Boys will be boys — but can they be raised to be men by single mothers?
That was the topic on everyone’s minds last Saturday afternoon at the Black Spectrum Theatre, where a debate, hosted by Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton) as part of a salute to Women’s History Month, at times worked the audience of more than 100 vested individuals into a near frenzy of emotions.
The time restrictions were not always observed, the panelists didn’t necessarily speak in turn, and the audience was talking back long before the public participation segment began, but the debate did what Sanders said it set out to accomplish: it educated, motivated and sent the spectators home with plenty of food for thought.
“We might as well start wrestling with this in a respectful, disciplined manner,” Sanders said prior to the discussion.
“Our job is to look at the whole thing, to explore it all. We’re going to bring thinking back,” he said.
According to Sanders, the debate was designed to “make us think about our children, our families and the structure of our society. What has happened to the positive male influence, and what happens to our sons if they don’t have one?”
Sanders asked the audience, “When was the last time our community thought? We used to play chess, a thinking game. For every move, 20 possibilities open up. Now we have strong thumbs and weak minds.
“There’s a lot going on in our community. Women are left with the burden of raising children,” he said.
The six panelists, representing a wide range of backgrounds, were divided into two even groups, based on their response to the debate’s premise, “Single mothers can’t raise boys to be men.” One side agreed, the other did not.
Cathleen Williams, whose book, “Single Mother The New Father,” raised considerable controversy because of its provocative title, opened the discussion by saying, “As a single woman, I was able to successfully raise my son,” currently a student at St. John’s University.
“As a people, we tell women you can’t do it, that you’re doomed to failure. Not only can you, but you must do it for the salvation of our race,” she said.
She indicated that there are “over 10 million single women in the United States raising their children successfully,” admitting that she “didn’t do it alone.”
Opening the discussion for the opposition, clinical social worker Rodney Pride, who serves as vice president of youth development at United Black Men of Queens, said, “Eight out of 10 boys are without a positive male role model in their families and that ain’t good. So many boys are walking around with a level of anger.” He suggested that their pent-up rage often leads to cases of teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school, and black on black violence.
Joel Austin, president of Daddy University, Inc., a company that helps men appreciate the responsibility of fatherhood, finds a direct correlation between the rise in the number of single mothers and the increasing high school drop-out rate among males.
He blamed “a lack of strong brothers” as part of the problem.
Dr. Amandia Speakes-Lewis, a behavioral health consultant, indicated that many women “may not be single by choice.” Married and with two sons, she spoke of the existence of a “circle of love” that encompasses the extended families that often play important roles in a young man’s life.
Carl Clay, the founder and executive producer of Black Spectrum Theatre, said there is a definite need for a strong male figure in the household, but, in reality, that is often not the case.
“They say you cannot do it alone. We’re adding because males are not in the households, what recourse does the average black woman have,” he asked.
There is a need “for discipline and boundaries,” he said.
Terryl De Mendonca, founder of The Misunderstood Youth Development Center, an organization that caters to “mostly jail-bound young men,” is herself a single mother raising a 17-year-old son. She admitted, “I can’t do it myself.
“Can I teach my son how to be a man? No, I am not equipped. My son continues to be very angry. I had to look for male mentors. As a single mom, as a woman, we cannot do it. I tried,” she said.
Speakes-Lewis raised the question, “How do we define a man? Are you not a man if you are going to jail? I’m raising my two boys to be men, to be productive in life.”
Citing words once spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Austin suggested, “My actions tell you whether I’m a man or not. I know men and I know me. Our children are hurting.”
He explained, “It’s hard for me to talk to my daughter about her period. I don’t know anything about labor pains.”
Williams responded by indicating that the hypothetical village, often credited with helping to raise a child, “is critical. It doesn’t exist like it did when I was a child. A village has to be built. No one of us is an island. No one of us knows everything.”
In defense of her book’s title, which several panel members found demeaning to men, she said, “It’s not a male-bashing book. We are not saying we hate men. My son still has a relationship with his father. Young men growing up raised by single women — they can, they shall, they must become men.”
Clay admitted the title “makes me mad, but the reality is we need to get mad. The title is a call to action. We’re facing the gradual extinction of the black male. Single mothers can raise their sons, but they have to have the tools to do it.”
Williams agreed. “We have to mentor each other as parents and continue to grow each day,” she said.
As the debate wrapped up, De Mendonca said, “It’s been a hard road. Plenty of times I wanted to pull my hair out. My son, regardless of how much time I spent with him, still yearned for his dad-that male figure. He became very angry because his father was a revolving door dad. We need men to step up. We need to pick our men more carefully.”
Speakes-Lewis concluded, “As long as black people support each other, single mothers can raise a young black child. It’s more about us working together. We’ve got to go back to our roots. We need the church, school, mentoring programs to reinforce what we teach in the house.”
Members of the audience had much to say on the issues, prior to, during and following the discussion.
Malloree Johnson, a long-time Rosedale resident, alluded to the “family breakdown,” saying, “The father image is not there. There is a lack of parental guidance. The mother doesn’t have the time to control everything.” [See sidebar for Johnson’s personal story about raising two children on her own.]
Eileen Lawrence, of Springfield Gardens, who was raised by a single parent, felt it is much more difficult today. “When I was growing up, if your mother said sit there, you sat there. We listened. The kids now are different.”
The Rev. Fred Jenkins Jr. of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Hollis, the father of five, said the debate “opened our minds. It created camaraderie.”
Melissa Hubbard, a widowed mother who resides in Queens Village, is raising a 16-year-old son. She realizes “the importance of having two parents. Each gender brings something to a child.”
Though Sanders called upon the audience to vote for the winning side, he was forced to declare a tie, as the applause was nearly equal for both teams.
Still he was pleased with the outcome. “The people thought,” he said. “They confronted painful and difficult issues. People got their point across. There is more to come.”
See more photos of the debate at qchron.com.