In 1950, we still feared our parents and respected them. We know that for a fact because we were both in our early teens that year and were both testing our limits. We and the others in our generation weren't saints. We'll be the first to admit that. We were filled with piss and vinegar like many teenage boys—white, black, and otherwise. If we saw something we wanted and didn't have any money—and trust us, few of us ever had money—we thought about taking it, sure. But something called "parenting," something that had wormed its way into our heads from the time we were still in the womb, said to us, If you get caught stealing it, you're going to embarrass your mother. The voice didn't say, You're going to get your butt kicked.We knew that and expected that from experience. No, that inner voice said, You're going to embarrass your mother. You're going to embarrass your family. As we became older and grew more interested in girls, our hormones raged just as boys' hormones rage today. The Internet may be new. Cell phones may be new. But sex, we don't need to tell you, has been around since Adam and Eve. So has shame. We knew that if one of us got a girl pregnant, not only would she have to go visit that famous "aunt in South Carolina," but young Romeo would have to go too, not to South Carolina maybe, but somewhere. It would be too embarrassing for Romeo's family for him to just sit around in the neighborhood with a fat Cheshire cat smile on his face. And there was something else we understood: that girl likely had a daddy in the home. And he'd be prepared to wipe that grin off Romeo's face permanently. This was what parenting was about. It wasn't always pretty, but it could be pretty effective. Parenting works best when both a mother and a father participate.
Some mothers can do it on their own, but they need help. A house without a father is a challenge. A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe, and that's just about what we have today. Can we fix this? Can we change it? We don't have a choice. We have to take our neighborhoods back. We have to go in there and do it ourselves. We saw what happened in New Orleans when people waited for the government to help. "Governments" are things. Governments don't care. People care, and no people care like parents do—well, except maybe grandparents and other caregivers, and thank God for them.
Richard Rowe, in Baltimore, reported on one path to change: Twenty years ago in this city we started the "Rites of Passage." Nobody else was doing it on the East Coast. We started looking at how the African- American male was going downhill. Twenty years from now, I hope we will not be having this same type of conversation. The purpose of our program is to nurture young men who can maintain, protect, and provide for a family and a community.