Why is it that young black men are often praised as athletes, but find their civil rights neglected daily as everyday Americans? Why is it that black educators are particularly impactful to their futures? Peacock, the new streaming service from NBC Universal, bravely answered these questions and more in the new documentary Black Boys. The film interviews familiar faces like NBA star Carmelo Anthony and journalist Jemele Hill. You will laugh and cry, but most importantly, you’ll do a double-take at the structures that consistently question the value and impact the futures of America’s young black men.
After seeing the film, HBCU Buzz founder Luke Lawal hosted a town hall panel with 3 black men leading in industries from education to rap to sound off what the film meant to them. Rapper Vic Mensa is known for his music, but has also founded the SavemoneySavelife Foundation, which combats American racism and funds three health and arts programs in his hometown of Chicago. Among many other leadership positions, Sharif El-Mekki has served as principal at Mastery Charter – Shoemaker Campus, a school in Philadelphia that has been recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. Morehouse and MIT grad Dr. Christopher Michael Jones is an accomplished nuclear engineer and educator who also appeared in the film. We had tough conversations surrounding black boys on issues like sports, education, and criminal justice.
As an HBCU platform we understand how important education is to shape the path of your life. Especially at a young age, experiences at school can make or break how you shape the rest of your life. Vic Mensa shared that he was once placed in a remedial class in kindergarten because he “didn’t share well.” He remembered being surrounded by students who were drooling and others in wheelchairs. “I could feel it as a kid that my intelligence was being questioned or, you know, my capability in some way. I just knew I didn’t fit in there.” As an adult in his mid-twenties, Vic Mensa said he just recently spoke to his father the day before about forgiving his teacher for that experience. Experiences like his are common, traumatizing, and can cause a lifetime of self-doubt and self-sabotage for black boys.
When it comes to the criminal justice system in this country, young black men are exponentially more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, and to be subjected to being brutalized by officers both while being arrested and during general interactions. This can be difficult for youth who may want to serve in roles protecting and serving our country, such as Sharif El-Mekki’s brother, who was warned to become a liberator and not oppressor in a system of oppression. He also noted that he and all 3 of his brothers have had significant negative experiences with law enforcement. It began when he was “snatched up” by an officer when he was 14. “I was arrested as a principal. I was arrested as a teacher,” he said. For many black boys and their families, the narrative of criminalization is nothing new.
Positive representation for black young men in the media continues to be lacking everywhere but the sports market. For many, the chance at a sports career is exciting. However, it is completely unsustainable as a society, and leaves those who don’t excel at sports few options for a better life. Historically, tying the value of black males to their physical fitness and capabilities dates back to slavery. It leaves little room for those who aren’t extremely gifted.
Christopher Michael Jones weighed in on black power figures that needed to be more popularized. He highlighted people like Dr. Randall Pinkett, Rutgers University’s first black Rhodes Scholar, and the only black person to win The Apprentice. He also mentioned billionaire Robert Smith, who paid the student loans for the entire 2019 graduating class at he and El-Mekki’s alma mater Morehouse College. “If we lift these folks up as much as we lift up our sports icons, then our black boys will say ‘well actually you know what I’m okay at sports, I’m not good at all the sports, but there’s still a place for me to go.’ And I think that’s what may be missing. Like where can I go if I’m not that great at sports?”
Tune in to our town hall for more gems, and definitely watch BLACK BOYS today streaming on Peacock.