Addressing challenges of young black males

Moderated by Rick Badie

Oprah Winfrey said she wants to see “strategic, peaceful intention” arise from ongoing police protests regarding the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Savannah’s mayor pro tem says the state’s oldest city is trying to deliver just that through an initiative that addresses the plight of young black males and their high incarceration rates. A companion essay talks about Atlanta’s black gay men as activists for social change.

The “village” should stop failing black males

By Van R. Johnson II

While there are timely and necessary national conversations about the training of police officers in interactions with black males, we in Savannah are faced with addressing the proverbial elephant in the room. For years, we have discussed it only in whispers among well-meaning and good-intentioned folk of all races.

Cities across the country are dealing with disproportionate numbers of black males engaged in violent behavior to the extent that in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared homicide the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 34 years old.

Societal implications are obvious: heart-broken family members, children growing up without significant relationships with their fathers, single-parent households, poverty, unrealized dreams, unfulfilled potential and, ultimately, untreated mental and emotional distress that manifests itself in ways that cannot be fathomed. This is coupled with the realization the village — through neglect, ignorance, indifference or bad choices — has failed.

Our local facts are staggering and sobering. Although African-Americans males between 10 and 29 make up less than 10 percent of Chatham County’s population, 49.4 percent of them are likely to be victims of violent crime. In 2014, 23 black males lost their lives in homicides. Fifteen were under the age of 30, and four were juveniles.

Also, in 2013, 1,335 African-American males under the age of 21 were arrested in Chatham. That year, black males represented 36 percent of deprivation referrals and 62 percent of delinquency referrals to Juvenile Court. On any given day, black males account for 67 percent of Chatham County Jail inmates.

Savannah, beyond being Georgia’s first city and capitol, has consistently shown over time its ability to bring together her brightest minds and passionate hearts — business, nonprofit and educational leaders, and clergy and lay citizens — to collaborate and comprehensively address compelling social issues.In collaboration with the National League of Cities’ Cities United project and President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson and the City Council have taken the bold step of not only having a courageous public conversation about race — and specifically about black males — but corralling community, educational, religious and civic support to address it.The World Health Organization provides a useful blueprint as we address this epidemic: Interrupt transmission; prevent future spread, and change group norms. This must be done while encouraging and spotlighting young people who are doing well, making the right choices and doing the right things.

Savannah is blessed with world-class post-secondary educational institutions, Savannah State and Armstrong State universities. We will enlist them to assist us in this multi-disciplinary theoretical approach to social work, health, education, public administration and criminal justice. Our multi-agency governmental approach will review policies, procedures and practices. The goal is unprecedented information sharing and analysis of trends to address those in the criminal justice system and determine ways to prevent others from entering it.

Also, the City Council will evaluate non-profits that receive city funds to determine gaps in or duplication of services, to ensure the maximum investment of public dollars.

Obviously, there are black males who have beaten the odds and succeeded despite their circumstances. We will amplify their voices. Likewise, there are those who have been incarcerated, have returned home and want to make a difference in their community. We will re-connect them to their neighborhoods to spread their wisdom.

In 2004, then-Mayor Otis Johnson and the City Council adopted a vision for Savannah that states, “Savannah will be a safe, environmentally healthy, economically thriving community for all of its citizens.”

In Savannah, all means all, including black males.

Van R. Johnson II is Savannah mayor pro tem.

Elevating black gay men in Atlanta

By Charles Stephens

One of my favorite quotes is from Atlanta poet and community organizer Tony Daniels, from his work, “We Are Here.” The first line goes, “We are proud black gay men standing tall with our heads held high.”

I often return to this quote for inspiration and courage. This line conveys an important truth about black gay men in Atlanta and our city’s diverse and beautiful social movement history: Black gay men were and are here. This is at the core of much of my activism, elevating these stories. And though I never got to meet Tony — he died when I was in high school — his work lives on.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an incredible surge of creative and political output among black gay men across the country, even in Atlanta. Organizations, programs, collectives and institutions emerged like My Brothers Keeper, ADODI Muse, Black Ink and Second Sunday. Daniels was indispensable to much of this community building. These groups harnessed the creative power of black gay men in the city.

Unfortunately, when I was growing up and coming of age in southwest Atlanta in the 1990s, I didn’t have access to this information. I wasn’t even sure if you could be both black and gay. I did not know that outside my very door, in the city I called home, there was a renaissance of black gay men creating art, engaging in activism, fighting for my right to exist. Had I access to that information in middle school and high school, it might have lessened my suffering.

Even now, the pervasiveness of simplistic caricatures of black gay men in popular culture, and the lack of historical memory, have conspired to produce in the public imagination a notion of black gay men in the simplest terms. Black gay men are presented far too often without a culture, history or soul.

Many contributions of this generation of black gay men are still relevant today. Some of the most important critiques of anti-black violence at the hands of American institutions have been offered by black activists engaged in HIV work and particularly, but not singularly, black gay men. Many of them saw, and still see today, the lack of investment in resources for black communities grappling with the epidemic as a form of violence.

These ideas have to be put in conversation with current struggles against anti-black violence representative of #blacklivesmatter organizing. Another important contribution of that generation of black gay men is that one cannot talk about the black bohemian paradise of 1990s Atlanta, the Southern capital of the black creative class, without talking about the contributions of black gay men to the cultural landscape of this city. Where there is art and culture, there are black gay men. We should have learned this from the Harlem Renaissance.

I have been inspired by this legacy, this tradition. This is what called me to my work. Two years ago, when I was founding Counter Narrative, I had in mind an organization that could elevate history and culture as a way to present alternative narratives of black gay men and promote civic engagement.

Most recently, I worked with Georgia Equality to use black gay men’s history and culture as a community engagement strategy. We produced The Blueprint Dialogue, an intergenerational conversation between black gay men. The event was very successful.

Atlanta may be a city that has demonstrated considerable resilience, but we must also demonstrate an equal commitment to remembrance. It’s part of who we are.

Charles Stephens is founder of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology, “Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.”


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