Baltimore’s greatest tragedy: the loss of manhood

A friend of mine sent me an article entitled “Lord of the Flies’ comes to Baltimore,” written by John Blake, a journalist who writes about race and culture as well as other topics for CNN. Blake spoke about how “his neighborhood” has disappeared because all of the “older black men” have largely disappeared, either because they have died off or have long prison sentences.

He got this from a man by the name of Zachary Lewis who he found standing by a makeshift memorial placed at the spot where Freddie Gray, the man whose death ignited the riots, was arrested.

Lewis was talking about his community, and how sad he was that there were no older role models. How old is this Zachery Lewis? I mean, since he was standing out on the street, so disillusioned by the lack of role models, he must be about 12 or 13, right? Nope, Mr. Zachery Lewis is 28.

We’re talking about a man old enough to be out of law school for three years or medical school for two. By the time my father was 28, he was a sergeant in the army with five kids. He’d just bought a brand new home in Willingboro, New Jersey and allowed us kids to pick out the living room furniture (he gave us three choices) and we had to stay “dressed up” all day. He considered himself, at that time one of the “older men.” At 28 years old, my husband was a captain in the military. He was responsible for his entire battery of 100 or so men. We got married and assumed the mortgage of a very sweet little house close to the campus of the university where I achieved my Ph.D. He considered himself, at that time one of the “older men.”

But the man I want to speak about today is my Uncle Eddie who lived there in Baltimore, RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET FROM MONDAWMIN MALL. He lived on Reisterstown Road until his death in the middle 1990’s. He was married from the time that he arrived from Jamaica in the middle 40’s until the day of his death. He was a white man, my grandmother’s brother, and Aunt Bessie was black – and a very fine looking woman. They settled into life right there in that neighborhood, with him working “up-town” and working his way up the ladder at a business far outside of the neighborhood. Aunt Bessie pretty much managed the household, buying up most of the properties around the neighborhood and managing the rentals, raising their two children and running a women’s neighborhood club in the basement.

The tenants of the once nice homes were a mixed lot, some interracial couples and their children, gay couples, and some people down on their luck from divorces and the like. A real mixed story of challenges but all decent people. This was never a neighborhood with “white picket fences.” My aunt played “the numbers” and cooked every night for my uncle who could have eaten where he worked, given the nature of his employment, but refused to.

He was friends with George, a former Tuskegee airman, who owned a massive number of liquor stores, and was fairly rich. Donnie, their friend was very high in the waste management administration of Baltimore, was also in their circle and they would complain about how much he ate, but my aunt still fried more pork chops or more chicken and made more potato salad to accommodate him on every other Saturday when he was off. Several other men would come and go from the circle from time to time but these were the core three.

They played cards, dominoes, ate, drank good liquor (supplied by George) and talked politics. Their sons would sit and listen quietly and later when they were in college, they would join in. When I visited, I was in the kitchen or living room with the other wives and daughters/nieces — we females did not interrupt. It just wasn’t done. We could hear them through the window of the covered front porch and when they got a bit rowdy, my aunt would just shake her head and smile. It was a different era.

Even when my uncle and his friends bought a huge fishing boat and would make an every-so-often expedition, the women of their lives proclaimed they did not want to go because the water would “mess up their hair.” The reality was that for those two days, they could do whatever they wanted without having to rush home, cook clean and entertain.

So what happened? Sure these three men are now dead and gone. That is the one surety in life. The binding mindset among these men was that from the front porch on Reisterstown Road, they saw the change of the neighborhood. Crack cocaine, the breakdown of the family, the corrupt politicians and they sent their sons far, far away.

The decent, but down on their luck tenants were replaced by street-walkers, drug addicts with many babies waiting on a welfare check, from which you might or might not be able to collect the rent, depending on the time you could catch them. The rental apartments became dirty, the language filthy and the kids were unsupervised.

And the tenants looked for an angle to sue – easy money. They also sent their daughters far, far away. My uncle’s sons moved to Hawaii and Europe, where they met women who were native to those areas. George’s son married a Japanese woman and lives in Malaysia. Donnie’s daughter lives in upstate New York, her daughter will attend an Ivy league university in the fall. These men were successful and now they are gone, but not before George sold his stores because the managers set him up for a robbery. He survived one bullet wound but was able to barricade himself in a “safe room” he’d made in the back of one of the stores.

He sold the boat, his home and moved to Florida. Uncle was threatened with a gun from a tenant’s son who had been living on the property for two years without paying. Aunt Bessie was with him at the time and yelled at the boy “put that thing down before I hurt you.” The boy must have been surprised or maybe it was the fact she looked like she could be his “grandmamma,” but he did he said he was sorry. Nevertheless, Uncle sold every unit except his own. Donnie’s workers found the body of a child on their inspection rounds and he retired.

That is what happens, interpersonally, when people DECIDE to let their lives go. When people become the pawns of politicians and budding politicians who see these poor ignorant residents and the vehicles that will allow their “time to come” – that’s when you see the likes of Detroit, and other urban blight.

When men like Zachary Lewis, at the age of 28, are still waiting for an “older man” to be their guide, we have a monumental problem. There was a time when black men wanted to be considered “MEN” and now they seem, at least in this case to be content with being “boys.”

You see, unwittingly, the author compared this situation to the “Lord of the Flies” without acknowledging that the oldest boy depicted in the book was under the age of 14. The author cites another man in his article also in his late 20’s who said now he would stop “rippin and runnin.” But the problem is, what else is he going to do? He’s not young, he’s not an adolescent, and guess what? After $15,000 per pupil was spent on his behalf, he probably didn’t graduate high school. What is he going to do now?

This is a problem of monumental proportions and one that cannot be solved by convicting six policemen in the court of public opinion in order to bolster the ambitions of a prosecutor and her husband. There is no “da white man” holding black Baltimore down. Rather, it is black Baltimore.

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