It evokes fear. It unsettles nerves. It can change the atmosphere of virtually any room as it enters. Able to make a White person walk on the opposite side of the street in a single bound. It’s not a bird. It’s not a plane. It’s not even superman. It’s simply the look on a Black man’s face.
It is universally recognized, yet known by man names. Referred to as the “Mean Mug,” the “Ice Grille” and other names it has become a cultural staple that has become socially synonymous with thug life and urban warfare. It is reminiscent of a mug shot. Some consider it the “game face” of hip hop because so many artists deem it mandatory to look as “hardened” as they possibly can on album covers and in videos. So what’s the truth behind the mean mug? Why do we as Black men feel the need to look so intimidating? Some say it’s an attempt to strike fear in society so that we can get ahead and stay ahead. Well, apparently it isn’t working. Statistics bear me witness.
Some social scientists have determined that we are an endangered species. One out of every three of us are in some way under the direct control of the criminal justice system (prison, probation, parole, etc.). We are the most unemployed and unemployable race-gender in America. Only 52 percent of us graduate high school in four years. And we are suffering at historical highs from health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension, heart disease and other illnesses. Suicide among Black men is at unprecedented levels. And let’s not even approach the discussion about mental health.
Consider that approximately 70 percent of the homes in the Black community are headed by women. This means that 70 percent of Black males grow up without the immediate influence of a father. This is a painful reality for the son and the absentee father as well. No man is truly happy neglecting his duty as a father and that pain will at some point be reflected in his facial expression. These are just a few things to consider when you encounter a brother with his “mean mug” on full blast.
My daughters recently accompanied me to a television show interview. Afterward, I asked them if I did okay. My eldest responded, “dad you need to lighten up.” I had to take a real look at that. This was not the first time that I was told I had an “ice grill,” which perplexes me, because I don’t do it intentionally. However, I grew up in an intense environment and I think I may have developed a habit of unconsciously “mean mugging.” Not saying that I should go around smiling like a used car salesman, but much can be communicated through facial expressions. I once heard rapper/entrepreneur 50 Cent say that he consciously smiles a lot during business meetings because people in the business world tend to prejudge him based on his aggressive performance material and his backstory. Even 50 Cent agrees that there is a time to smile and that a mean mug can only take you so far in this world.
Black males in America are truly walking in the valley of the shadow of death. The above statistics clearly explain, yet does not excuse, why we look so mean so often. But how we respond can sometimes turn that mean mug into a happy face emoticon if we would but just take the time to look beyond the mean mug in search of the nature of God in that young Black man. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught and proved to us that the Black man is righteous by nature. He taught us to always go to our people with a smile and the good news (the gospel). He was forbidden by his teacher, Master Fard Muhammad, to communicate in a way that made his people cry. He set an example to all Black men must study.
Brothers when we become more aware of our destiny we will become more aware of our power as Black men. When you walk into a room the atmosphere should change, but not in a negative way. When you walk into a room it should be as if somebody pulled the curtains back and let up the shades so that the sunlight came in. The mean mug has its place, but it should not be your everyday facial uniform. I told myself that I would try and do better. I can’t afford to scare off any blessings.
Brothers and sisters, behind every ice grille there is an unsolved problem. Behind every ice grille there are unresolved family issues and despair about the future. But sometimes the brother, like myself, may just not realize that he’s looking like he wants to kill somebody and needs someone to remind him to count his blessings. The next time you see a mean mug try and consider what might be going on in that brother’s life. He may have just lost his mother and simply needs someone to speak to him with a smile and tell him everything’s going to be alright. You would be surprised at the beautiful response you get by simply saying “How are you today, brother?!!!” to a young man who appears troubled. Our people are a beautiful people. Don’t let that mean mug fool you.
(Deric Muhammad is a Houston-based activist in the Ministry of Justice. Visit his website at http://www.dericmuhammad.com)