I've got to admit, when I met Ray Johnson and his two sons the other day, my first thought was, "Wow. So nice to see a strong black man with his children."
Whoa, hold up. Sometimes even I have to be mindful of beating back the prevailing notion of African American males as good-for-nothing deadbeat dads or ruthless thugs, because that's pretty much how they're portrayed, with few positive representations to balance it out.
Truth is, Johnson embodies most of the black men I know - men who work hard every day, husbands who adore their wives, fathers who raise their children with equal amounts of discipline and love.
But let's be real - there are far too many others who have fallen down on the job. Neglected to live up to the pledge that so many took on that October day in Washington 16 years ago.
I'm talking about the historic Million Man March. I covered the march, and it still gives me goose bumps to remember how resolutely sweet the huge throng of baritones sounded reverberating throughout the Mall that day:
"I will strive to love my brother as myself. . . . I will strive to improve myself spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically, and economically for the benefit of myself, my family, and my people . . ."
We can cite plenty of institutional, historical, and societal forces that work against black men. It's the reason Mayor Nutter signed an executive order to reestablish the Mayor's Commission on African American Males this month.
But taking responsibility for your actions is a singular, conscious act, and too many brothers have no conscience at all.
Look no further than the spate of shootings Thursday to know what I'm talking about. Two dead, seven wounded in Grays Ferry and Port Richmond. And that doesn't include the four people - including a toddler - shot in an incident stemming from a beef between female high school students Tuesday.
In all of the shootings, the shooters were African American males, police say.
"I pledge I will never raise my hand with a knife or a gun to beat, cut, or shoot any . . . other human being. . . ."
"We stand in violation of the pledge we made that day," Minister Rodney Muhammad declared as he and other local activists gathered in Center City this month to promote the Million Man March anniversary weekend events, Oct. 7 through 9 at the Convention Center. "Because it was violated . . . our communities continue to suffer . . . making them worse off than they were in 1995."
Ray Johnson, for one, took his vow seriously.
Johnson, 36, was a 20-year-old student when he and 4-year-old nephew Stephan Williams pledged with thousands of other Philadelphia men in '95.
"It was so much more difficult for my nephew to grow up than it was for me," Johnson says. "In case my nephew zigged and zagged, I wanted him to know that he was one of the million. I wanted him to hold onto that history."
Both of them held on to the positivity of the day. Williams, 20, recently joined the Army, much to the delight of his uncle.
Of his nephew, Johnson says: "I take great solace in the small victories. He never went to jail, he has no children, and he's a respectful young man."
The same values that Johnson, a SEPTA trolley driver, and his wife, Jessica, work to instill in their own sons, Rayshawn II, 12, and Raymir, 9.
Not that his father was around to teach him. The youngest of four, Johnson was raised by his hardworking single mom in a condemned house in Nicetown.
"We were Rice-A-Roni poor," he says.
Still, he says he learned from the "old heads" in the neighborhood that manhood meant taking responsibility.
"If people see me, at 6-foot-4 and 278 pounds, kissing my sons on the forehead, people are influenced by that," he says.
For Johnson, the formula is simple: "Raise your children. . . . Just be a man."