Cover Story in Sept/Oct 2013 Issue
We are not helpless, and the waiting is making things worse.
As a kid we played marbles... “for keeps”. Periodically there would be a new kid, for whom someone had bought a bunch of new shiny marbles, to hit the playground / backyard / empty lot where we played the game of skill. Invariably the new kid with the shiny new marbles would end up losing them all, and invariably he would begin to cry and feel abused by those who's superior gamesmanship had taken his marbles. But the crying never did anything but make the other boys laugh.
So what makes us think that there is anything in human nature that will make people give up their advantages. We certainly never felt guilty about taking and keeping a kid's marbles even if he couldn't play or didn't understand the game.
So here we are a stolen, then bought and sold people who stopped being property after the heroic efforts of the Harriet Tubmans, the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglas and other abolitionists, when Northern white folk beat Southern white folk in a war. Then we were given our civil rights when courageous and conscientious young people braved police dogs, fire hoses, cattle prods, arrest and the Klan on national TV forcing white folk outside the South to consider that their America was doing the same as the Nazis their generation had just fought a war to defeat.
So in the sixties we got our “real freedom”... and many of us thought the struggle for “equality” was over. I and others are beginning to understand what “freedom” really means in a place that just has no real need for us anymore and sees us as competition while too many of us perhaps rightfully, but unreasonably expect and expend a great deal of time energy and resources trying to get them to give us some of our marbles back.
Being free people simply means that, unlike slaves, we can choose how we invest our time, our money and our votes. The key word is “invest”. It seems, however, that even though our freedom was gained by group effort and struggle many of us began to behave as though this new freedom was ours to “spend” without consideration of our impact on the group which earned it. We believed that we were free of solidarity with one another, that from 1964 on we would live and be treated as individuals, that freedom had eliminated the need for group action. In hindsight most will agree that was naive and simply a wishful craving for acceptance and inclusion. We assumed that racism existed because whites never had a chance to get to know us. A more wizened view perhaps is that racism is a means by which one group creates and maintains advantages over others, a reality that must be coped with since without a military force we have no way to force another group of “free” people to give up their marbles.
It is also important to understand that our need to function as a group is not based on any natural affinity or love, one for another, but the simple reality that since we are profiled and treated as a collective, in simple self defense we need to function as a mutually beneficial collective. Another analogy that comes to mind was the circling of the wagons technique used by wagon trains moving across the American prairie, so that each man only had to defend what was in front of him because someone had his back. And like those homesteaders in a hostile environment, we can only survive by defending one another's backs.
So, as free people when there is a need in our community we are not helpless, we can invest our time, money and political effort to solve most of what ails us and improve the futures for our children... if we will. But if we wait for those who have an advantage for themselves and their children to relinquish some and share with us, I submit that we will continue to wait and our collective conditions and power position will worsen. Yes we were stolen, abused and worked without capital gain, but I don't see any significant will among even nice white people to make us whole, and as 12% of the nation's population, don't see how we can pull reparations off politically, and while Latins and Asians share the need to remain “free” people regardless of race they do not share the slavery reparations concern, and probably wouldn't care to spend their tax dollars on making us whole for something they had no hand in.
So with cyclical poverty based on the culture created during welfare, of men not raising children, there is a need to educate a generation of boys to a different perspective. So the Silverback Society was born over coffee in the fall of 2007 when co-founders Pastor Arthur Wardsworth (deceased) of Second Good Hope Baptist Church in Algiers (New Orleans) and myself, a media personality and businessman, decided that we were tired of talking about problems and were going to invest time doing something to improve the outlook for young black men in our community. No more waiting for Congress, State government, local politicians or the school system, after all we were free men.
Both of us had varied experiences working with young people over the years, Wardsworth as a Pastor and coach and myself, having taught photography in public school, served as a coach and worked in many youth programs over the years. We compared notes on those experiences and put on the table all the things we knew from experience had worked with young people. Our mutual commitment was “No experimenting with the children”. Pastor Wardsworth and I put our heads together and came up with the Silverback Society Pledge, a commitment to responsibility for generations and Six Silverback Society principals (now 7) to teach boys we would soon engage.
At about the same time Beverly Johnson, now Irvin-Jelks, was the principal at Murray Henderson Elementary which stood next to the Fischer housing development. Soon after that meeting of minds this principal reached out to us and requested help with the boys at her school. We agreed to come once a week and teach the boys in the seventh and eighth grades. After a couple of sessions Pastor and I recognized that mixing the two grades had been a mistake since social “pecking” orders were confused whenever the two grades were in the same space. That was when the decision was made to only work with the top grade on the campus and let the younger boys look forward to their turn at what was morphing into a rights of passage experience.
The basic curriculum and culture were formed that first year because I, as a classroom teacher for several years knew the importance of being prepared with a lesson plan before you walked into a classroom. So with input and advice from Pastor Wardsworth I created six weeks worth of lesson plans for what we both agreed boys needed to know and understand about a man's opportunities for success and happiness.
After almost two years of campus culture improvement attributed to our work with the upper grade boys and the resulting trickle down effect on the attitudes and behavior of the younger boys at Murray Henderson, Pastor grew ill and passed away in December of 2009. I was shattered and wondered how I would be able to continue the work without my partner, since having two of us meant that we had never disappointed kids because as things would come up at least one of us showed up, and this consistency and shared responsibility had become a central feature of the Silverback Society's early success.
As the Almighty would have it, after Pastor's funeral service, in the parking lot of the church, D'Juan Hernandez and Dr. Dwayne Steel offered themselves to help continue the work of the Silverback Society. Then other men came, Al Miller, Mtumishi St. Julien, Chris Williams, Jonas Nash and Keith Pittman. Then we were requested to help out at Craig, then Blayne Bondy, DR. Jerome Medley, Marcell McGee, Corey Smith and Cornell Manuel came. And we here happy with ourselves and our effort as men in the community who were making a difference... but then the visionary and investors came. (If you do something and it works, others will join and help will come)
Jimmy Woods of Metro Disposal had always supported our work. He had me at breakfast and declared that the Silverback Society needed to be in every school. Because I was also busy running my photography business, I balked and challenged Woods, “So are you saying that if I jump in with both feet you are the brother that is going to make sure my wife still gets her vacations every year.” Without batting an eye Jimmie Woods committed. Later another admirer of the Silverback Society's work, Robert Reily, hearing that I was considering making coordinating the Silverback Society my life's work, committed to do as much as Jimmie Woods.
So Silverback Society, Inc. was born and Roy J. Rodney, Jr, Sean Bruno, Bill Rouselle, Bob Reily, Jimmy Woods, D'Juan Hernandez, Dwayne Steele, Mtumishi St. Julien, Keith Pittman and Dr. Keith Ferdinand came to the board. And we doubled to four schools and Stephen St. Martin, Vance Vaucresson, Charles Easterling, Terry Hardy, Donald Robinson, Tim Thompson, Darren Lombard, James Moffett Jr., Richard Cook, Royce Duplessis, John Gaines and David Durand committed to the work. And then people and institutions like Louella Givens-Harding, Charles Kennedy, Liberty Bank, NOLA for Life, Entergy New Orleans, Ronnie Burns, board members and others wrote checks. The RSD gave us a contract and one day W.K. Kellogg foundation called me at home to invite me to come apply for support which amounted to 100,000 for three years to help the Silverback Society grow from four schools to Wood's vision of a city wide presence.
So coming together as the Silverback Society was a group of men accepting that, even though we didn't cause the cyclical poverty, violence and crime resulting from generations of un-fathered children, we as men who knew and understood and practiced black male responsibility would have to invest the time to teach it to a generation of boys. We know it was Jim Crow and mean spirited welfare laws that chased a generation of uneducated black men, many former share croppers away from their families so the women and children could could get housing, a check and government benefits. Unfortunately boys who grew up in those homes assumed and believed that men don't raise or support children. That is the cycle that has to be broken, so the men of the Silverback Society teach, motivate and model the behavior.
But it takes a concious investment of time. Perhaps the role of present and following generations in the continuing struggle of black people is simply to invest our freedoms for the good of the group. So that all that was won for us by the blood sweat and tears of previous generations doesn't continue to waste away as we wait for acceptance and inclusion by people who have no real self interest in doing so.
Only we can create a safer more prosperous future for ourselves investing the freedoms of time, money and politics in places that benefit us and our children. But it is so easy to be distracted. Caesar had gladiators in the coliseum to distract the masses and little has changed as the pursuit of recreation has absorbed much of the time and resources we could invest as individuals in the creation of safer, cleaner and more prosperous communities. By investing our time in children and community improvement, investing more of our money in supporting businesses we own and organizing our politics to maximize the flow of public dollars into our communities, where we live will become the places where we want to live and we will not have to expose our children to people who fear/hate/mistreat them just because they are black.
In many ways, the under utilized resources of our own time, money and economically focused politics provides the opportunity for a really bright future. The greatest challenge is teaching and supporting rather than judging and deserting one another because we must build on what we have to get to the next level, and it might take a while but if WE don't start, it will never happen. So our progress or lack thereof will be a result of the countless choices you and I make as we express the freedoms that were won for us by the blood sweat and tears of previous generations.