“What happens now determines what happens to the rest of the world.” -T’Challa
Ron Brown College Preparatory is a radical new school for young black men in Washington D.C. What makes this institution radical? For starters, they don’t refer to the students as boys or kids. They are Kings. That’s what the teachers, administrators, custodial staff, lunch staff, everyone calls the students: Kings. They give them an identity to live up to, and a community that sets a standard higher than what society expects of them. The faculty isn’t only teaching young people math, science, or English; they are raising Kings. The school is devoted to restorative justice, driving young Kings in the midst of conflict into uncomfortable conversations and face-to-face apologies, as opposed to methods of discipline that we know don’t work, like suspension or detention. They don’t give up on the boys of Ron Brown, they call them to something higher.
Ron Brown is a school dedicated to Rites of Passage. Instead of filling kids with information or getting them ready to be a cog in the capitalist machine, they are answering a higher calling.
Our conversation has to lead us here. It has to lead us to talk about the boys. We know it's a multilayered problem. #MeToo wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for boys who refuse to become men and a society that is complicit in their refusal. If our problem is a cancer, focusing on how we raise boys is a part of the holistic treatment we adopt as patients. It’s only one of many components in an array of methods needed to eradicate the disease. Cancer isn’t cured by doing one thing alone. There are many routes we take on our journey to health. Our culture desperately needs a way for boys to transition into manhood, a way for them to become kings instead of predators.
Please understand this: this post won’t cure the cancer. But, I do believe raising healthy boys will help us get there. I believe this series can create dialogue and play a part in the healing. I believe healthy men treat women with dignity and respect. I believe healthy men aren’t born; they have to be shaped and formed. I believe that happens when men move into something greater. I believe that happens when failure, pain, and heartache are introduced as friends, not foes. Rites of passage provide a way for us to get there. They are modes that wake boys up to what matters in life. Today’s installment is about the journey we must embark on as young men. The journey transforms us, and once we are ready, we return home forever changed.
“What are you talking about? I never freeze.” -T’Challa
What is a rite of passage? Put simply; it’s an event that marks the transition from one stage of life to another. It’s any ceremony or event that marks a new stage in life, be it birth, puberty, marriage, or death. You may have experienced these as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinceañeras, Sweet Sixteens, or even a party when you got your driver’s license. But these are all a shadow of the deeper intent of a rite of passage.
If you haven’t seen Black Panther, do yourself a favor and go now! It’s a phenomenal film (Spoilers ahead!) After the untimely death of his father, Prince T’Challa is prepped and ready for the challenge each would-be king must endure. He must open himself to every tribe of royal bloodline and accept their bid for the throne. Whoever thinks they can do a better job at ruling must challenge and defeat the king in hand to hand combat. Before that happens T’Challa must do something, he must humble himself by stripping away the things that give him power. Not only must he come to the battleground without his royal attire or the defense of his formidable all-female royal guard, but he must also drink an elixir that extracts his superpowers before battle. He must make himself equal to his challenger. He must be willing to lose what gives him power to prove his worth as a king.
If we are going to get better, we must teach our boys the value of being a King. If they are going to be Kings their thirst for power must perish. We must be men who sacrifice what feels good for the greater good.
Healthy rites of passage serve a purpose.
They extract what we think life is about: US.
They fill the void with what life is truly about: OTHERS.
In the prelude to this series, we talked about the rites of passage that survive to this day: the lion hunt of The Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya, the Walkabout of the Aborigine of Australia, and the Land Diving of the Naghol. These are all incredibly significant events not only for the boys and men of these societies but societies as a whole. So why doesn’t American culture have rites of passage for boys?
There is no inciting incident for a boy’s transition into manhood in America. We are a country that seeks out comfort, entertainment, distraction, and novelty. Our culture has done us a disservice by denying men these sacred rites. Biology has a natural way of guiding women through this process. Menstruation is a signal to most women that a new phase of life has begun, and childbirth and motherhood (I’ve been told) can be one of the most humbling and transformative experiences a woman can go through. It’s a shame men don’t get to experience this kind of deconstruction.
CHALLENGE FOR THE THRONE
“Only YOU can decide what kind of king you want to be.” - Princess Nakia
My good friend, Derik, was born in the Bronx. He spent his early years in Bogota, Colombia, his early teens in South Florida, and ended up in Dallas by the end of high school. Because, naturally, all great journeys take you through Dallas. Derik served in the Air Force as a crew chief, maintaining F-16 fighter jets. He was stationed in Italy with deployments to Afghanistan, and he just moved to Los Angeles in December.
We were catching up over dinner, and I asked in my typical dive-right-in fashion, "What keeps you humble?"
His first response was ambiguous, so I asked again, just a little differently. “You’re someone who I would describe as humble. You treat the people around you well. How did you develop your humility?”
“When I was nine years old I ran away from home,” he said. “I was gone for five days and what I experienced altered the trajectory of my life.” He described being hungry and how excruciating the pain had been. He talked about feeling lonely and how fearful it made him. He wasn’t gone for long, but his walkabout was what he needed to begin his journey into manhood. Derik’s life of pain wasn’t over. He went through a period of substance abuse and drug addiction before he eventually settled into this gentle, kind soul who treats everyone he meets with dignity and respect. He listens when you speak to him. He offers help to those in need. At 26 years old Derik is an example of a real man. His ego was dethroned early on. I firmly believe that’s why he lives with the honor of a true king.
What if our rites of passage consisted of moments that confront us with the painful realities of life? Moments which require us to behave in new and uncomfortable ways. Moments which force us to admit we aren’t as strong or as smart as we thought. Moments which make us confront the fact that we haven’t arrived. Moments which cause us to fall flat on our face. These moments are what our boys need; rites of passage that shake them out of their self-centered and egotistical ways of living. If you’re raising a boy, this is your task: Create familial rites of passage that push your little guy out of boyhood and into manhood.
“I want the throne!” -Killmonger
T’Challa is defeated and dethroned as King of Wakanda.
Have you ever been dethroned?
Have you ever had your heart broken?
Have you been in a car wreck and walked away?
Have you been the star athlete who lost a step?
Have you had a near-death experience or lost someone close?
These are a few ways life dethrones us.
People often describe being dethroned as, “hitting rock bottom.” In the same breath, those people will tell you their total loss of control was a teacher. Suddenly, after years of struggling, they could see their addiction for what it was and began a process of recovery. Or they realized their job had become all-consuming at the expense of their health and their family, and they were able to recommit to the things in their lives that are important.
Moments of deep pain arrive to give us clarity, they are life’s version of a rite of passage, they are our teachers. These moments hurt but the pain was for nothing if we run from it. And here is one of the reasons the #MeToo movement was born: I don’t think men are dethroned enough, and when they are, they're are encouraged to push down their feelings, suck it up, and play through the pain. T’Challa is cast out into the wilderness. After his defeat, he’s thrown over a cliff into the white water below. He experiences a kind of death. But it is because of this death that he can experience a rebirth. He can transition from prince to king. He can become the man that his kingdom needs him to be.
Eventually, for all of us, the way we've always done things fails. And in that failure, we get to learn about ourselves. Life tends to throw us over cliffs so that we can be reborn. It’s only then that we see ourselves not as we imagined, but as we truly are. From that place of raw and painful honesty, we can begin to forge the person we were meant to become.
“My son, it is your time.” -Ramonda
The word Wakanda is from the Fang, Ewondo, Béti languages of Africa. It means, "You are going home." In most of the ancient trials of manhood, the young boy is welcomed back to his community as a man. He's welcomed home and celebrated after his pride has been dethroned. Pride is an unhealthy and unrealistic perception of ourselves. It’s an infatuation with me, mine and I. It tends to manifest in one of two ways: “I am greater than I think I am” or, “I am worse than I think I am.” But how can we in our modern world tap into that early wisdom?
Maybe it’s through volunteering at a homeless shelter? Service to others as a boy turns into leadership as a man.
Maybe it’s eating dinner as a family? A boy who values family can become a man who values community.
Maybe it’s by sharing a room with his younger sibling? Respectfully sharing space as a boy can turn into respectfully sharing space as a man.
Maybe it’s fasting from desserts for a year? A boy who resists himself becomes a man who resists himself.
Maybe it’s not offering financial help when he needs it? Hearing “no” as a boy can turn into a man who understands “no” means “no.”
Whatever you choose - make sure it’s rooted in what’s good for him tomorrow, instead of what feels good today. Their right of passage may be hard, but they will be better for it when they “return home.” Those are the types of men our world needs.
You may read this and say, “I’m not a parent," or, "I’m not raising any boys. I have all girls.” Maybe you aren’t directly, that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace your indirect influence on young boys. I have an opportunity to invest in boys as a speaker. The message I relay can perpetuate the problem or be a solvent. I get to create seminars and workshops that revolve around real manhood and masculinity, not the version that has brought us here. And I’m also a big brother. I get to invest in my brother and serve him as he moves into manhood. These are some of the ways I’m pitching in. We all have a role to play. Which part will you step into?
To the men reading this: you must see yourself as you are. Welcome the opportunities that come from being pushed outside your comfort zone. Men would not feel the need to assert economic, physical, psychological, or sexual control over women if their pride was broken down.
It takes bravery to admit your failings, It takes courage to ask for forgiveness, but our humility and our health is rooted in an honest and genuine understanding of ourselves. Whether it’s acknowledging our fears, our creativity, or our intellect, we must see ourselves as we are and strive to be the Kings our nation needs.