Voice Male - Winter 2005

Color Lines

Fathers' Rites: Healing and Growth
for Fathers and Sons

by Haji Shearer

I went to a funeral for a 17-year-old today. He was shot to death a week ago. He lived in a part of Boston where rival groups of young men are adept at killing one another.

JR was popular. There were nearly 250 people at his "going home" service. I'll never forget the beautiful young woman sobbing in the back of the church. Neither will I forget the 25 or 30 hard young men radiating enough hatred that if looks could kill, I'm sure JR's murderers would already be dead. And since looks don't kill, I suspect that many of them had, in their waistbands, more effective means of dispatching the enemy.

As I stood on the sidewalk outside the church, I prayed that the young men milling about the hearse might find a way to transform their hatred before another black teen gets killed. But prayer must be rooted in follow-up action to be effective, and I knew this crisis of young black males killing one another would not be solved by wishful thinking.

My mind was drawn to the afternoon exactly three weeks before, when I joined with 15 other black men to take our sons on a Boys to Men Rites of Passage retreat. For the second year in a row, I participated in an experience for fathers (or men acting in the father/mentor role for sons whose fathers are absent) and sons to explore their relationship with one another and themselves.

An important aspect of all initiation ceremonies is a removal from the familiar. So we held our event at the Starseed Retreat Center, a secluded spot in western Massachusetts. That we took our sons away from TVs, radios and Gameboys for a weekend in the woods was dramatic enough. Yet the first night we arrived, when our jaded urban and suburban teens displayed youthful wonder at the site of so many stars, we knew we were on to something. Many of the dads looked up wistfully as well.

In fact, the older men were even more visibly moved throughout the weekend. With our teens, we hoped we were planting seeds for the future in their fertile adolescent consciousness, but as men we were already ripe to appreciate the beauty and power of the initiation process. After all, these traditions are embedded in folklore and our ancestral mind, yet none of us men was given an experience like this as we entered manhood. Offering our sons this gift was healing for both generations.

As African-American men, we created a rite of passage that reflected our heritage, while also incorporating elements that reinterpreted traditional African ceremonies. We have a strong tradition of oral communication, so we designed dialogues between the older and younger men that encouraged each to share his thoughts and feelings on a particular theme. If you have a teen in your house, you know getting them to talk or listen is no easy task. This part of the ritual gave the young men a chance to be listened to by their elders. And hearing stories of manhood from men other than their father may have helped them listen better themselves.

We used the Sweat Lodge ceremony to physically and emotionally push our limits. This is a purification ritual found in various Native American cultures where, in simplest terms, participants meditatively build a sauna in the woods. The group enters one by one with the intent of being transformed by the heat and darkness. It is a deeply spiritual experience that connects one with the Earth, with one's own self and with one's co-participants. Prayers and songs are chanted and sung in the lodge, and many people feel reborn upon exiting. The preparation and execution of this activity took most of one day, and that evening we used the talk circle to process the changes each person felt.

The second day we hiked around a beautiful waterfall near Starseed. One of the men took a dip in a cold pool below the waterfall. Since this was a Christian group experience, his immersion in the cold water looked like another rebirth, and several men followed him in a spontaneous baptism, which left all who took part feeling clean inside and out.

The bonds created during the weekend will live forever. The boys saw core values of positive masculinity in action: seeking adventure, working together for a common goal, challenging our bodies, sharing our feelings and using our voices to roar. I hope this inspires other men to create conscious, uplifting rites of passage for their own sons.

I've heard arguments to the effect that such ceremonies are an unnecessary anachronism in modern American culture. A friend recently tried to persuade me that we shouldn't "insert alien rituals" in an attempt to re-create ceremonies that were an intrinsic part of other societies. Eli Newberger makes a similar argument in his 1999 book about the nature and nurture of male character, The Men They Will Become. "Rigorous rites of passage don't make much sense when adolescence is expected to last close to a decade for most boys," he writes, "even longer for those who elect careers requiring extensive post-graduate education."

These types of retreats are not meant to replace such key life experiences as going to high school, getting a driver's license, or leaving home for college. What critics of rites of passage ceremonies fail to recognize is that it is not a question of whether our sons will have rituals, but of what kind of rituals will predominate. Funerals have become a modern rite of passage for young men in my community. The murder rate in Boston has skyrocketed; most of the victims are young men of color. It's difficult to live in my community and not be personally touched by the epidemic of young black males killing one another.

Yet male violence is not just a problem in urban, African-American communities. Black folks in America are like the canary in the coal mine. Our fraternal violence bred from despair is highly dramatic and well-publicized, but consider the behaviors prevalent in many men and one can see that heartless violence is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Suburban families quick to dismiss violence as something that happens elsewhere need only remember Columbine and other suburban school shootings. Just last month in Plymouth, Mass., nine high school boys were suspended (and may be indicted) for an assault that sent a ninth-grader to the hospital for surgery. Intimate partner violence is widespread across ethnic and class boundaries. The media regularly report that men of varying socioeconomic and racial groups are charged with (and convicted of) the beating or murder of their wives or girlfriends.

Growing up in this atmosphere of violence, our sons--all of them--are at risk. The serious problem of teen violence will require a multipronged solution. Standing outside JR's funeral, I wondered what would happen if all fathers and sons could have the opportunity that I had just weeks before. Would it prevent even one teen murder? Certainly, the re-creation of rites of passage for our young adolescent males is not a panacea. But when fathers and other responsible elders come together to once again initiate our boys into the wisdom of healthy masculinity, it can only help. While we're at it, we may learn something ourselves.

Haji Shearer lives in Boston, facilitates men's groups, and writes frequently for Voice Male. He can be reached at [email protected].

The mission of the Men's Resource Center for Change is to support men, challenge men's violence, and develop men's leadership in ending oppression in our lives, our families, and our communities.

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