Emblazoned across the stomach of the late Tupac Shakur was arguably one of the most famous tattoos in the history of popular culture. “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” became a mid-90’s mantra, and echoes of the same were heard from the inner city, to suburbia, to the wide open spaces of rural America.
A complex and controversial artist, the message intended by Tupac’s tattoo was often assumed to convey something sinister or criminal in nature. In fact, the opposite is true. Tupac’s tattoo served as a heart-breaking, yet honest, and even prophetic word for a nation sorely in neglect of the youngest members of its society. The acronym stood for “The hate you give little infants f**** everyone.”
While you might disagree with Tupac’s choice of words, no one can disagree with the validity of this statement. When children suffer from neglect it impacts not only the child, but it also has longstanding and immeasurable ramifications for our community as a whole. Considering the social, political, economic, and spiritual landscapes of America today, it appears as though our youth are largely being left behind. This is especially true of young African American men.
Today, only 47% of African American men graduate from high school, all while funding for youth programs and music and arts programs in schools are being eliminated. Furthermore, many of the family systems from which these young men emerge continue to be in disarray. The unfortunate result of our failures as adults has been the creation of a generation of young people who carry little esteem for themselves, little respect for others and who experience bitter pain at the core of their being.
Yet we, the community that has neglected them, often look upon them with consternation and condemnation when they fall short of our lofty expectations. Such a position is irrational, for as my late grandfather would often state, “A garden can only yield what you plant!” When youth act violently towards themselves, and towards others, we are but reaping the harvest from our gardens of neglect.
This past summer, my wife and I stood in bewildered and troubled awe as a baseball bat-wielding young lady and her associate confronted another young lady on her front porch in a dispute over “her man”. And although the academic year began almost a month ago, it is not uncommon to see this young lady outside in her front yard with “her man” at eleven or twelve o’clock at night. I thought I might express my concern for this young lady’s behavior to her mother until one day the mother invited all of her children inside with a vulgar tirade and needless threats that would make the toughest of sailors blush.
I thought to myself, if that was what awaited me on the inside of my house, I would stay outside as long as I could, too! While persons of good will have mobilized to counter the ill effects of our neglected gardens, there is still much more that needs to be done. Surely we possess the capacity to do it! The question is, “Do we have the commitment do it?”
T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. may in fact be due to our neglect of another garden; the garden of our souls! One author suggests that Americans are largely no longer moved to moral responsibility. Douglas V. Porpora writes, “Moral purpose is a pivotal concept, connecting our grand views about the meaning of life with our own personal identities.”1 The author, however, notes that most Americans suffer from an “emotional withdraw from cosmic [universal] meaning” which leads to “the loss of moral purpose.”2
Is there any greater moral purpose or moral responsibility than caring for the young? Is it possible that we have neglected our youth because we are guilty of neglecting ourselves? Are we so out of touch with our own needs and emotions that we overlook the needs and emotions of others? Do we have difficulty expressing love to our youth because we do not know how to love ourselves? I will continue to ponder these things even as I repent for any neglect of the two seeds in my own garden.