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Many first-year college students are parading campuses proud of their self-proclaimed emancipation into adulthood. But, really, what makes you an adult? Is it when you turn 18? Is it when you have sex for the first time? Could it be just when you damn well say so? Or is it the result of certain actions that are arbitrarily assigned to adulthood?

In America, the latter just may be the case. Just ask Napoleon Beazley. Now an adult, Beazley was granted a stay of execution last Wednesday for the murder of J. Michael Luttig in 1994. He was only 17 when he committed the murder, but he was considered an adult by his actions, not his age.

The issue is not that Beazley is a black male on Death Row. It is also not that the death penalty’s imposition disproportionately falls on black males. It’s not even about the death penalty itself and whether or not it should be abolished.

This is about America’s obsession with legally defining our human existence. Our legal system is merely a set of words that have no validity until we put them into action. Our nation has increasingly become mesmerized by these words.

When we hear the age “16,” most of us think of driving our parents’ car, dating and working. When we hear “18,” most of us think of college, voting, no parental supervision and possible sexual relations. When we hear “21,” most of us think of purchasing alcohol, clubbin’ and moving out of that gray adolescent area.

These words have been given false meaning. Many 16-year-olds don’t have the capacity to operate a vehicle nor possess the wherewithal to be involved with someone emotionally. Many 18-year-olds should not be in college, should not be allowed to vote and should not consent to sex. Many 21-year-olds should not be able to purchase alcohol or get into clubs.

We have focused too much on the sounds of these words and the images they conjure in our minds. Upon hearing them, no validation for the sound is required.

When we hear the word “murder,” we automatically associate it as an adult action. It almost gives validity to gangs that have initiation rituals of killing another human as “dues” for entrances, sociologically carrying the weight of an adult through this action.

Houston, we have a problem. There is a malfunction in our society.

Many of us have become slaves to the economic imperatives that we see little value in people. We’d rather build bank accounts than relationships.

From the African-centered perspective, there are no legal numerical markers to adulthood. There are rites of passage passed down as one demonstrates capacity for responsibility. Elders, who have moved along this same path, hand down these responsibilities. You don’t declare yourself ready for a hunt; someone who has been there knows when you are ready. This is for your own wellness. In America, our elders are being pushed aside. The value of their wisdom is an afterthought.

The suggestion is not to change the legal system. Legal restrictions must be in place to deter and reprimand unacceptable behavior. However, we need to begin altering our perceptions of adulthood.

When a Napoleon Beazley brutally kills someone, we want to see it as a pathological manifestation of the underclass. But when youths of the dominant culture shoot up our schools, the diagnosis de jour becomes that they simply weren’t able to cope.

In any case, a better support system must be there for our youth. We cannot treat our youth as a lost generation. They will soon become legally defined as adults. We can’t put our faith in legislation, believing that young Americans will correctly govern themselves.

Many youths are not yet adults, neither are they lost. Beazley’s actions weren’t isolated æ they were a result of America’s obsession with individualism. Let us, not the legal system, define our existence.

Carlton Hamilton is a sociology and african american studies senior. Reach him at Chicago14@prodigy.net


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