Thursday, June 21, 2007

The State of the Black Male in America- A Conference

Black and Male in America: A Three Day National Conference” was held last Friday, from June 15 through Sunday, June 17 in downtown Brooklyn. It was put together by writer and activist Kevin Powell, the culminating result of the much acclaimed "State of Black Men Townhall Meetings and Workshops," a 10-city national tour from 2004. While I supported the conference, and certainly encouraged others to attend, I remained inwardly skeptical. Was this going to be another gathering to preach "moral uplift" for black males while listing off one dysfunction after another? Should I be set to get a lot of "preaching to" about how I wasn't living up to the nostalgic days of my 1960s fore bearers? And worst of all, was I was going to be made to take some kind of pledge? With reluctance I tepidly made my way to the event...

When a good friend of mine told me he’d be in town for a 3-day weekend conference called "Black and Male in America," and that I should attend, I admit I was at first reluctant. After a five day work week that can often include grad school, I tend to live for the measly two days I’m afforded as leisure time—mostly used to run errands, indulge in a social life, create, catch up on my ever-packed DVR and allow my mind to rest. Thank you labor unions! So I wasn’t so keen on giving all that up for anything that cut into my personal time.

But my greatest reluctance was that I had attended these things before. Heck, to be clear, I’d put them on before. But my zeal for these ritual gatherings of black males has deeply waned. I knew how it would go—a smattering of black nationalists, the black corporatista, Afrocentric types and others—preaching the usual fare of moral uplift and black self-sufficiency. After telling me what black manhood and masculinity should be defined as, I would be treated to an endless chorus of... “Black men need to take care of their kids! Black men need to pull their pants up! Black men need to appreciate work! Black men need to treat their women better! Black men need to create their own businesses!” Black men need to do this; black men need to do that—complete with a dizzying array of negative statistics so depressing that by the time I left I often just wanted to pass the Henny.

As far back as the Million Man March of 1995 I had begun to develop this uneasy suspicion that these mantras of community moral uplift—"Values Conservatism" painted over for black consumption—were not actually dealing with the full spectrum of the problems faced by black America. By the time of Bill Cosby’s “Atlanta Compromise” redux, the famed “Poundcake Speech,” I began to opt out of these types of town hall meetings altogether. Sure, I’m all for personal responsibility—who isn’t?—but only in a context where the larger societal responsibility is acknowledged. Don’t shout down the shortcomings of black folks and leave the historical and present context that is the 800lb gorilla of white patriarchy, power and privilege—which sets standards of masculine achievement but dangles it out of black men’s reach—unnamed, unacknowledged and un-assailed. To define black manhood in terms of white power patriarchy, rather than deconstructing that system, seems a futile and insane exercise--unless we believe that one day like the Irish and Italians we too will "seize our whiteness." I'd had enough of the "black self-flagellation committee," and long ago decided to give up my whip.

But, with my friend not only in attendance but a presenter, I knew there was no escaping it. I arrived fashionably late, steeling myself to listening to a host of things that would probably make me grate my teeth. As I walked into the conference on its opening night, I found it well attended. Speaking at the podium was none other than the conference’s main organizer Kevin Powell—the Hip Hop culture persona, social critic and author who ran for political office in 2004, but who is probably best known as the “black guy” on the first season of MTV’s Real World.

Didn't really know what to expect, or what I thought I should expect. After all, we've all heard "stories about Kevin Powell," none of which are too flattering. I stood outside the main entrance rather than walk in, holding the professional looking packet that had been handed to me by a greeter at the door--one of many black women who seemed to be the organizing glue behind the scenes. Among me were workers running to and fro, numerous vendors with tables hawking their books or wares, and varied passer-bys who greeted me in a smattering of neo-Africana (Habri Gani. As Salaam alaikum. Whut up?). And as I adjusted myself to the sights and sounds around me, I began to listen to Powell’s speech and found something startling. It was different.

This speaker was giving an address that was a mixture of church preacher, street orator and emcee. His speech was filled with bursts of scholastically gained intellect between “nah means” while his body language had all the carefree attitude and seriousness of someone’s turn to spit in the cipha. Even his suit seemed to mimic Hip Hop’s love of the over-sized. And that wasn’t all. The speech was about something different. I heard references to Sean Bell. I heard talk about sexism. That’s right, Sexism! The "ism" which among black men—especially the self-proclaimed “conscious”—that dare not be named. And it wasn't the “black women need to be treated like virgin Queens” mantra either, but the kind that declared “black women need to be treated as humans.” Whoa! And then, as if attempting to launch a coup d’etat on all that these types of gatherings held holy, Powell even broached the topic of...wait for it... homophobia. If sexism receives little discussion at such conferences, black gay men might as well exist somewhere out in Alpha Centauri for all that they are ever mentioned—outside that of condemnation. It's a little hidden secret that for straight/heterosexual black men, homophobia might well just be our final frontier—what a friend of mine calls our "dealing with our inner Tim Hardaway." To bring it up in such an open forum, to that kind of crowd, is not just revolutionary, but damn brave. Powell even addressed many of those "stories about Kevin Powell," in a frank and honest manner, without excuses or endless apologies, but simply an admission of self-criticism with hopes for growth. And that is mostly what his speech actually promised--hope. In a memorable moment, he pointed out that we often spend so much time lamenting the ills that plague black males, we don’t take time out to see the good. And he implored us look around, and recognize that we were all actually gathered there—not in jail, not out on the streets, not on drugs, but together on a Friday night looking to build relationships with others and find pathways to solutions.

By the time Powell had finished his speech I had done as he had asked, gazing at those in attendance. They were men from 8 yrs old to 80. There were in suits, sagging jeans and colorful dashikis. They spoke in accents from African-American vernacular to Caribbean patois. And they were all excited--sharing opinions, thoughts and ideas, and all reflecting hope. I figured then, if they could, why couldn’t I?

So I went from reluctant attendee to conferene supporter, giving up my entire weekend to workshops ranging from Black male health to Hip Hop and Manhood. I attended panel discussions facilitated by Cheo Tyehimba and Dr. Jelani Cobb, featuring diverse speakers: HIV community worker Michael Hickerson, actor Hill Harper, activist Lumumba Bandele of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Lasana O. Hotep, Program Coordinator of The African American Men of Arizona State University (AAMASU), David Banks, Founding Principal of The Eagle Academy for Young Men, Chuck "Jigsaw" Creekmur founder of All and more. They spoke about their lives, fatherhood, issues of gender and most of all our potential to overcome. Poets like Faro Z reminded me of the creative potential of black artistic expression to “do good,” and keynote speaker Dr. Michael Eric Dyson culminated the three day event in a powerful oratory that near literally brought down the rafters.

Of course, the conference had its shortcomings. Most of these have to do with logistics and are to be expected on any first attempt. Some presenters were definitely better than others: well organized, professional, critical thinkers able to engage in nuanced thought and provide examples of real life applications. Others, I wouldn’t bother to invite back. Next time around, perhaps we could get an even larger slice of the black male mosaic: scientists, mature young adults, humanists and more. And while it's a black male conference, doesn't mean that black women presenters couldn't perhaps be illuminating on more than a few issues. Most problematic however were the provocateurs and saboteurs, “super righteous” and eternally cynical, there to prosecute and judge, hurl hate speech in the name of their own sexual insecurities, peddling a host of pseudo-facts and finding ways to cause divisiveness. The sad reality is that at any such gathering, these types will always show up, and they remain one of the key reasons of late that I usually stay away. Thankfully, many voices among the conference speakers not only spoke out against them, but did so quite effectively, exposing these charlatans and their analog ideologies for all to see.

If the purpose of this gathering was to miraculously solve the many problems that plague black males in our society, then it was a failure—and deservedly so, as such is the usual price for hubris. If however it was meant to inspire, then it may have done so. If it was meant to provide the blueprint for a way forward, it was illuminating. If it was just a cry to ourselves, our communities and our world that despite all that we have endured—as Morpheus declared to the masses of Zion— “We are still here!" then it did what it set out to accomplish. What will come of the conference in the end will depend on those who put it together and those who participated. There are already plans for follow-up events, workshops and conferences. The website (BAMIA) will eventually feature video clips from the conference, papers and more. Time will tell what becomes of this burgeoning movement.

But for the moment, for one weekend, the state of the black males in America seemed decidedly, hopeful.


Alpha Phi Alpha said...


After getting back to Arizona and being posed with the exact same "How was NY" Question, I can finally now respond with ""! Thank you for this critque on the conference and its many accomplishments and challenges. Like you said, It gave the public an opportunity to see the best and worse in our community. The conference was brilliant. I have NEVER been in the presence of so many brothers who all share some of the same issues as I. I appreciate the chance to hang out with you and the crew in NYC and look forward to our next meeting. Keep up the good work! Let Em' know bout the 'RED PILL' conciousness.


Jarrad Henderson

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