Black Male Elder Recognition Project
California State University, Fresno
Black Male Elder Recognition Project
The person I chose to focus this assignment on is my stepfather Brian Irby. My mother and father divorced when I was only 5 years old. While my father always remained around, my brothers and I lived with our mother for the remainder of my early years. Within two years my mother met and began living with Brian, and within three they would be married. I have known Brian for nearly 18 years, and like any child, adjusting to the authority of a stepparent can be very difficult. This was especially the case for my brothers and me as we often found our mother trying to settle petty three-against-one disputes. As we grew older, those disputes grew as well, at times becoming physical. Through the hard times still, we could only develop respect for this new father figure, because he was not going anywhere any time soon.
Brian Irby was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He lived with his parents, brother and sister in a small three-bedroom house in Detroit. His mother and father were not poor. They both worked long hours, but they were always around in the household. His older brother and sister were closer in age, and he was the youngest and somewhat of an outcast because of this. His older siblings were already in high school while he was still in elementary, so Brian spent a lot of time alone as a child. He had the responsibility, beginning in fourth grade, to walk to and from school on time. The school was only a couple of miles away, however in the winter temperatures would fall below the thirties and snow would sometimes be up to his knees. Even though for the most part he had maintained good grades, naturally, he managed to get into his share of trouble. “If I got to school late, I’d get detention and my Pops would whip me. If I got home late, Mama was waiting to whip me. It wasn’t very fun and I would get bored, so as a kid I would do dumb [things] to try to have fun. I had to be careful not to get caught though because they did not play!” he remembers.
Maintaining a B average throughout high school was a priority of Brian’s, “only because it was get good grades or get in trouble,” he recalls. It was in high school when Brian got into the most trouble. He was one of the smallest kids in school, and he was the youngest brother, so he was rather hardheaded and quick tempered. “I couldn’t take [stuff] from [anyone] in high school because I was all I had, and I was the smallest kid around… My only defense was to be crazy.” He had always told me that we had it good, that things were different nowadays, and I had never took heed to his words. As he reminisced being chased home by neighborhood gang members, being involved in fights at least bi-weekly at one point, and having to carry a knife to and from school, I began to understand just how different things were. “See, growing up back then things were way different than they are now… it’s different back home… and [in California] for that matter,” he states as I ask him to reflect on his final years in Detroit, and his move to California. “You had to do what you had to do. That was my mentality… growing up. My pops taught me ‘it’s either them or me,’ and I’ll never forget his [words].”
Brian eventually would graduate high school at age 17, and it was at that young age he moved to California, not to attend college like some of his closest friends, but to try to start a new life. His senior year in high school and the summer after, Brian had starting making money by selling marijuana. He had never got into trouble with the law, however he was leading a life that his parents would not have approved of. The day his father caught him selling marijuana, he was given an ultimatum; get a job or move out. Brian had no choice because he could not find a job, so at the age of 17, he moved out – all the way to California. Brian and a high school friend named Talbert moved to California when he was just 17. While his friend was moving to attend college, he was just doing what he had to do. He continued selling marijuana until he found a steady job that could support him. Through his twenties, he was in and out of school, however he managed to obtain countless jobs. As he skipped from job to job, he was building up many years of experience on his resume. He was also picking up certain skills with each new job, including plumbing, electrical work, and irrigation. “I was able to get jobs just off of my experience. I could work my way up once I was in a company easy… I had a company car at one point.”
Brian was learning everything he needed to learn to be able to contribute to my life. One of the most valuable lessons he has taught me is the same one his father had taught him – do what you got to do. Soon after Brian and my mom married, they moved into a four-bedroom house in Chino Hills, Ca. This is where my brothers and I spent the majority of our childhood. When my brothers and I were in high school, my mother was working in downtown Los Angeles at a bank headquarters. Brian had been working at a bottle manufacturing company, however he was laid off. While my mother was making enough money to support our family, Brian was once again doing what he had to do. He became a stay at home dad, keeping the lawn mowed and the leaves raked, dinner ready on a daily basis, and helping us with our homework if needed. This epitomizes the opposite of the standard type of masculinity we see today in the media. Though things have changed, it is still relatively uncommon to see the female in the household working long days making the money, and the male staying at home keeping the household intact. It had to have been especially stressful for him, because my brothers and I were not his children. “You guys were bad kids, but nothing like outrageous. You just had normal kid mischief, but for the most part you all were very respectful. You would mumble under your breaths, but you all would listen,” he reflects as I ask him how he could have ever done it.
For a period of about 3 years, Brian was a stay at home father, making money only from his severance package and by being an unofficial handy man. All of his income had come from doing fences, tile floors, and yard work for the neighbors, and working security at the city hall. In his newfound free time, he did all of the household cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping. This is still very unconventional today, however it is becoming more common. I asked if he ever felt like he had made a mistake somewhere, or if he had any regrets. He stated that he had never really thought about it until after he had gotten another job, working as a security guard and caregiver for a wealthy family. “When I would see these people and all that they have… those kids were spoiled. It wasn’t until then when I reflected, and I didn’t see how good I had had it until I saw that family and their problems. It made me appreciate you guys more… So if ever I had felt a little self conscious, I stopped at that point.”
Masculinity has its own context when used today. When you think of the word, you think of manliness, dominance, or strength, both figuratively and literally. One thing that definitely does not come to mind is being a stay at home dad. Brian is a living, breathing example that men are not bound by the stereotypes that plague Black men in the media. He is an upstanding citizen in the community, and he has had tremendous impact on three bright young black men in my brothers and I. He has taught me much about being a man – a young black man at that – and even though he will never replace my father, he will always be a person who’s opinion I can trust and who’s authority I can respect. Perhaps if it had not been for the three years of having Brian at home everyday as a stay at home dad, he would not have had such an impact in our lives. You do not see this picture portrayed in today’s media often: A Black stay at home father who serves as a role model and has a tremendous impact on the lives of his children, or in this case stepchildren, while the mother commutes and works countless hours to provide for the household. I have never seen it on any TV show or movie, and in fact, if I had seen it on TV I probably would not have even thought it to be feasible if I had not lived through it. I am glad to have witnessed firsthand that Black men are not forced to conform to their image the way it is portrayed in the media.