By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer
“Who are you? Where are you going?” asked Art McCoy, Ph.D. He directed the question toward an auditorium of social workers, teachers, students, alumni, and others concerned with the portrayal of African-American men in media and politics, particularly the effect these stereotypes may have on young males. McCoy, who was once the youngest teacher in Missouri at the age of 19, is now the superintendent of the Jennings School District. He and several other speakers came to address these issues and lead panel discussions at the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ J.C. Penney Auditorium on February 17.
The structure of the symposium allowed for speakers to rotate between addressing youths and professionals, many of whom are training to or currently work with at-risk youth. More than 100 young adults attended; most hailed from the school districts of Normandy, Jennings, and Riverview Gardens, as well as the Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis, and County Youth Programs. The UMSL School of Social Work, headed by Dr. Sharon Johnson, hosted the event.
Tavares Thompson, a social worker, brought three high schoolers whom he has mentored for several months. “They kind of have a wall, and I understand why, so I have to build rapport before they can start trusting me,” said Thompson. One of Thompson’s goals has been to help the eldest of the boys prepare for college, as he is graduating in May. “I can see they have leadership qualities already, and they are so aware of their futures,” he said.
One discussion that stirred many questions among the audience of young adults was given by Dr. Otha Myles, an infectious disease physician and HIV specialist from Mercy Hospital. His presentation was titled “Life Happens—Now What?” Myles described growing up as the 14th of 16 children, raised by parents who had not attended high school. He discussed the problems of living in a rural area “where there was little expected of black males,” and how he fought against his environment by dedicating himself to school at age 10. He said, “Go to school. Do what it takes. Stop making excuses because no one is listening to them.”
A common thread in several of the presentations was the topic of how to foster positive relationships that will help African-American men achieve their goals. Myles claimed his mother as his inspiration, saying, “That lady was not a prisoner of her sixth grade education; she did not make any excuses.” He encouraged the room of teenagers to find someone in their lives who is doing more than what is expected, and to follow his or her example. Assistant United States Attorney Anthony Franks spoke about “learning how to say no” to bad influences, stating that following one’s desires is often not the best choice because it hardens people to the need for discipline that will make them successful.
Many of the speakers whose presentations involved politics focused on the ways in which stereotypes can drastically change someone’s life. Tori Fick, an audience member who is fulfilling a practicum for the Missouri State Public Defender System, said that many clients in the St. Louis area have been affected by the public image surrounding the African-American male—that some assume the demographic is more violent, prone to crime, and unfeeling. “I think it’s about empowering their lives to take control of that image,” she said.
James Clark, vice president of community outreach for the Better Family Life organization, said, “The image of African-American men must change, and we can’t do that just by talking about it.” While speaking to the youth audience, Clark listed 10 rules that black men must follow in order to succeed, including respect for women and children, perseverance in getting a job, and other actions that require independence and discipline. He and other panelists addressed obstacles that may be intentional, and how to advocate against these deliberate roadblocks to the success of African-American males.
Orlando Sharpe, the Science Gone Mad director for the YMCA, claimed that one road to advocacy begins with literature and media. “We have got to take control of the narrative,” he said. “At this moment, the smartest character in the Marvel universe is an African-American girl, [Lunella Lafayette, Moon Girl]. Go get that book, let your babies read it.” He said that empowerment can begin with relatively small things that can change a child’s life, translating to wiser decisions as an adult.
Another speaker, Tyree Miller, M.S.W., claimed that an African-American male who faces environmental stresses should, in order to succeed, learn to feel comfortable with himself and take care of himself, mentally and physically. Once a person is comfortable with his calling in life, he said, that person can respond to it. “Our choices make us,” he said.