Why you should care
Because ritual matters, whether you’re Jewish, Catholic, an atheist or a goddamn hippie.
With the echoes of African drumming still reverberating through the Baltimore schoolroom, 13-year-old Jaden Derry, wearing slacks and a colorful dashiki, stood to take the pledge: “Today, I cross this line from childhood into manhood. … Today, I take responsibility for all I do and promise to use what I know and do to be productive, and not destructive.”
And so began a coming-of-age ceremony unlike any you may have encountered. Some call it a Black bar mitzvah, some a bro mitzvah, while many stick to the more generic “rite of passage.” Whatever you call it, though, it’s having a moment: Growing numbers of African-American boys are marking the passage from oily pubescence to adulthood with some sort of formal ceremony, usually a capstone of a course of study. Of late, the phrase “Black bar mitzvah” has popped up in hip-hop and entertainment, but the concept is also manifesting in broader policy initiatives, from the recent establishment of rites-of-passage programs in 10 Boston schools to a new Young Men’s Initiative in New York City. It aims to partner 5,000 minority boys with their own personal … sensei.
Just as mourners tip their forties for a fallen street soldier, he poured his own libation into a small plant to instead celebrate life.
The basic idea here is to redirect boys otherwise headed toward less savory rites of passage, like, say, drugs or jail. And while each course is a bit different, it’s safe to say that most are nondenominational and Afrocentric (instead of learning to recite the Torah, the kids might learn Swahili, for instance), and emphasize mentorship and community. Chike Nwoffiah, who runs a Silicon Valley program, says the most important goal of the bro mitzvah is to bring African-American men and boys together in a room, so for at least a time they can shed the narratives they carry outside. “A lot of boys just need to know there is someone who understands them,” says Nwoffiah, who reports a waiting list in the double digits. The program’s tag line: “Boys will come, Men will return!”
Of course, it can be hard to measure the value of such things, and even when results are measurable, rites-of-passage programs can occupy a precarious position on school budgets. Although organizers of a Philadelphia program called Sankofa (it’s Ghanaian for “Go back and get it,” as in knowledge from African ancestors) say they contributed to an 89 percent drop in violent incidents during the 2013–2014 school year, it got axed in subsequent cuts. (The Philadelphia school district didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) Funding is a serious question. Usually communities and their houses of worship foot the bill for religious instruction, like Catholic confirmation classes, but there aren’t funding conventions for Black bar mitzvahs. Still, few question that mentorship has gotten a big boost over the past year, with the rollout of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative; it aims at large-scale mentoring fraternities for at-risk boys.
Rites of passage themselves, of course, are as old as human community, and linger in everything from Mexican quinceañeras to boot camps. But today’s African-American rites of passage came out of the civil rights and pan-African movements of the 1960s, scholars say. Amid the chaos of school desegregation at the time, many African-American families turned to alternative after-school programs to ensure a good education for their kids; those programs wove these rituals into their curriculum, according to the 1992 paper “The Rites of Passage Movement.” Their popularity has waxed and waned over the decades, and at times these efforts have gotten tangled up in gang-prevention programs.
Nowadays, the trick is to make the Black bar mitzvah relevant. On the TV show Black-ish, about an upper-middle-class Black family in Philadelphia, the 12-year-old son wants to have a bar mitzvah — just like his private-school friends. So his father, played by Anthony Anderson, throws the boy a bro mitzvah, complete with a hip-hop chorus. (Anderson said it was a re-enactment of an episode with his own real-life son.). “Everyone has to have something to give them authenticity,” says Doreen Loury, a sociologist who directs the Black Male Development Symposium at Arcadia University.
Jaden’s program started in January, included weekly sessions and culminated in June. He had to do things like read A Boy Called Slow, write a letter to his future self, interview older men he respected and do volunteer work. And when his city exploded in anger over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, he had to engage in a conversation about it. Jaden’s mother, Regina Salliey, wants her son to be aware of “innate racism” but not consumed by it — and she doesn’t “want him to learn about it when he gets pulled over,” Salliey says. In the real world, rites-of-passage programs were born at least partly from pain in the African-American community, including unemployment, incarceration and an absence of male role models. “The Black man is having an identity crisis,” says LaMarr Shields, a Baltimore educator who facilitated Jaden’s program and also wrote 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know.
Back in Baltimore, as 50 or so friends and family members looked on, Jaden enacted rituals to symbolize his commitment: Just as mourners tip their forties for a fallen street soldier, he poured his own libation into a small plant to instead celebrate life. He sampled various flavors meant to represent experiences he will someday encounter: cayenne (the burn will eventually fade), vinegar (sometimes things just go sour), honey (for life’s sweet moments), and water (there’s always a great equalizer). Last, he invited five other men, including his dad, grandfather and basketball coach, to talk about what being a Black man means to them. “I saw a light-bulb moment in him,” Salliey says. “It will come back to the memories. When he needs it, he’ll remember what they said.”