Roadblocks, hurdles, dead end streets — “man’s inhumanity to man” — have been purposely placed in the paths of African Americans, men and women alike, since the days of Jamestown in order to deny them the rights and opportunities afforded whites in the U.S.
Even before Black Lives Matter gained prominence or white privilege exerted itself with the blatant murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, being a Black male has long equated to navigating the world with an invisible albatross around his neck — a bullseye on his back.
The challenges confronting and confounding Black men and boys took center stage Sept. 12 as participants packed Ballroom A in the Walter Washington Convention Center in northwest D.C. for the second of two town halls held during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 49th Annual Legislative Conference.
The session, “Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys,” hosted by Rep. Frederica S. Wilson — the lead sponsor of legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for Black males — featured a panel of Black men of national report whose years of successfully handling the minefields of white supremacy have provided them with unique perspectives and strategies.
Before the panelists took their seats, fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus shared words of welcome, punctuating Wilson’s determination to eliminate notions of Black males as “delinquent,” “hardened criminals” or “misguided youth.” Each of them, from Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Hakeem Jeffries to Steven Horsford, who lost his father to gun violence at 19 and Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old Black boy slain in 2012 by a white man because of music being played too loudly in a car, brought their unique experiences and pain to the floor.
Certainly the panel, moderated by Wilson’s son, Paul Wilson, Jr., vice chair, Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, had its share of “movers and shakers,” including Attorney Benjamin Crump, actors Malik Yoba and Larenz Tate, author and advocate Jeff Johnson, educator Dr. Marcus Bright and Damon Jones, vice president, Global Communications & Advocacy, The Procter and Gamble Company — the organization sponsoring the session.
Crump emphasized demanding change within the legal system — even boycotting prisons where Black men, while only 13 percent of the U.S. male population, represent nearly 35 percent of all men serving time in state and federal penal institutions. Yoba and Tate brought emphasis on lingering and powerful stereotypes and glass ceilings within their industry that must be shattered for real equality to be achieved.
However, the real “stars” and the impetus behind the impressive turnout for the Town Hall had to be the dozens of young, Black males, all teenaged-participants in Rep. Wilson’s 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, founded in Miami-Dade County, FL in 1993.
As the young men solemnly entered the ballroom to the song “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” wearing their signature red and black ties, crisply-ironed white shirts and black trousers, members of the audience rose to their feet in applause.
Two of the young men explained how their lives have changed for the better after joining Role Models — a program developed by Wilson under the auspices of the School Board of Miami-Dade County after she became tired of seeing a disproportionate number of young minority boys, either being incarcerated, entering the drug trade, or dropping out of school. Wilson says she became determined in her quest to prevent society or poverty to destroy the lives of our children — those labeled as “at-risk,” without a fight.
“This is my second year in the 5,000 Role Models and it’s helping me become a better individual, find ways to be more committed to improving my community and has even changed the way I see the world,” said J. Dumervil, 16. “I’m good in math and I like reconstructing things. Role Models has exposed me to consider career paths I never imagined before. One day I’ll be a plastic surgeon because I want to help people look better so they can feel better about themselves.”
“I’ve been places and seen things that many of my friends cannot imagine,” said Ojay Flowers, 17, “including visiting Washington, D.C. and meeting Black members of Congress. I used to play around but that’s a thing of the past. I know I have to be better than the rest. I know I have to be aware of how I present myself because of the way the world wants to see me. I’m determined to change the way society sees Black men and boys and that’s because of the things I’ve learned in the 5,000 Role Models.”
Johnson says he’s optimistic about the future, despite what we’ve witnessed in the past.
“What’s essential for youth today and what we have to be sure remains before their eyes is hope,” Johnson said. “Hope allows us to believe that this is not the end.”
“We keep that hope alive by providing safe spaces — places where Black men and Black boys can engage together. Older men tend to isolate themselves, even they though still have so much to offer to youth. That isolation puts us in a space where it’s difficult to feel hopeful,” Johnson said, adding that his grandfather committed suicide after losing his sight, finding himself unable to work and provide for his family and living “alone” without hope.
While said in two, nuanced ways, both Crump and Johnson emphasized the necessity to give our time to today’s Black boys if our goal remains to help them become Black men who can contribute to society and realize their dreams.
“Unless we take time to give our children opportunity, the system will give our children the opportunity to do time,” they said.
“The Commission,” Rep. Wilson said, “has been established in order to prove that just like Jackie Robinson, when you give us the same bat, ball and glove, we too can and will achieve and succeed.”
“One of our Role Models had recently graduated from Florida A&M and came to see me in my office in Florida,” she said. “Only his grandmother, bound to a wheelchair, attended his graduation and she had to fly. But he and his friends managed to get her to the ceremonies.”
“I asked him if anyone else came to the graduation and he told me no — not even his mother who said she had to work. Then, he told me that shortly after, relatives from Alabama and Georgia came to Miami for a big picnic. They were celebrating the release of his cousin from prison. But not one person, not even his mother, mentioned that he’d graduated from college. That’s the reality our boys face,” she added.