April 15th, 2008
10:07 AM ET

Understanding why you don't call a black man a boy

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/15/art.congressman.geoff.davis.jpg caption="Congressman Geoff Davis (R-KY) ."]

Roland S. Martin, CNN Contributor
Special Correspondent, Essence Magazine/Essence.com

When I read about Kentucky Republican Congressman Geoff Davis using the word "boy" in reference to Sen. Barack Obama, I immediately thought of a routine, and subsequent book, by comedian Cedric the Entertainer.

While watching the movie, "The Kings of Comedy," Ced had me rolling in the aisle talking about being a "grown ass man," and that eventually became the title of his best-selling book, "Grown-A$$ Man."

For those who think that African Americans are too sensitive over this issue, and it's just a well-meaning person making a mistake, I understand that. But others must understand the history of African Americans, and what it has always meant to black men for someone to call them a "boy."

One, it's the ultimate sign of disrespect, and is often more offensive than calling them the N-word. For years black men were summarily dismissed and treated with disregard. It was as if their stature was diminished when someone white called them a boy. I've heard black men describe the hurt and pain of growing up and having someone white call them a boy in front of their own child.

Again, I know some are reading this and saying, "Why can't we all just get along and forget all this race stuff?"

That would be great, but our history is truly our history, and there are things left over that when said, immediately conjure up those feelings of old.

Do you remember the images from the sanitation strike that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading in Memphis in 1968? The most striking visual was that of the male protestors wearing signs saying, "I Am A Man!"

There was a reason they were wearing those signs.

You may have caught the Showtime movie, "10,000 Black Men Named George," which tells the story of labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who organized the black porters of the Pullman Rail Company during the1920s, known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

The name is derived from the fact that white passengers never bothered to learn the names of the porters, and would dismissively call them all George, which was seen during those days as a racial slur.

Remember earlier this year when former President Bill Clinton referred to Obama as a "kid"? That evoked a similar reaction by some because it was seen as being dismissive of a sitting U.S. senator who also is a grown man with a wife and two daughters. Where I come from, we call that a man, and not a boy or kid.

I have my own story when it comes to being called a boy.

I recall working at the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman newspaper and an older white male colleague was talking to me, and in the conversation, he referenced me as a boy. I knew he meant no harm, but don't think for a second that it didn't cross my mind about the word. He also stiffened up, realized what he said and quickly replied, "Now you know I didn't mean to disparage you by calling you a boy?"

In this presidential campaign we have had many instances where individuals have made references that were perceived as sexist or racist. Some have been called overt; others covert.

I've heard men blow off comments about Sen. Hillary Clinton that are clearly sexist, and we do well to recognize that. I have a wife, sisters and nieces, and I sure don't want them treated with disrespect, so not objecting to sexism towards Clinton means that attitude will remain, and it may affect the women in my life one day.

Heck, Obama's comments about rural folks in Pennsylvania and the visceral reaction by some shows that even when it comes to guns and religion, some folks see that as an attack on who they are and where they come from.

When people suggest that we all shouldn't be so sensitive, I get what they are saying, but I also know that's always easy to say when you aren't the one who is being targeted.

Watching what you say, and realizing the meaning what you say is not being politically correct. It's realizing that words do matter, and they have meaning.

This brouhaha over the comments by the Kentucky congressman won't blow up into a major story, and we'll all likely forget. But let's treat all of this as a history lesson on race and gender, and as a window into a world that many of us either don't know about, ignore or long forgot.



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soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate


    Thank you for reminding us that there are some words that are loaded with negative meaning despite the intention of the person who utters them. As we have seen in this election, the words we use to describe someone or someone's campaign, whether a noun or a adjective, can cast that nominee or campaign into either a positive or negative light. Your explanation of the word "boy" reminds us that some words can evoke memories of a terrible history of how African Americans were treated in this country.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 15, 2008 at 9:14 pm |
  2. Michelle

    I am neither black nor a man and those comments cut me. I cannot fathom that an educated government official could make a slip that ignorant.

    And as for the poster who suggests "just saying what you want" and dealing with the consequences later I must ask, how exactly is it that you think racism and other forms of discrimination are allowed to fester? The answer is through "slips" like this, racial jokes, generalizations, stereotypes and the willingness to hear them.

    April 15, 2008 at 9:09 pm |
  3. Kyle

    Roland good article.

    I don't know the Senator so I can't say if he meant it racially or was just trying to use boy because it plays into the way Obama is viewed as not experienced. However I think it is important to bring these stories to light to just discuss them so we all further understand each other. Just as what Obama said about people in Pennsylvania was it right no but we discuss it and can all learn from it. I follow Obama so I believe what he said was just worded incorrectly. As for this Senator I truly hope he didn't mean it racially but in both incedents we can discuss them learn and become closer to each other. Even if we disagree, because we discuss these issues in a respectful manner and hopefully can at least understand why people feel the way they do.

    April 15, 2008 at 8:10 pm |
  4. maxine

    I am a white female and when I read the comment, I am sorry I took offense with it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, because it is exactly how I took it.

    April 15, 2008 at 7:57 pm |
  5. Sandy

    Excellent Job Roland,

    The congressman calling Barack a boy was unexcuseable. I cant believe some of the racist comments that was written by others. America has come a long way but America has a long way to go.
    The way the media treats Barack sickens me. There is never a big deal about anything anyone else says. Barack miss-speak and its played 24 hours daily until it becomes old news.

    Thank you for making a difference!

    April 15, 2008 at 7:41 pm |
  6. Mike from Syracuse NY


    Ok, so you don't like the label. How much racism is self inflicted? My granndparents came from Poland, but I call myself an American, not a Polish American. Slavery ended 143 years ago, yet African Americans persist on dwelling on their differences. Roland, what's wrong with being just an American instead of African American? Do you think we need a reminder that you didn't come from Sweden? The Trinty UCC Church web site says they are "African people and remain true to our native land." H I've seen blogs from blacks who say that they were beaten up for going to school because it was 'too white'. WTF? Is that the path to equality? With all the inequities in the US, how many African Americans would like to 'go back' to Africa? I don't see anyone lining up for plane tickets. If blacks want to be treated the same, act the same. If you want respect, stop disrespecting yourselves. How many black comedians use the 'N' word and get big laughs? How many rap songs have lyrics that are derogatory? Wasn't Al Sharpton supposed to be working that one? I guess he was too busy with Imus. Why are there 2 sets of rules for what's acceptable? I had some admiration for Obama until the Wright affair. I thought that for once here was a black leader who didn't play the race card like Sharpton or Jackson. Well, that didn't last long. Now his grandmother is a 'typical white person' and we need to all understand the lingering anger over the injustices of slavery. So, yes. get over it already! By the way, my Polish grandparents didn't own slaves, and probably never saw a black person until they got here. So why do I need to share the collective white guilt over slavery? Life is 10% of the circumstances you are born into, and 90% what you do about it. I'm pretty sure Colin Powell didn't get to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs by whining about slavery.

    April 15, 2008 at 7:40 pm |
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