If you had a problem in the Black community, and you brought in a group of White people to discuss how to solve it, almost nobody would take that panel seriously. In fact, there'd probably be a public outcry. It would be the same thing for women's issues or gay issues. But every day, in local arenas all the way to the White House, adults sit around and decide what problems youth have and what youth need, without ever consulting us.
These are the words of 17-year-old Jason, a Bronx resident and member of the teen activist organization Youth Force. They are the words I chose to open my film Woke Up Black -- because now more than ever, the voices of African-American youth need to be heard in conversations about the issues that shape their lives.
Recently in Florida, the nation witnessed a tragic reminder of how the lives of our youth can be shaped, and cut short, by forces beyond their control. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy in the Orlando suburb of Sanford with no criminal record, was shot and killed February 26 while running an errand by a neighborhood watch captain. The captain, George Zimmerman, had told the 911 dispatcher that Trayvon looked "like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something." He also asserted that "[s]omething's wrong with [Martin]... He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is." Trayvon was carrying a cell phone, a bag of Skittles, and an iced tea. He was guilty of no crime other than being African American, and therefore suspicious.
I made Woke Up Black to document what Trayvon's story tells us -- how race can influence and override many other factors in determining the futures of African-American youth. I spent two years interviewing youth around Trayvon's age. The five youth my film centers on all live in the Chicago area, and represent the incredible cultural, economic, and sexual diversity of African Americans. There is Rosalee, who was raised by her aunt and uncle and is about to become the first in her family to attend college; Carter, a football captain who was adopted by two gay men when he was 10; Ansheera, a self-identified genderqueer youth who has struggled to gain acceptance from her family and who has become an activist in response; Morgan, a middle-class suburban college student whose parents have both attained success in white-collar jobs; and Sheldon, an organizer at a South Side community organization who was incarcerated at age 17, and is attending college part-time while working to get his record expunged.
We initially thought that we would only have these youth speak in the film. But we soon realized we needed to include the adults in their lives -- the parents and guardians whose involvement, or lack thereof, played a critical role in shaping their future.
A close friend said that he thought the youth were all exceptional, and that this was why the film has been so well received.
Well, I agree -- the youth in this film are exceptional -- but they are not exceptions. There are many more stories of African-American youth who serve their communities, who are excellent students, who never use drugs, and who have no criminal records.
We just don't hear these stories. Not until someone like Trayvon Martin is killed. Not until someone like George Zimmerman makes clear just how pervasive, and deadly, the assumption that all African-American males are potential criminals is.
Reactions to Woke Up Black have been overwhelmingly positive. I believe that is in large part because the film tells stories that do not make the news. Woke Up Black does not ignore the difficult realities that African American youth face; the film tackles issues like the media's negative portrayal of black youth, sex and relationships, family structures, and the importance of education. Yet it allows its viewers to see themselves in a hopeful light. For I know that if our youth are constantly fed a stream of negative stories about youth like themselves and their prospects for the future, stories become prophecies, and those prophecies become self-fulfilling.
But I also know that my film, in itself, is far from enough. How do we create a space where we hear about the reality of young black lives? We made this world. This is the world our youth came into -- why are we not willing to bring our youth into the conversation about the issues
that shape their futures?
And we most often do all of this work without consulting one single young person.
We asked several young people as they exited film screenings in Madison -- where we had three over flow crowds for three separate screenings - what they thought about the film. One young woman said that after seeing Woke Up Black, she knew she did not have to play sports or be in a rap video to be successful. One young man said that if the young men featured in the film could succeed, he could as well; he knew he had to try harder to make life better for himself and his younger brother. At the University of Chicago screening, an adult community organizer told us that the film made him realize his own homophobia. His eyes had been opened about how difficult it was for young people who were gay and had been rejected by their parents.
Often, when we do screenings in communities across the country, well-meaning organizers want to populate the post-screening panels with adults who run youth development organizations and want to talk about their own work. We always push back and say we want to hear from youth on the panel -- not adults. We must create a space for youth to be part of the solution and not just be seen as the problem.
I know well that my film, in itself, is far from enough. How do we create a space where we hear about the reality of young black lives? We made this world. This is the world our youth came into -- why are we not willing to bring our youth into the conversation about the issues
that shape their futures?
We talk about the concerns of black youth; we lament their limited opportunities, and we develop programs, make laws and craft policies for the supposed purpose of trying to make things better for these marginalized, often ignored youth. Yet we most often do all of this work without consulting one single young person.
Our film's title comes from one young man from Bayiew in San Francisco, who said:, "I don't drink, I don't do drugs, but I get treated the same way as my friends who do all that. I guess I just woke up Black."
If not now, when? When will we create spaces for black youth to speak on their own behalf? How many lives have to be lost?