20 January 2009.
This is the day that I saw an abundance of flashing lights.
The first set of lights was for our new president, Barack Obama, as he and his beautiful family made their way through the seas of roaring Americans in the bitter cold to their new residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Those flashing lights were signals of a secret service force designated to protect our new president from harm so that he would be able to carry out his vision of restoring his homeland's promise.
The second set of lights were perched on top of police caravans on the corner of my West Baltimore block, as I made my way out to run some errands on that arctic night. The bright, red strobes that swathed my eyes represented another young, black male shot down in the streets, not able to witness the first 24 hours of a president who presented hope for his future.
As I witnessed the contrasts of these events, I thought of LaMarr Darnell Shields and his movement to shed light on the problems facing young black men in our communities all across the country. As a former Baltimore City school teacher--and the doting father of a young son--Shields co-founded the Urban Leadership Institute in Baltimore, Maryland to ensure that every young person he meets has a chance to work towards securing a bright future. After offering different panels and workshops that empowered endangered youth to take control of their destiny, Shields authored the book 101 Things Every Boy of Color Should Know.
The book drew the attention of award-winning, Washington D.C. based filmmaker Janks Morton, and the two created the documentary, Men II Boys --a film that features various perspectives from African-American men trying to extend their wisdom to the young people of color coming up in the world. Featuring interviews from BET journalist Jeff Johnson, Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Baltimore Ravens Tight End Daniel Wilcox, Men II Boys covers all the bases for survival for young African-American men -- from separating the colors and whites when doing laundry to the importance of respecting the women we encounter everyday. This film presents a powerful message on how the choices we make early in life will determine the road we later travel. I recently had a chance to speak with LaMarr Darnell Shields about his documentary.
What made you want to turn your book into a documentary?
This book was written for boys and young men out of a sense of urgency. Adults have allowed boys to go without adequate schooling, health care, emotional support, or community leadership for too long. And as a result, our boys have sunk into a deeper crisis. Boys and young men of color make up 40% of the U.S. population under the age of 25. Public services should be wrought with opportunities and paths that ensure the success of boys and men of color. However, startling statistics about poor health and less than desirable social outcomes paint a bleak picture for the future of boys and young men of color. Young minorities make up 23% of total population ages 10-17, but constitute 52% of incarcerated youth. And whether innocent or guilty, a majority of youth of color will have been arrested before the age of 21.
Boys and young men of color under age 25 represent approximately 67% of the diagnosed HIV positive cases since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. 40% of African- American men and 37% of Latino men in the U.S. die prematurely compared to 21% of white men. Male students are consistently less likely than their female counterparts to graduate from high school, while 57.8% percent of Black female students graduate, that's true for only 44.3% of Black males. For Latinos, the female and male graduation figures are 59.9% and 50.1% respectively.
Despite these grim statistics, there are still many young men who are graduating from high school, going to college, taking care of their children, and not selling or using drugs. This book is for those young men, as well as for the ones who have fallen through the cracks and are working hard to get back on track. There are a lot of things our young men know, but there are a whole lot of things they don't know. So, I took it upon myself to ask other men of color the following question: "What do boys or young men of color need to know in order to survive?" The film has allowed me to have a conversation on a national stage, and to have some great one-on-one conversations with several wounded young men.
Since the inauguration of President Obama, have you seen a change in the young black men you meet and how they approach life?
The boys I meet on the road are really excited of the example that President Obama has laid out for them. I must admit, I am too; he has given us an excellent framework, and all we have to do is follow it. Plus, Obama's story is similar to many of the young men in the film. The difference is, however, Obama never uses any excuses of not having a father to stand in the way of being successful. Our young men are in blame mode.
Why should people see Men II Boys?
People should see Men II Boys because it's our story. And anyone who sees the film will be able to identify with one of the characters. Moreover, the film is such a great medium to use to have some of those difficult conversations with whoever is in need of one.
Do you and Janks Morton have anything on tap for the remainder of 2009?
We have been touring the country with the film. The tour has taken off tremendously. We have gone to Chicago, Baltimore, Philly, and New Orleans and have upcoming screenings in Atlanta, Charlotte, Fairfax, VA, and Los Angeles. The film has been screened in London, and we are currently ranked #3 on Amazon.com for African-American documentaries. More importantly, through the leadership of Congressman Elijah Cummings, he has written a letter to all the Congressional Black Caucus members, encouraging them to use the film to have a discussion about male issues. In addition, Congressman Cummings is hosting a town hall discussion called Men II Boys that will include a panel of community activists, entertainers and experts. We have also developed a partnership with Downtown Locker Room to kick off a seven-city tour this summer, starting in Chicago. So as you can see, things have been really moving.
Out of the 101 things you lay out in your book, and of all the life lessons in the documentary--if you could tell your son only one thing to take into manhood, what would that be?
Know that failure is a lesson and not the end.
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