"Hi, Ms. Lady. How are you? How are the kids," was my normal greeting. "Don't forget to pray for me," another one would shout. These familiar faces were the local distributors -- of illegal pharmaceutical substances -- I encountered every Sunday morning as I made my way past them.
After 20 years of living in this area, one starts to know who is who with an increased awareness of what they do. At least you suspect what they are engaged in and decide to just go about your business.
I have never underestimated the intelligence of these young men. They have crafted their own operation within a trillion-dollar industry and profit from all sorts of illegal transactions. It takes a certain type of genius to stay under the radar of the law, maintain a normal life and keep yourself and your family somewhat safe. But, I often wondered, what causes a person to take such risks? Why would someone want to constantly look over their shoulders and exist under the pressure of endless danger?
One morning I had the opportunity to ride the train with one of the local entrepreneurs. He noticed how shocked I was to hear he was on his way to his janitorial job. "Oh yeah, I work," he said. "Street life is not what it is all cut out to be. I was getting too old for the streets and couldn't keep losing my freedom. Now I go to work, do my shift, keep it simple, stress free." He paused, "Nothing compares to the stress of street life."
I asked what attracted him to "the life." His response? "I was bored in school. I didn't have adequate role models to show me anything different. The boys in the hood took an interest in me. They understood my struggle and they took care of me. I saw my mom struggling. I wanted to help."
His heartfelt response forever changed my view. It sent me mind racing to the 1991 film, Boyz in the Hood. Our conversation forced me to search deep down into the root of some of the problems many inner-city kids face, problems that make up a major factor in the demise of many black families. The loss of "black males" within our community has been critical, considering the effect their absence has on the family unit.
Myth: Black males are naturally self-destructive and are inclined to make bad decisions en route down the wrong path.
Fact: These young people lack the positive direction, inspiration or guidance to influence them in the choices they make. There is a void of positive black public figures, celebrities and community leaders who are publicly praised, awarded and rewarded for their efforts. To change this alone could inspire young black men, increase their strive for more as well as assure them that they can also achieve what is justly due.
One of the world's most compelling rappers, Tupac Shakur, gave us a glimpse into the violence and socio-economic hardships of life faced by inner-city youth through his music. Tupac was a native New Yorker and a talented actor. He went on to star in several films before his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 25.
Although I never had the honor of meeting or interviewing Tupac, I feel that experience would have definitely been memorable. His music video, I Ain't Mad at Cha, released shortly after his death, featured lyrics that vividly reinforced the sentiments of young black males, the same males who take to the streets and often lose their lives because of it.
Enter the great Bokeem Woodbine, the only actor Tupac had considered for the role.
Woodbine is also a native New Yorker, hailing from Harlem. He attended the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performance Arts. Prior to starring in Tupac's music video, Woodbine had several critically acclaimed movie roles to his credit.
We recognize him as the legendary actor who starred in such films as Juice, Strapped, Crooklyn, Panthers, The Rock, Gridlock'd, The Runner, The Big Hit, Life, 3000 Miles to Graceland, and my all-time favorite, Dead Presidents.
Woodbine's acting career doesn't stop there. He continues to soar with forthcoming projects Total Recall and They Die at Dawn.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Woodbine to discuss his success in Hollywood and the highly anticipated film 1982, written and directed by Thomas Oliver. "It's a family drama that deals with the tragedy of drug addiction and how it can affect a family," Woodbine said. "From the youngest member of the family to the oldest member of the family and everyone else in between. It has a ripple effect."
Woodbine credits his love for the arts and the undying encouragement to his mother (also an actor) who once led him blindly to a casting call. As if by destiny, the legendary actor and director Forest Whitaker recognized Woodbine's talent and believed in him enough to mentor the young man.
Nearly one month after reading for the first time, Woodbine was cast for a role in his first film. "Forest went to bat for me," said Woodbine. "And he said this is the guy I want to play the role. So that's how I got invited into the business."
The rest is history. In addition to his acting career, Woodbine also leads his own rock band, 13 Purple Dragons. He admits that playing the guitar became his first love at the age of 12. And he credits music as the savior that kept him out of trouble. "Music is math, music is spiritual," he said.
Woodbine's success has the power to act as the positive driving force needed by every young man in the hood. He is a role model the "hood" desperately seeks. He is proof of the existence of an alternative route than life on the streets. Eloquently spoken and passionate, Woodbine has spent 20 years building a successful career. He is proof that a boy from the hood need not be conquered by the dangers of the street. It is possible to beat the odds and make it to Hollywood. After all, he did.
The janitor in this story is the boy in the 'hood. He is Tupac, he is Bokeem, he is the next generation of young people if they if they continue on without direction, support, mentors and role models. The janitor also happens to be a survivor of the street lifestyle with the understanding that the structure of holding a job is inevitable and necessary to survive in this world.
Bokeem differs from the janitor because he had the arts to turn to. Unlike the janitor, prison and other unspoken things were not a part of his reality because he is the result of his supportive mother and a role model.
Dr. King taught us to have a dream. Tupac sang it in his music. Bokeem Woodbine lives that dream through his acting and music. The janitor is hope for the future.
Three different men. The same struggle. Three different outcomes. This is the plot of the young black man in America.
Hope is alive.
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