Black & Male in America

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By Danielle Douglas

Statistics abound on the State of Black Men in America-high rates of
unemployment, incarceration and parental absenteeism. Bringing about solutions to these and the host of other problems that confront brothers has been a topic of discussion for some time. Yet a holistic approach has remained forthcoming, that is, until now. With his recent three-day
conference on being Black and Male in America, Kevin Powell offered a comprehensive look at all of the roads that lead to sustainable empowerment for Black men.
Held two weeks ago in downtown Brooklyn, the conference kicked off with the activist and writer’s keynote address that put forth a definitive plan of action, rooted in self-determination. Powell called for brothers to: develop a spiritual foundation, become politically aware, obtain cultural knowledge, engage in economic empowerment, embrace healthy diets and exercise, seek out mental health and share positive information with each other.
One of the most important points of the night was the need to change the language of the conversation. Instead of being mired in talk of shortcomings and blame, taking personal responsibility and being proactive as opposed to being reactive, suggests Powell can affect real change. Over the course of the following two days, a team of proactive practitioners from all streams of the river hosted interactive panel discussions and roundtables that addressed all of Powell’s goals. The participants were divided into sessions geared towards their age group, with boys ages 10 to
17 in workshops dealing with such concerns as the deconstruction of messages and images in Hip-Hop.
Men over the age of 18 were taken through sessions with an interrelated message of self-improvement-be it economic, education or health-for the
larger good of the community. As Powell noted in his address, young boys look up to the men in their community, much like he did as a child, so living as a good example would have immeasurable effects.
The roles in which Black men play in the lives of young boys was a reoccurring theme throughout the conference-intentionally scheduled on the
weekend of Father’s Day. Speakers within the various sessions urged participants to take a more proactive role in their community by mentoring young men.
In the panel discussion later that night on Hip Hop, Manhood and Mentoring, Dr. William Jelani Cobb, professor of history at Spelman College, stressed the importance of countering negative images of manhood that permeate Hip-Hop with mentoring. Lumumba Bandele of Malcolm X Grassroots concurred, but suggested there must be criteria by which mentors are selected, since not all adult men are in a healthy state to influence young men.
During the discussion, Powell emphasized the importance of using Hip-Hop as a teaching tool to reach a generation immersed in the culture. Excerpts from two groundbreaking documentaries on the subject, The Hip-Hop Project and Byron Hurt’s Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, were shown as examples. Giving the Generation Y cohort a clear picture of why messages of misogyny and violence are promoted in the genre, suggested actor and author Hill Harper could serve to help them understand greater mechanisms of capitalism.
The final day of the conference, started with a screening of Ray Upchurch’s documentary Daddy Hunger, a piece exploring the effects growing up without a father can have on Black men and women. Some 56% of Black children, according to the film, don’t have their fathers in their lives. Upchurch himself didn’t meet his biological father until he was 40, but thanked his “step-up” father for showing him how to be a man.
Defining what it means to be a man was a key point of the panel discussion that ensued after the film. Panelist David W.C. Matthews, director of health services for CitiWide Harm Reduction, said current understanding of what it means to be a father and a man needs to change. Traditional definitions of both roles were, as he and other panelists noted, entrenched in patriarchy, or a system that seeks to dominate women. Obviously, they said, the model is faulty and hasn’t produced anything but more problems.
Scholar and author Dr. Michael Eric Dyson wrapped up the conference with a summation of many of the points made throughout the weekend-long event.
To keep the momentum from the conference going, starting Monday, September 10th Powell will host monthly meetings and workshops as an extension of the forum. For more information check out http://www.blackandmaleinamerica.org.