Sunday, April 09, 2006


Kevin and I @ Wash U back in my college days (Fall 2001)

Black and Male in America
By Kevin Powell

I read the recent New York Times cover story, “Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn,” with a great deal of pain and sadness. As a Black man who is in his late 30s, I have literally encountered every dilemma documented: I am the product of a single-mother led household, fatherlessness, horrific poverty, omnipresent violence in and outside of the tenements of my youth, and the kind of hopelessness, depression, and low self-esteem which led me to believe, very early on, that my world was just one big ghetto, that Black boys like me were doomed to a prison stint or a premature death, that there was nothing we could do about it.

For sure, much of my life has been spent attempting to both reconcile and ward off the demons of those circumstances. On the one hand I managed to get to college on a financial aid package because my mother instilled in me, in spite of her possessing only a grade-school education, a love of knowledge. But, by the same token, the cruel variables of my adolescent years followed me into adulthood, leading to temper tantrums, arrests, suspension from college, job firings, and violent behavior toward males and females which has only subsided in the past couple of years because of a renewed and determined commitment to therapy, healing, self-love, and spiritual transformation. I have had a very productive career as a writer and I have been homeless and hungry as a grown-up. I have traveled much of America lecturing and bringing people together, and I have burned more bridges than I care to admit. And I have been a great model for Black male achievement to some, while a symbol of the worst aspects of contemporary Black masculinity to others. It is not an easy balancing act, because most of us poorer, fatherless Black males, especially, were not presented with a blueprint for manhood as boys, other than the most destructive forms in our 'hoods and via popular culture. Thus we find ourselves stumbling through minefields riddled with systemic racism, classism, drugs, guns, crime, gangs, minimal expectations, unprotected sex, disease, and death. We often have to figure this all out for ourselves, with little guidance or direction. And we are, indeed, those homeboys you see on America's street corners, left alone to fester and rot our lives away.

For me these days there is a foundation, a calling, which has led, the past half decade, to my seeking solutions to this monumental crisis around Black manhood. I am brutally honest about every aspect of my life journey, I highlight it in my writings, and I talk about it on college campuses, at prisons, in churches. I organized a ten-city State of Black Men tour in 2004, and I have been a part of various think tanks, like the Twenty-First Century Foundation's initiative on Black boys and Black men, in an effort to confront this catastrophe head-on. And I have placed my time and energies in full support of anti-violence and anti-domestic violence programs locally and nationally. Without question, so much of American maleness is rooted in the belief of White male superiority, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, violence, materialism, and it is abundantly clear how those stimuli disproportionately and disastrously affect poor Black males. Or, rather, what was said in the New York Times article is accurate in each and every city I have visited: “We're pumping out boys with no honest alternative.”

Part of the problem, undeniably, is perpetual governmental neglect at the federal, state, and local levels. If a similar article had been written with the heading “Plight Deepens for White Men, Studies Warn,” it would be considered a national emergency, monies would be earmarked for a domestic Marshall Plan focusing on these White males, and empowerment policies would be implemented immediately. It is disturbing to say that, regardless of all the hard fought victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we remain a nation profoundly damaged by racism and classism.

Little wonder, then, that as I work with and talk to younger Black males in urban settings they aspire to be three things: a rapper, an athlete, or some form of a street hustler. These limited life options exist because not only has governmental agencies largely abandoned this population, but so too has the Black middle class, and, specifically, those of us who are Black male professionals. It is a very obvious phenomenon to me: in segregated America, Blacks were forced to dwell in the same neighborhoods. Thus even if you were a poor Black male, you at least saw, in your community on a regular basis, Black men with college degrees, Black men who were doctors, lawyers, businessmen-Black men who offered a proactive alternative to the harsh realities of one's poverty-stricken life. Integration not only brought about wholesale physical removal of the Black middle class, but also wholesale emotional removal as well. A broken relationship, if you will, that has never been mended. This is the vacuum, the gaping hole, for the record, that created hiphop culture, a predominantly poor Black and Latino male-initiated art form, in America's ghettoes right on the heels of the Civil Rights era in the late 1960s, early 1970s. And this is why hiphop, to this day, with its contradictions notwithstanding, remains the primary beacon of hope for poor African American males. I cannot begin to count how many underprivileged Black males across the nation have said to me “Hiphop saved my life.” That speaks volumes about what we as a society and as citizens are not doing to assist the less fortunate among us.

So as we rightfully petition the government, on all levels, to work to improve the opportunities for poor Black males, to view this crisis surrounding Black boys and Black men as linked to the very future and livelihood of America, I issue a challenge to professional, successful Black males like myself: Become a breathing, living example for these poor Black boys and men. Share life lessons with them, mentor them, please, and do not be afraid of them, ever. And have the courage, the vision, to be a surrogate father for one younger Black male, particularly if you do not have children of your own, knowing that that very simple act may not only save a life, but several lives. I personally advise, here in Brooklyn, New York where I reside, at least five younger Black males on a consistent basis. No, it is not easy, but I feel I have an obligation to do so because I have been blessed to overcome so many obstacles myself. And I have the basic responsibility, by being mad real with them, of showing and teaching these younger boys to men how they can avoid all the mistakes I made. Yes, we must think as a community, not as selfish and nearsighted individuals. And it is direct action that we need, and direct interaction as role models, as big brothers, if the tide is going to be turned for Black boys and men.

In June 2007 a group of us will be producing, in New York City, a gathering entitled Black Men in America…A National Conference. We will bring together Black male social workers, anti-violence facilitators, spiritual and religious leaders, artists, athletes, psychologists, media insiders, elected officials, policymakers, educators and scholars, grassroots activists, hiphop heads, the young and the old, for four critical days. The idea was conceived because it is evident to Black men like me that there is a national movement happening to redefine Black manhood. There are selfless, dedicated Black males struggling, throughout the United States and in the trenches on the daily, around this historic crisis. They have names like Byron Hurt, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Dr. Jelani Cobb, Charlie Braxton, Ed Garnes, Brian Smith, Robert Page, Thabiti Boone, Chris “Kazi” Rolle, Cheo Tyehimba, Dasan Ahanu, Ulester Douglas, Sulaiman Nuriddin, Rev. John Vaughn, Ras Baraka, Rev. Tony Lee, Lasana Hotep, Timothy Jones, and David Miller, among many others. Our goal is to not just talk about the problems so poignantly described in the New York Times article. At this stage we know what they are. Our intent is to create a holistic working conference where we offer strategies and models for Black male development that already exist, like Men Stopping Violence in Atlanta, or The Brotherhood/SisterSol here in New York, and how we can duplicate those models to impact very vulnerable Black males nationwide. If we do not do it, then who will?

Kevin Powell, writer and activist, is the author of Who's Gonna Take The Weight? Manhood, Race, and Power in America, and the forthcoming essay collection, Someday We'll All Be Free.

You can email Kevin Powell at

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