Why Young Black Men are Still Worth Saving

RMS Titanic lifeboat (Public Domain)

RMS Titanic lifeboat with survivors. (Public Domain)

Progress Sinks

The Titanic has struck an iceberg near Newfoundland and there are not enough lifeboats to save everyone.

It was a momentous occasion celebrated around the world. It was the largest of its kind. Its elaborate design, construction, and size were unprecedented. It carried with it people from all backgrounds, most seeking a life of freedom they had never known before.

And then, disaster stuck. An iceberg reared its ugly head, and soon everyone’s life would be in peril. No one aboard had adequate training in saving lives. In fact, the untrained would be rescuers had enough of their own lives to worry about. The least of the passengers on the journey were left to fend for themselves.

There was even tremendous help nearby but either in negligence, confusion, or willful disregard, assistance chose not to come. Finally, help came from another source, but it was too late for many. They had already been plunged into the depths of the dark, murky waters of the chilly abyss.

The chaos of survival hurt. A disproportionate number of women survived, and families were left without a father at home.

The Brown v. Board of Education I ruling and the surrounding Civil Rights Era in the United States of America were emblematic of a historic time celebrated around the world catapulting the lives of millions of African Americans to the precipice of equality they so long sought since the cashing in of Reconstruction after America’s Civil War was returned with a bounced check of black codes and the doctrine of separate but equal.

The blueprint, formation, and mass of the aftermath of the civil rights movement were unparalleled in America or any other nation. African Americans would be treated to equal schools, housing, voting, and greater opportunity to contribute to the economic growth of a world superpower.

Midway through the journey, catastrophe struck near the new found Promised Land slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of not getting to himself.

An iceberg of white flight, housing discrimination, ghettos, elimination of busing, renewal of legalized segregation through property taxes being tied to public schools, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, and chronic unemployment stood in the way of progress.

The unavoidable collision left single mothers to raise their children in urban war zones with no one adequately trained to save lives.

“God, Please Stop Them So I Can Talk to Them”

“You were just trying to help, weren’t you?” a rotund, sallow blanched middle-aged woman lamented as she exhaled the vaporous fog of a half smoked cigarette.

I had no idea she was there to witness 7 bodies scatter into the abyss of a likely waiting battlefield miles from the Chicago hotel where we stood in shared disappointment.

My weight however, seemed tons heavier.

It started innocently enough on a sweltering summer afternoon in Chicago’s Loop outside of the towering 80-story AON Center during a typical July rush hour. People hurried about from various appointments and their places of employment outside of the structure once known as the Standard Oil Building and the word’s tallest marble-clad skyscraper.

Tourists twirled like beach umbrellas without root as they attempted to navigate an unfamiliar terrain not knowing exactly where to cross the street to delight themselves in attractions such as Millennium Park, the newly opened Maggie Daley ParkThe Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Park, and other landmarks dotting the city’s lakefront.

Outside of the giant column shaped building I stood, finishing a phone call that would officially conclude my business day.

After deciding what path I would take to begin my trek toward home, I began to clickety clack my pitch black Bruno Magli dress shoes down the growing increasingly steeper hill of city concrete adorned by large cement flower pots filled with green vegetation and carefully city plotted rainbow bouquets.

Yellow cabs, private black cars, and limousines lined the block awaiting exit of AON executives, power brokers, and Chicago elite who routinely gathered for various events and meetings on the country’s tallest business club sitting atop the AON building’s 80th floor.

Aon Center. (Photo: upi.com)

Aon Center. (Photo: upi.com)

The routine of rush hour was disrupted by the sight of 7 African American boys wearing color-faded blue jeans sagging far below the waistline and white crew neck tee shirts the length of cocktail dresses.

Instead of traveling the sidewalk as other pedestrians, they slithered on the outside of the giant flower pots between the waiting vehicles on the street.

I soon would find out why.

I quickly noticed one of the young men, a short, petite, coffee bean toned lad with a faint tattoo on his neck and chin length dreadlocks, place a brand new Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone in the midst of the green vegetation in the street lined flower pots.

“HELP! 9-1-1! Someone call police!” a tall, rangy, potbellied Pakistani gentleman yelled, stepping out from the brush of cabs and flowerpots to loosely jog after his perpetrators.

At that moment, I studied the rush hour commuters. I saw a throng of zeroed in, locked in power walkers and monotonous cell phone checking zombies.

Most remained focused and continued on their paths without flinching, practically oblivious to the background noise of a crime and a call for help taking place directly in front of them. A smaller number looked up to note the participants, waited a beat out of curiosity, and continued on.

I, on the other hand, became increasingly invested in what I was witnessing like a father suddenly seeing his son suddenly run into traffic after an errant ball.

I walked up to the cab driver. He held his newly retrieved phone to his ear with pieces of leaves from the street lined flowerpot stuck to his cheek.

“What happened?” I asked him, concerned.

“They stole my phone!” he angrily exclaimed.

“You got it back. Let it go. I’ll talk to them,” I cajoled.

As I pivoted right down the street where the boys ran, I already saw them disappearing.

A knowing calm flooded my heart. I chose not to run after them.

Instead, I prayed.

“God, please stop them so I can talk to them,” I mumbled aloud as I walked briskly, yet purposely taking my time.

I surmised the boys would not try to run for long due to possibly not being familiar with their surroundings as well as believing they could blend in the crowds of people in such a busy area.

I guessed right.

After only walking 2 blocks I spotted the boys across the street frantically reassembling and negotiating which direction they should take next.

I decided to cut them off in front of the Hard Rock Hotel, a hip boutique like chain siting on the corner of South Water Street and Michigan Avenue.

“God, please stop them so I can talk to them”

“COME HERE,” I commanded to the group of boys once I got within a distance loud enough for them to know I was serious, yet soft enough to assure them I was not calling attention to our encounter.

The boys looked at each other confused, with faces suggesting this may have been the very first time an adult black male spoke to them with paternal loving authority.

“I saw what you did. I took care of the cab driver. Come over to the side for a minute so I can holla at y’all,” I announced in a firm, yet hushed tone.

The boys looked at each other. Two boys had the look of terror they had just been caught; relieved, one had the look of being rescued. Two boys seemed still confused; lastly, another boy had his darting eyes strictly on escape.

“Hey, he just want’s to talk to us,” said the bantamweight boy who originally placed the cell phone in the flowerpot earlier.

“What do you want to talk to us about big guy?” he continued as he walked closely beside me to the north side of the Hard Rock Hotel.

The group began to assemble around me; still, two more boys stood in the middle of the street. Each second beat as loud as a grandfather clock ticking away in the dark still presence of an awakened insomniac.

A lanky, tall, honey toned young man with eyes of confusion, pain, anguish, yet vulnerability peered at me as he stepped to the curb, caught between the two worlds of salvation and drowning.

His face then turned combative, his steps measured. Previous times, this would have been the start of a fight. This was something new. He froze.

“COME HERE I SAID,” waving quickly, with a shared understanding of the urgency of the moment.

Finally he came, but the remaining holdout would not relent, standing in the street silent urging his comrades to retreat, hands waving.

No matter. I resolved he would not come and I had enough to begin my presentation.

“First off, don’t let the suit fool you. I’ve been where you are,” I began.

“Tell me your names and ages,” I continued.

I introduced myself to each gentleman and shook his hand.

It was clearly an exercise they had little experience in.

Each hand was as limp as a dead fish and as unsure as baby eagle attempting its first flight. I made sure to tighten my grip in an unspoken attempt to get them to tighten theirs.

The ages of the first 4 boys were 15, 16, 15, and 17. The boy who finally came across the street’s age was 18 and he seemed actually relieved to be there.

The oldest and tallest of the boys shook my hand revealed his age to be 19. His handshake was the most limp of them all. He looked away with rolled big, soft, hazel eyes – not of defiance, but that of a small child caught snatching from the cookie jar.

“Look me in the eyes and introduce yourself like a man,” I asserted to him.

He did his best to look me in the eyes. At that moment I could see his self-realization he was but a boy standing before a man.

An ambulance siren blared in the distance.

HardRockHotel1

Hard Rock Hotel a the intersection of South Water and Michigan where I decided to cut the boys off. (Photo: Uncredited)

“I’m an attorney…”

In that instant the young men scattered like cockroaches frenetically scuttling toward the comfort of darkness.

“I’ll see you in court!” I yelled after them in a fit of exasperated damnation.

No sooner I assembled them, the boys were gone.

I looked around and felt the buildings and sidewalks staring at me in blaring silence. Meanwhile, the fever of rush hour traffic and pedestrians hurrying along continued uninterrupted.

Snapping back to reality, I traced a cloud of smoke to its origin – the plump little pale bone tone lady smoking a cigarette who asked whether my motive was merely to help the now departed teen boys.

At a loss for words, I had nothing to offer her conversationally other than briefly confirming what she may have witnessed.

We both stood in deliberate silence as she took repeated drags. She had moved on.

I had not.

Later I thought about the encounter. I don’t know whether they were arrested or were successful in escaping their failed caper. I thought back to what may have motivated the boys to behave as they did.

All of them carried various colored sheets of paper in their hands or tucked into their pants under their shirts. I assumed they attempted to solicit funds for some false charitable endeavor and were by in large spurned. Frustrated, they gave up and decided to snatch a phone and sell it for quick cash.

“We Win Some. We Lose Some. We Come Back for More.”

I gave a speech to juniors and seniors at an inner city high school once and so impressed one junior he decided to contact me. Over the course of his senior year I took him and several of his buddies to a Chicago Cubs baseball game, lunch, and played basketball with them.

I thought the 18 year old seemed interested in being mentored.

At the end of the school year the outgoing senior contacted me requesting I pay his school fees, including his senior luncheon, prom, and graduation. I happily obliged and arranged to take care of it all.

Apparently the would-be mentee’s mother and grandfather did not appreciate the assistance I offered and gave me a piece of their minds. I assumed it was guilt steeped in their own inability to pay mixed with the code of perceived mutual distrust in even close neighbors in urban areas. They still took the benefit in spite of their expressed displeasure. Afterward I never heard from the boy again.

About a year of so later on a chance occasion I happened to see the young man. He was with a crowd of friends, and clearly to all appearances drunk, high off some stimulant-based drug, and running through the streets reveling. He passed by me without so much as uttering “hello” or “thank you”.

At that moment I was heartbroken. I thought I would never mentor another young black boy again.

Since then I have mentored several boys, one who will be starting college next month and another one who just graduated college and is entering an MBA program next spring.

One of my mentees Jeremy Frye, who just graduated from my alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Business with a Bachelors in Entrepreneurship. (Photo: Exavier Pope)

One of my mentees Jeremy Frye, who just graduated from my alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Business with a Bachelors in Entrepreneurship. (Photo: Exavier Pope)

It’s easy to look at the nightly news and see reports of young black boys without fathers dying at the hands of one another and either be disaffected by it; or, look up out of curiosity, shake our heads, and carry on with our lives.

It’s easy to find ourselves distracted by running our own lives and see the sinking ship of urban blight and declare nothing will ever change, and make that as an excuse not to provide any assistance, answers, or solutions.

It’s more difficult to roll up our sleeves, sail treacherous waters of tough neighborhoods, and make the valiant attempt to save lives.

Even more, it’s disheartening to learn some young men wish to play to the music of their own lost existence and are willing to go down with the ship.

We win some. We lose some. We come back for more.

We need to the type of solace that will inspire more help.

Right now, there are not enough lifeboats to save everyone. Many slip through the cracks and they don’t have anyone to save them.

We may not save everyone, but the lives we do save are worth the effort.

As the Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack Dawson said in the feature film “Titanic”:

“I figure life’s a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. You don’t know what hand you’re gonna get dealt next. You learn to take life as it comes at you…to make each day count.”

Let’s count on bringing more lifeboats.

While we’re at it, let’s work to build a truly unsinkable ship.

Exavier B. Pope I, Esq. is an award winning attorney, on air legal analyst, media personality, and Fortune 500 speaker. Mr. Pope has over 200+ appearances on air, including: international television on BBC and Al Jazeera English; national television on Fox News Channel, HLN, NBC Nightly News, Al Jazeera America, WGN Morning News, Fox Business Channel, and Huff Post Live; Top 3 Local Media Markets on Fox, CBS, and NBC; international radio on BBC Radio; national radio on ESPN Radio, Clear Channel Radio, NBC Sports Radio; contributed digitally to CNBC, Huffington Post, Jet, and Black Enterprise; and has appeared in other media outlets nationally and internationally. Mr. Pope is represented by top media and literary agency RLR Associates. All opinions expressed are those solely of Mr. Pope.

© 2015, Exavier B. Pope I, Esq.

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  1. I’ll be writing more in this space – EXAVIER B. POPE I, ESQ.

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