Rod SuttonAbout Rod Sutton
As a 200-pound thirteen-year-old, Rod Sutton was a well-known figure in his middle school. It wasn’t only his size that made him stand out; it was his attitude. During his years in elementary school, Rod had been suspended fifty-two times. Finally, after assaulting a teacher, Rod was permanently expelled from his school district. That’s when St. Benedict’s School, a school run by Catholic monks in Newark, New Jersey, agreed to accept Rod on a trial basis.

Two weeks after his arrival at the school, Rod got into a fight with another student that ended with several classroom windows being shattered. Rod was certain he would be kicked out of St. Benedict’s. Instead, the headmaster gently told him, “I don’t believe in children missing school. You’re going to be something great someday. Now go sweep up that glass.”

That day marked a turning point for Rod. He graduated from St. Benedict’s and went on to earn a sociology degree from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Later, as a teacher in the Camden, New Jersey, school district, he developed an innovative program called “Urban Males” to help fifth- grade boys stay on track academically and personally. Today Rod teaches in the Philadelphia public schools. He and his wife Jean are the parents of a daughter and a son.


Rod Sutton Speaks
We African American males are in trouble. Particularly young African American males. As a group, we occupy the bottom rung of the American social ladder. We die the youngest. We have the worst health problems. We are the most likely to be imprisoned. We have the poorest school records. We are most likely to be both the perpetrators and the victims of violent crime.

It is rare to see an African American man on a college campus or working in a business environment or in any positive professional capacity outside of entertainment or professional sports. Apart from entertainment or sports, the only places you will find significant numbers of Black brothers are in prisons, on the deadly inner-city street corners, and sadly, in the morgue and graveyards.

How did we get here? And what can we do?

In answer to “how did we get here,” I think of Kanye West’s words in his rap song “Jesus Walks.” Kanye says, “Yo, we’re at war. We’re at war with terrorism, racism, and most of all we’re at war with ourselves.” Tragically, Kanye is right. We Black males are killing each other. And when we are not physically hurting one another, we are making choices that keep us at the bottom.

We pull each other down with the image of ourselves that we choose to embrace. Many of the current generation of young Black men define themselves as “niggas.” As an inner-city educator and a brother from the hood, I can’t tell you how many young men have told me that we Black men are niggas. And they tell me this in a way that indicates they are either proud of placing themselves in an inferior position, or else they don’t understand the history of the word “nigga” and how offensive it is.

But calling themselves “niggas” reflects the social world that these young Black men have created. It’s a world based on negative stereotypes and negative thinking. Being a nigga is all about what you DON’T do. A nigga doesn’t dress in clothes that fit properly. A nigga doesn’t speak correct English. A nigga doesn’t enjoy learning. A nigga doesn’t find one girl to love and care for and build a lasting relationship with. A nigga doesn’t plan to marry and raise a family. A nigga doesn’t aspire to be anything but a thug or a hood rat.

A brother who dares to try to separate himself from this negativity is put down. If he tries to be something more than a nigga, he is mocked as acting “white” or “soft” or “sweet.” Each of these names is meant to demean a young Black male, make him feel less than a man. It is meant to punish him for trying to be something more. We brothers are like a barrel of crabs. One of us tries to crawl out to sunlight and freedom, and the others are pulling him back in. We’re acting out Kanye’s lyric: “Most of all, we’re at war with ourselves.”

Ever since the Black man came to America, each generation has struggled with the negative effect the word “nigga” has had on the self-esteem of young brothers. But my generation was the first to turn it into a term of affection or even a badge of ability. To be a nigga meant that you could handle yourself on the street.

I remember the day that I embraced my identity as a nigga. I was 16. My home streets of Newark, New Jersey, were as mean and cruel as they are today. As a young Black male, I knew I would be tested daily. I had to stick with people who I could trust and who I knew would have my back. During these years on the streets, I formed some of the strongest friendships imaginable. Because we knew that we were in a life-and-death struggle every time we chose to leave our homes, we formed bonds that were as close as family ties.

The first order of business was that you couldn’t appear soft or weak in any way. This was especially important for me because I was big. When anyone encountered our posse, I was the first person they sized up. They’d think, “If I can take down the Big Boy, we can handle the rest.” As a result, I felt the need to never, ever take an ass-whupping. I quickly developed the habit of hitting first. I didn’t talk much. If I felt violated, I came in swinging. And it was pretty easy to violate me. Just use the wrong tone of voice.

On this day, my cousin had just stolen a case of beer from the Pabst brewery. He and his crew had been around the corner when another guy, Khalid, got into a fight with my cousin over a girl. Soon my cousin came up my street, bleeding from the mouth, saying, “That nigga Khalid hit me.” I ran around the corner to where Khalid was still sitting on the corner. I was a big kid, but Khalid was five years older, 6 foot 5, and weighed 230 pounds, so I figured I needed to disable him quick. I picked up a beer bottle and busted it over his head, putting him into a daze. I then grabbed him and slammed him head-first into the brick wall of the neighboring building. Then I proceeded to give him a beating. Through it all I could hear girls screaming that I was going to kill him. I didn’t stop until somebody’s mother threatened to call the cops.

So the next day, I was walking down the street and an old head named Wadou, just out of prison, called out to me. He said, “I just saw Khalid with a mouth full of blood. Did you do that?” I smirked and nodded, proud as a peacock. Wadou told me, “I am going to call you ‘Brass’—short for “brass knuckles.” Wow! I had effectively handled my business on the streets of Newark. At 16, I felt I was one of the biggest, baddest niggas around. I had respect, as it was defined in my neighborhood.

But a few days after Wadou spoke to me, another old head from the neighborhood saw me hanging around. His name was Eric. He was a lawyer who worked on Wall Street. He didn’t congratulate me on my street brawl. Instead he said, “Eventually you’re going to have to grow up and leave all of this bullshit behind. You’re a smart kid. If you take control of your life, you could write your own ticket out of here.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard words like this. My biological father used to tell me similar things. Before he died, he would tell my mom, “Rod is my investment. He is going to be something one day.” Years later, I would see how frustrated my stepfather, David Sutton, would get with me. He could see that I had potential that I wasn’t using. And, of course, my mother prayed for my success every day.

I understood my parents’ concern. But I didn’t think they fully understood the daily threat of the streets. I knew that the streets of Newark could spring death on a Black male—usually at the hands of another Black male—at any moment. By creating a reputation as a bad nigga, I hoped to protect myself. But I knew that my time was running out. I had been very fortunate so far, meaning that I had neither been killed or killed anybody myself. But it was just a matter of time. Before long, I would have to choose the path of Wadou or of Eric.

I chose Eric’s. But until I could leave where I was living, I realized I was going to have to learn to live in two worlds at once. I was going to have to learn to do what they call “code switching.” In certain settings, I would have to conceal my book smarts. In others, I would have to hide my street smarts. At times, I thought this split would rip me apart. I never felt comfortable in any setting, never felt that I could show anybody who I really was. I knew the streets weren’t the place for me, because I wanted a better life for myself. But we brothers have done a magnificent job of convincing mainstream America that we are bad niggas and not to be messed with. As a result, even when I no longer wanted to play this role, the stereotype was assigned to me anyway. Everywhere I went, I felt suspicion and discomfort around me. I believe that this constant mental tug-of-war contributes to the struggle with alcohol that I am dealing with today.

When a brother decides to separate himself from the streets and tries to live a better life, he finds himself in a lonely place. As he moves into the mainstream, he can find nothing to connect him to the world where he grew up. And once he is in the mainstream, he is no longer welcome back in his original world. This is the challenge the Black man faces as he tries to make his way out of the hood—he is viewed with suspicion in both worlds.

How have I coped with this dilemma? First, I found a woman who I could build a life with and start a family. She helped me make the transition from being a nigga to being a man. Secondly, I began listening to older African American men who had experienced what I was going through. As they say, “There is nothing new under the sun.” These older men had stood where I was standing and knew how it felt. Through them, I began to think more about the positive male role models I had known. I thought about my deceased father and the unconditional love he had for his family. I thought of my stepdad and his commitment to duty and honor. I thought of my late uncles, one a principal of a New Jersey school and the other a corrections officer. And I thought, of course, of Eric.

In addition, I joined a church. This was important for a number of reasons. First, it strengthened my faith for the still difficult road that lay ahead. (Just because you’re out of the hood doesn’t mean the hard work is over.) In addition, it put me in constant contact with responsible, committed Black men who have a positive image of themselves and of me. The church also provides a community that keeps me accountable and on the right track.

Throughout it all, I have learned to accept the help of kind-hearted individuals who wanted to help me succeed in the mainstream. This has included elementary, junior-high, and high-school teachers; college professors and administrators; and a host of other caring human beings that God placed in my path at the right moment to gently (and sometimes not so gently) push me in the right direction.

Lastly and most importantly, I found a purpose. I dedicated myself to the memory of those brothers who, by choice or by fate, didn’t make it out. I honor them by trying to help as many young brothers as possible escape the death trap of the streets.