By Jabari Asim
WASHINGTON—“Paths to Success: A Forum on Young African-American Men,’’ sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Washington Post and Harvard University, was held earlier this month in Washington. It began with a Post video in which various respondents tackled the question, “What Does It Mean to Be a Black Man?’‘
As with any survey, the responses varied greatly in thoughtfulness and eloquence. None of them appeared to satisfy Bill Cosby, the featured speaker at the forum. Among his comments—many of which were persuasive—he said, “unless I missed it, I heard not one black man say anything about being a father. I heard not one black man say, ‘my responsibility,’ not one.’‘
Evidently he missed the part of the video with Demitri Kornegay, who defined a black man as “a man who is honest, reliable, as well as self-reliant,’’ and “assumes responsibility not only for his own actions but for the actions of those persons he is responsible for.’‘
As I sat in the audience watching the video, I recognized Kornegay because he has spoken powerfully in the past about the joys and challenges of fatherhood. His book, “Dear Rhonda: Life Lessons From a Father to his Daughter,’’ is a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation about African-American parenting.
I caught up with Kornegay, a lieutenant in the Montgomery County, Md., Police Department, a few days after the forum. I wanted to talk about Men Under Construction, a program he founded at Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland, Md. He told me he launched it in 1992 after completing a stint with his department’s SWAT team.
“Crack [cocaine] was really rolling in Montgomery County,’’ he said, and “it was disheartening to see so many young men who looked like me going to jail. I went to my pastor and told him that if he gave me a room in the church from March to June, I could change the world.’‘
The program, open to young men ages 13 and older (church membership is not required), features a different topic at each Saturday session, including history, etiquette, financial management and preparation for job interviews. Kornegay’s guest lecturers, all volunteers, have included local police chiefs, members of Congress and human-resource specialists. Other sessions offer a slide show and lecture on sexually transmitted diseases. Participants also tour Morgan State University to get a close-up view of college life.
Men Under Construction concludes with a rite of passage held at the church. “The first thing they do is offer up prayers and then they give flowers to their mothers,’’ Kornegay said. “They express very briefly what they’ve learned. At the end, a father or male figure meets them at the pulpit. As coordinator, I hand a symbolic kente cloth to the pastor, who gives it to the father. He in turn drapes it around the son. There is usually not a dry eye in the place.’’
Kornegay said he regards programs like his—more than 200 youths have completed it—as “the answer to the question, ‘What are we going to do about the crisis among young black men?’ We’re fighting racism. We’re also fighting black folks. There’s no place for thugs in our lives. We’ve gotten to the point where we lionize outlaws.’‘
I found echoes of Kornegay’s comments when I talked with Roscoe Orman. He is not only a dedicated husband and father but also plays one on TV. As Gordon on “Sesame Street,’’ he has teamed with actress Loretta Long in perhaps the longest-running television portrayal of a stable, loving black married couple in the history of the medium.
He joined the show in 1974, the same year that he and his wife, Sharon, became parents for the first time. They had four children in all, each of whom has appeared on the show.
Orman’s new memoir, “Sesame Street Dad,’’ discusses in detail his approach to his career and his family life. He told me that his personal history helps him to understand and appreciate the special importance of serving as a role model. “I’ve always felt a more pronounced level of responsibility because I understand what that was like from the other end. My biological father was not around for much of my childhood. There never really was anyone whom I called Dad.’‘
There’s that word again: responsibility. Cosby is absolutely right to point out that the very notion of it has dramatically faded in communities where it is needed most. But as long as Cosby, Kornegay, Orman and other men continue to invoke it, reason for hope remains.
Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is asimj(at symbol)washpost.com.