There are innumerable studies focusing on the afflictions of black men in the
Mentorship is a universally understood concept. Socrates was a mentor to Plato. Jesus was a mentor to John. Malcolm X was a mentor to Muhammad Ali. It is the time honored process of imparting wisdom and guidance by example and instruction from one generation to the next. One of the necessary characteristics of an effective mentor is humility. The mentor must have the ability to recognize and be comfortable with the fact that the mentee’s light may ultimately shine more brightly than his own, indeed that is the point. Progress hinges on the outcome that the mentee improve on the achievements, understandings and accomplishments of the mentor. Such is the progress of knowledge and such is the progress of men.
In the context of black men, the conditions are so dire that mentorship is often targeted to the least experienced among us. Successful black men are enlisted to serve as examples to young black boys in hopes that they will consider college as an option. The hope is that the boy will see possibilities for himself in the towering figure presented to him. I argue that this component of the mentorship game is the most popular because it is the easiest. Often the separation between the mentor and the mentee is so vast that there is little challenge involved for the mentor. Indeed the mentor is not a mentor, but an example – a one time, feel good, ego feeding display of what is possible. Further, the expectations are often that the boys just be decent. This is a consequence of the dire circumstances. The conditions are so bad that often all that is hoped for young black men is that they not grow up to be local terrorists and biological fathers to functionally fatherless children. These are important, but painfully low expectations that make it easy to be a mentor. The mentor can feel good and feed his ego by simply presenting himself as a visible example to the mentee and discussing the benefits of having his life. There is little challenge in that.
On the other side of the accomplishment divide among black men there is an entirely different level of mentorship that is necessary. At this level, an effective mentor is required to give more substantively of himself. Young black men with Ph.D.’s and other professional degrees have already reached academic heights. Mentors – older black men – are needed to help them navigate through a world of dollars and smartness to a place of integrity and contribution. Simple presentation of themselves is no longer sufficient. At this level the difficult features of mentorship become more clear. The mentor is forced to evaluate himself and reconcile the balance sheet between his success and his contributions. He must ask if he is willing to have the young mentee stand on his shoulders to achieve greater height. That is a different proposition than presenting himself as a polished example to a rough child.
The willingness to have a young star stand on your shoulders is rooted in humility. In that circumstance the mentor is not visible. Photographs are never taken of the foundation of a building. It is the spire that appears in magazines. This brand of mentorship is a bit more difficult to come by. While our community continues to raise the alarm about the crisis of black men, the state of high level mentorship is often overlooked. Is there a quiet network of old sages nurturing the next generation of stars such that when the time comes they are ready to receive the baton? Or has ego taken mentorship hostage in the battle against humility?