If Young People Picked the "Man of the Year"

1997 is behind us, and the media have anointed another round of men and women of the year -- an assortment of celebrities and power brokers who may well be forgotten by this time next year. But when I asked young people whom they would select, I got a different roster.Many who pointed to celebrities picked those recently deceased, as if they were using public figures in their struggle to understand and deal with mortality. Others identified figures in their private lives -- often their mothers, or other women who had nurtured and influenced them. And whether those they selected were public or private figures, young people picked individuals who had shaped their values, rather than simply those who had garnered the most fame.Femi Bukunola, 22, says he admires his mother for the same reason he does rappers like the late Tupac Shakur -- she "keeps it real.""Moms has never lied to me," Bukunola says, "even if the truth will hella hurt. Moms has always been the first to come see me in the hospital or the jails. If I need anything, my Moms will deprive herself to make sure I get it. I don't need to look further than my house for a role model or idol."Michelle Brandon, 17, feels the same way. "Growing up, my mother made sure we had everything," she recalls. "Not what we wanted, but what we needed. I remember the five of us sitting down to dinner once, and my mom had set four plates on the table. There wasn't enough food for her to eat, so she just fed us and went to bed hungry. Watching her sacrifice for us gave me an inner strength I couldn't have gotten anywhere else."Among those who looked to public figures rather than members of their families, similar values -- compassion, self-sacrifice -- stood out. Joshua Phillips, 18, says he looked up to Princess Diana for "the work she did to help people. I saw this one television special where she took off her gloves and was touching sick kids. That made me feel like if a princess isn't above it, why do I think I am? She's the reason I started doing volunteer work in my spare time."Other young people saved their admiration for those who had a lifetime of good works to show for themselves. Brian Thomas, 16, idolizes Stevie Wonder. "He's never said anything bad about anyone," notes Thomas. "He's spent his entire life trying to make people happy. I've never heard of him having problems with other artists, the police, drugs -- nothing."Several young people looked up to those they felt had a gift for expression. For Raheem Johnson, 17, that person was the late Biggie Smalls. "Dude was mad deep," rhapsodizes Johnson. "The things he spoke on were universal. If you've ever been on the streets -- not lived or hustled on the streets, but been so in tune that you were the streets -- then you felt Biggie. But the fact that he got bucked (shot) is probably what made him so large. People nowadays don't fully appreciate a man till he's gone."Tony Wright, 18, looks up to her aunt for a similar reason. "She always has something to say," Wright observes, "and most of the time, she's right. One time this man called her a b---- because she wouldn't go out with him. She said, 'If I'm a dog, then so are all females, so that makes yo mama and sisters all b----s.' Dude walked off beet red. She's the type of lady that makes me proud to be female."In the 1960s, some young people idolized civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and through that admiration were able to cross boundaries they might have thought impassable. A white woman from Idaho could march alongside a black man from Detroit, both following the same leader.The young people I spoke to as 1997 wound down experience solidarity a little differently. They can turn on the television and -- either through intrusively extensive media coverage or repetitive promotions -- live out the struggles of a black man on the street, a princess, or the president. While they may draw meaning from the lives of these public figures, and even try to emulate them, they are unlikely to find anyone they can stand up and follow.For that, today's young people look closer to home -- often, into the eyes of the woman who raised them. If young people had done the voting, the Man of the Year for 1997 might well have been Mom.Ri'Chard Magee is on the staff of YO! (Youth Outlook), a newspaper by and about young people produced by Pacific News Service.


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