight this problem and fix it.

School dropout is another serious problem among blacks. More organizations and influential individuals could do more to reverse the dropout rate. Again, not enough of us are coming forward to help our children. Those of us who can do so should be mentors and role models for our youngsters. More nonprofit organizations that focus on after-school education need to be formed. No doubt, many of us have the expertise and money to establish such groups, but we fail to do so. Black History Month is the perfect time to rework our priorities and help our children.

Black America needs to adopt a year-round, save-our-children program and use Black History Month as the time to report progress. Dancing, singing, reciting poetry and writing essays are fine efforts, but they mean nothing when our children are killing one another, using and selling drugs, going to jail, dropping out of school.

Here is where Black History Month can mean something substantive rather than remaining a time of symbolism and rhetoric. We can commit ourselves to establishing ways to save this and the next generation of our children. We need to nurture kids such as Ronald Durham.