Saturday, May 25, 2024

No place to be somebody…

September 16, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( As I was preparing for an interview with R&B crooner Brian McKnight several years ago, I had a very interesting experience. On my way home from work I stopped at Walgreen’s drugstore to pick up some batteries and film for my camera and mentioned to one of the young sisters who worked there that I was going to interview Mr. McKnight later that evening. I had no idea that four young cats were listening in on our conversation., but as I was leaving the store they approached me and bombarded me with questions about the interview.

They wanted to know if I could get them into the concert, whether they could tag along and meet Brian McKnight, where the interview was going to take place, whether or not I was nervous about interviewing the talented singer and a myriad of other questions. I had to laugh when one of these eager young cats asked me if he could carry my bag into the House of Blues and another asked if he could wipe the sweat off my forehead as I was interviewing McKnight. While they were disappointed with my answers to these last two questions, they took the bad news all in stride.

One of the young brothers in particular made a lasting impression on me. He was the one who first stepped to me and asked me about the interview. He was 18 or 19 years old -as were his boys -and was one of the most intelligent, articulate and charismatic young men I have talked to in a long time. He wanted to know who I worked for, if we were hiring reporters to interview celebrities, and how I got my start in journalism. Needless to say, I was very impressed with his hunger for knowledge, the initiative he took and his desire to be successful.

While I was forced to tell him that I couldn’t get him and his boys into the interview or concert, I did take the time to explain to him how I first became interested in writing and that someone didn’t need to attend college to become a successful journalist or writer (but it certainly helps). I told him the history of a number of Black and white journalists and writers who had received no formal training in their chosen fields but still managed to rise to the top with hard work, preparation and determination.

I could see that this young cat was taking it all in and listening intently to every word I uttered. Because he was so interested in what I had to say, I encouraged him to drop by my office so that I could write down and discuss with him at length opportunities for him as a writer or journalist.

At first I was happy and uplifted by my encounter with this young cat. After all, how often do we run into young people who have no idea how to talk to adults and could care less about their futures? In the CBD daily, I would hear stories daily from friends, former college classmates and colleagues who encountered teenagers who were rude and obnoxious and had no regard or respect for “old” (anyone over the age of 25) people. Here was a young man who was respectful, articulate and knew how to look adults in the eyes and give them a firm handshake. His parents, grandparents and teachers should take a bow for the great job they did raising him. This is the kind of young man I would want dating my nieces or providing a little positive peer pressure for my nephews.

Still, after I made it home a wave of sadness overtook me. Here was a young man who was obviously bright and driven and looking for direction. All he needed was an opportunity to learn and a chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, such opportunities are few and far between in New Orleans.

We hear all the time – in fact, every night on the evening news – about the bad apples in the community, young brothers who have fallen by the wayside and chosen a life of crime over the straight and narrow path. What we don’t hear about very often is how there are literally thousands of young men in the community just like the brother I met who want to do the right thing and carve out a future for themselves but just don’t have someone to show them the ropes. No matter how you slice it, it’s rough out there for young Black men in New Orleans and other U.S. cities. The ones who make it are the ones who are fortunate enough to find someone who believes in them, someone who is willing and able to show them the way.

This is no different than the manhood training the late Alex Haley wrote about in his epic book, Roots. No one can teach a boy how to be a man but a man. No one completely understands how difficult it is to be a young Black man in America but those who have gone through it. Young women need similar mentors from among the ranks of older, successful Black women (I take my hat off to the many sisters struggling to turn Black boys into successful, productive Black men without any help from Black men).

One of the things I’d like to do somewhere down the line is establish a writing academy for young Black men so that I can pass on all of the things that I have learns throughout my time on the planet. In addition to learning from the collective history of African people, young brothers and sisters can learn a great deal from the personal histories of those they come into contact with. Among other things, they can learn that everything that glitters is not gold and that there is no easy way to make your dreams come true. But hard work, dedication and a commitment to excellence pay off in the long run.

As a student at McDonogh #35 Senior High School, I was fascinated by the stories some of my teachers told me about what it was like for them growing up in different parts of the U.S. and across the state of Louisiana. I’ve always been willing and grateful for the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes rather than have to find out things the hard way, so all of the stories and advice I received were well-taken. I figured if I could avoid some heartache, disappointment and difficulty by learning from the mistakes of those who have gone before me, why shouldn’t I?

There is an art to educating young people through the personal histories of those around them, but one of the most useful things they can learn from older relatives and teachers is that the choices all of us make have consequences and that those choices represent the power all of us have to alter the course of our lives. None of us makes the right choice all the time, bu success comes when we listen to that inner voice and make more right choices than wrong ones. Unfortunately, the more wrong choices we make (i.e., refusing to do homework, disrespecting elders, dropping out of school, hanging with the wrong crowd, using and selling drugs, etc.), the more difficult it becomes to do the right thing and find our way. But it’s not impossible to change our lives in mid-stream and get back on track; it just takes a lot of hard work.

All of us who have made it through those tumultuous teenage years into adulthood have a responsibility to reach back and help those in the midst of those trying times. We need to be there for young people and listen when they want to talk about the things that trouble them, even if and when it makes us uncomfortable. We need to be willing to listen to them without being judgmental ormaking them feel guilty for feeling or thinking a certain way. We need to let them know that above all else, they are important and worthy of our time and attention.

The thing is, young people often expect parents, teachers and ministers to care and sometimes take that for granted. Sometimes they need to know that young adults who have no direct links to them or no obligatory reason to care about them care about them anyway.

Back to the young brother I met at Walgreen’s a few years back. He eventually me up on my invitation and decided to enroll in a few writing classes at a local community college. I lost track of him after Hurricane Katrina but hopes he is still committed to using the written word to uplift and empower the community. I also hope he continues to seek out mentors to keep him informed of the many challenges he will face as a writer and journalist and that he remembers the advice I gave him most often: The more you read, the better you’ll write.

Written By Edmund W. Lewis

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