Announcing the paperback publication
"Khary Lazarre-White's gripping, relentless dive into the inner life of a young African American male named Warrior invites readers into a world where few have dared to venture. In this world, mysticism and madness walk hand in hand with the waking reality of so many young Black men in America, a reality that by any rational measure is itself insane. In Passage, Lazarre-White offers insights and answers to the one question the media never asks when scrutinizing young Black men for their responses to that reality: Why?"
Susan L. Taylor
Editor in Chief Emeritus, Essence Magazine
"Powerful, lyrical and evocatively written, Passage is a transportive story of love and survival, a walk in the shoes of a young man negotiating an uncertain present, a painful past and the promising future he may never have. A stunning debut by Khary Lazarre-White."
Creator & Executive Producer, Boardwalk Empire
Academy Award nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Wolf of Wall Street
"Passage is a work of great originality, pain, and aching beauty. Its protagonist, Warrior, a sensitive, haunted and haunting young man, bears the burden of history: the past is always near, shaping and informing present realities of black boys like himself. As he traverses a dystopic urban landscape, one that is both surreal and all too real, he encounters the depth of Black Rage, the persistence of Black Death, and the tremendous capacity of Black Love. Like Warrior, Passage pays homage to its predecessors, while forging its own path – one that speaks most eloquently to our present and insists that we create a starkly different future."
Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin
William B. Ransford Professor of English & Comparative Literature and African American Studies
Columbia University; author of Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
Named among "The Best New Fiction," by The Wall Street Journal:
"Passage, written in a striking blend of street vernacular and classical declamation, turns Warrior’s daily journey between school and home into a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Mr. Lazarre-White has written an artfully compact parable of a noble soul seeking deliverance."
The Wall Street Journal
"As Warrior experiences dangers real and imagined, current and ancestral, Lazarre-White, activist and founder of a Harlem-based youth-education organization, infuses his vivid journey with thought- and discussion-provoking symbolism. This is a unique and haunting portrayal of a young black man considering his inheritance, and his destiny."
"Lazarre-White has crafted the novel to appeal to both young people and the adults intent on understanding and anchoring them. Take note when Warrior explains his disdain for those who believe a mere shift in personal attitude can effect substantive change... The overwhelming scope of our dispossession is surreal, and so Black writers must make beautiful narratives that repossess. The beautiful struggle, in Passage, is to bring all Warriors back home."
Eisa Nefertari Ulen
The Space in Between: Afro-Surreal Liminality in Khary Lazarre-White's Passage
Los Angeles Review of Books
"You will not soon forget this gem of a book. With powerful, searing prose, Mr. Lazarre-White has written a book that in Kafka’s immortal phrase wounds and stabs. From the haunting opening passage about Midnight Blue, the reader cannot look away, no matter how much pain spills across these pages; pages which cross the expanse from 1993 Harlem to the slavers of antebellum America. Without the pain, however, the story would ring hollow. This novel is anything but. This is a book about History. And Memory. And Destiny."
Chapter One Bookstore; American Booksellers Association
"Khary Lazarre-White is one of the most transformative men of his generation. As co-founder of Bro/Sis organization he has changed countless lives. In Passage he brings that same sense of purpose to a chilling tale that follows a young man named Warrior. Set in 1993, this rich intelligent work documents how the ghosts of the past still haunt us."
"Khary Lazarre-White’s Passage is a brave account of black survival in white America when a strong family operates as the necessary bulwark… there is honesty in this novel, in Warrior’s daily life and rituals that will chill you at the bone."
Charles R. Larson
"A short, stark and eerily beautiful novel, Passage is set in a past, and yet somehow dystopian, New York in which there are giants, ghosts and wolves which howl and stalk the streets whilst drums sound. Figures from mythology and folklore – ancestors and gods – emerge and interrogate Warrior."
"This meditation on rage, death and love is powerfully relevant."
18 must read books for fall of 2017
Among "19 Books You Should Read This September”
Chicago Review of Books
"A lyrical account of a life invisible to most of us."
Among 5 Great Books You May Have Missed in September
Published by Seven Stories Press
Distributed by Penguin Random House
Passage tells the story of Warrior, a young black man navigating the snowy winter streets of Harlem and Brooklyn in 1993. Warrior is surrounded by deep family love and a sustaining connection to his history - connections that arm him as he confronts the urban forces that he faces — both supernatural and human — forces that seek his very destruction.
For Warrior and his peers, the reminders that they, as black men, aren’t meant to be fully free, are everywhere. The high schools are filled with teachers that aren’t qualified and don’t care as much about their students’ welfare as that they pass the state exams. Getting from point A to point B usually means avoiding violence, and possibly death, at the hands of the “blue soldiers” and your own brothers. Making it home means accepting that you may open the door to find that someone you love did not have the same good fortune.
Warrior isn’t even safe in his own mind. He’s haunted by the spirits of ancestors and of the demons of the system of oppression. Though the story told in Passage takes place in 1993, there is a striking parallel between Warrior’s experience and the experiences of present day black male youth, since nothing has really changed. Every memory in the novel is the memory of thousands of black families today. Every conversation is a message both to those still in their youth and those who left their youth behind long ago. Passage is a novel for then and now.
Publication date: September 26, 2017
Paperback publication date: January 15, 2019
Words of Support
"Khary is using his passion to uplift and inspire a next generation through extraordinary work that creates leaders and a sanctuary for children where they can develop a higher vision for themselves."
- Oprah Winfrey
"Khary Lazarre-White is my hero. I believe so deeply in the life-saving work that The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is dedicated to: Values and skills building that empower young people and keep them on course; It is surely one of the most incredible organizations in the nation. Their work is catalytic! Their leadership, their services and outcomes are without peer. Simply put, they the work that few others will or even know how to do."
- Susan L. Taylor
"Khary’s commitment to this critical social justice work with very disadvantaged young people is undeniable. He has dedicated his life to this work."
- Dr. Pedro Noguera
June 10, 2020
Whiteness in America
June 10, 2020
As America is enveloped in the most expansive protests and uprisings that the nation has experienced since the 1960s, one central reality revealed is the divided state of white people in this country. It is a division that calls into question the future of this nation.
Since its founding, there have been divergent ways of practicing whiteness in the United States. Whiteness does not determine one’s ideological position or political commitments — these are personal choices.
At the same time that many white people advocated a theory of Black inferiority — that those brought from the shores of Africa and bred on the soil of this nation were 3/5 of a human being, thus treated as livestock and enslaved — there were other white people who were abolitionists and rejected this horrific national founding principle. At the same time as the former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Roger B. Taney compared Black people to animals, stating we were not a part of the human family and “so far inferior” that we had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” John Brown led an armed revolt to free human beings in bondage. The segregationist ideology of the 20th century was countered by Black revolt, organizing and litigation — and white allies stood with us. As government policies excluded Black people from protection and restricted Black access to wealth, housing and benefits — limiting the development of Black capital — a multiethnic labor movement was born, some of whose members and leaders, many of whom were socialists, worked for labor protections that benefited all.
As protest continue to sweep the nation, we are confronted with several manifestations of whiteness.
Donald Trump ran a campaign based on white nationalism and racism. Using the language of demonization of immigrants, Latinos, Black people and Muslims; he celebrated anti-Semitic and anti-Black protests in Virginia and has appealed to a white nationalist viewpoint at every turn. There are white nationalist and white supremacist elements — joining the protests across the nation, seeking to keep their involvement clandestine as they further a goal of destruction and racial conflict — fermenting violence, burning and looting, as they believe this will help Trump in his election.
There are white elected officials, many who identify as Democrats — some even claim to be progressive — who have governed for their entire terms with a deadly form of politics that has resulted in a racist carceral state, imprisoning over 2 million in this nation — most held in state, and city jails and prisons — a number that can be achieved only through racially disparate policing. These elected officials have refused to stand up to police brutality all the while supporting militarized policing, grossly inflated police budgets, and supporting the use of policing as a response to socio-economic conditions — and now act surprised that police are brutalizing people in their states and in their cities around this nation. They created, funded and defended a system of police brutality.
Another group of white people, mostly young and self described as radical, have joined the protests and feel that through their actions, they are standing with us. Many are, but some of them are engaging in burning, looting and destroying — their own white privilege blinding them to the fact that they are protected by the very cloak of whiteness they claim to reject. Their actions will reverberate on us, the Black people to whom they claim allegiance. Black organizers across the nation have been confronting these often misguided white youth by telling them this will not be done in our name. For we know well that as the stories are being written on burning and looting, it is Black faces being shown as the sole authors of these actions. When police departments are further militarized, it will be our communities that are suffocated. The wealth of America was created from looting — human beings looted from Africa, this land looted from those already here, the greatest economic power ever created built on the backs of looted labor. But, in America, the face of looting disseminated by the media and written into most history books is Black.
Yet, one of the beautiful aspects of these protests has been the diversity of those marching. Across the nation, white allies have marched and organized with us — they too enraged by racism and white supremacy, they too demanding that this nation finally confront its horrific history and its continuing vicious present. This group of white people are our allies — those who know that this nation will no longer be theirs alone, that no matter who is elected president, that no matter how many acts of state sanctioned murder occur, this nation is ours, together, and that we will have a say in what this nation must look like. They know as well that they must lose some of the protection of their whiteness for us as Black people to be fully protected.
The long, constantly growing list of Black lives taken — this exhausting, debilitating and rage-inducing list of names that has spanned generations — has brought us into the streets across this nation. Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” When I asked my father once what it was like to grow up in the 1940s and 1950s in southern segregation, a legally state sanctioned and implemented racial caste system, he replied, “It was like your dreams and opportunities were suffocated. It wasn’t one act – but just a heavy weight all the time, always present, constricting you.” It is the very air of America that we protest — it is everywhere. If we do not finally confront whiteness in America, it will suffocate the nation.
May 17, 2020
Movement Time in America
May 17, 2020
The Covid 19 global pandemic that has infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives, has also brought further into the light, for all to see, the gross inequalities of our nation. The profound racial and class disparities of deaths from Covid have been laid bare. Natural disasters and pandemics are unbiased in the destruction they can reap on the human body — all can die from sickness, rich and old, wealthy and poor, all races and nationalities and religions. But the lack of access to healthcare, pre-existing health conditions that correlate to race and class such as asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure, lack of healthy food, cramped and substandard housing that does not allow for the proscribed social distancing — all add to the tsunami of Covid. Privilege aligns itself with race and class. It adheres to some and evaporates from the bodies of others. The results are deadly. Power — politically and economically — serves to protect in a time of crisis. Those without access to such power are exposed to deal with and suffer from the crisis in deeply unequal ways.
I am the co-founder and Executive Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, (Bro/Sis) this year celebrating our 25th year of existence. We are a social justice youth development organization providing deep and multi-faceted services and political education. We train educators across the nation on our model and work to change the conditions our young people are forced to endure — from educational disparities to economic poverty to an unequally applied justice system.
During this crisis Bro/Sis has had to deepen and expand our work. Due to economic poverty some of our youth have lost crucial part time jobs that previously paid for their phones and Wi-Fi, basic bills and food — and so we have provided emergency financial support to them. Others who have been asked to learn from home don’t even have computers or internet access. While New York City and Mayor de Blasio announced that the Department of Education would provide computers for the over 300,000 students deemed in need, after 6 weeks of expected remote learning, 200,000 had not yet received them. Thus children were asked to learn but could not access their virtual class rooms. In response, we have given laptops and hotspots to all of our young people in need. Overwhelmingly, the first to lose jobs in this crisis have been low wage workers — part time employees, support staff, retail and others who provide services. These are the kinds of jobs the parents of our young people hold. Or held. Their parents have lost their jobs, and bills cannot be paid, and food is scarce. In response we have provided, thus far, over 15,000 meals for our young people and their families.
Every Wednesday that we provide food to our young people and our community is a day that reveals with stark and unnerving reality the profound inequalities of our nation. Three of our staff rise early, rent a truck, and purchase thousands of dollars of food from a wholesaler in Brooklyn. They then drive this food — cases of 5 pound bags of rice, massive numbers and amounts of cans of beans, boxes of pasta, pasta sauce, canned fish, frozen chicken, pancake mix, cereal, bread and frozen vegetables — to our site in Harlem. There, 12 more staff are waiting to unload the truck and stack and order the food by type. Each week we also purchase fresh food from local farmers 90 minutes north of NYC in Kingston, New York — eggs, milk, apples, collard greens and kale. In addition, we secure donations from restaurants and a local nonprofit partner to augment what we have. Over several intense hours the staff works together, masked and gloved, to create over 600 bags for distribution.
Then our people come.
Over the weeks of the pandemic we have seen a great increase in the urgency and the desperation. It is palpable. Lines of our youth members and the community residents we have come to know over our 20 years on the block in Harlem where we are based — all standing six feet apart as they wait for several bags each to take home to feed their families. All on line are Black and brown, our staff work outside, ensuring social distancing is maintained, offering words of support and understanding in English and Spanish. The young people and elders, waiting patiently, express gratitude through masks — their eyes turning up in smiles, their words of connection and appreciation and love muffled though the cloth coverings. Our staff are giving out food — but they are also so excited to see the young people they are accustomed to seeing daily, children they have mentored to young adulthood. The joy and connection and sounds of greeting fill the air. A smaller number of youth are also picking up laptops, hotspots, masks and financial support needed for essentials. Our organization provides guidance, education, support and love for our youth members — it is our mission. All is provided this day.
The evening arrives, every single item is distributed, the three rooms, previously overflowing with neatly lined bags, is now bare. Staff speak of tired muscles from all the lifting — sadness from witnessing all of the need — but also of feeling affirmed from having done the work of providing, an abiding sense of community from having done this work together, and a resolve to keep doing so.
Budgets are moral documents. They are agreements that reflect priorities. The current budget proposed by Mayor de Blasio is 95.3 billion dollars. The Mayor has announced cuts of 75,000 youth jobs for those most in need and an increase in funding for the NYPD. NYS Governor Cuomo recently announced a state budget of 177 billion dollars. A decision was made whether to raise taxes on the wealthiest — 112 New Yorkers who are billionaires — or whether, during a health pandemic, to cut Medicaid, hospitals, home care attendants and nursing homes. He chose the latter. Neither has confronted the grossly unequal criminal justice system. America could comprehensively respond to the homelessness crisis for the cost of one aircraft carrier. In times of economic crisis the political leaders we elect make choices that determine who will survive and who will not.
Most of our young people tell us the greatest concern of their families is the loss of their home. That we as New Yorkers accept that over 10% of the children of this, the wealthiest city in America, are homeless, is a moral stain for which our leadership should be ashamed. Imagine being homeless in this pandemic. Imagine each and every morning worrying how you will provide a home for your children. Imagine the terror. The fact that New York State has issued a moratorium on evictions is like providing only pain killers to the patient with cancer — it is insufficient and negligent. It does not treat the illness. If you have lost your job, if you are living in poverty or near the poverty line, as nearly one third of all New Yorkers are, then not paying your rent for three months — and then having three months of rent come due — is no treatment at all. You will not be able to make this payment and you will lose your home. The government has enacted necessary public health policies, but these preclude so many from earning a wage; they must also enact polices that protect peoples’ homes and provide basic access to healthcare and sustenance. To do otherwise is to abdicate one’s role as a political leader.
The Presidential election of 2020 will determine the direction of our nation — warring contrary ideals that speak to the soul of the country. Since its creation there has been a foundational struggle — choices between purported ideals and aspirational goals and the lived realities of bigotry, exclusion and an entrenched racial caste and class system. All too often the idealistic aspirations have been suffocated by the tangible actuality of oppression.
We will once again be confronted with a critical moment of reflection, a decision on the long winding path forward for our nation. It is one of those moments of specific choice and struggle. This is not just a decision of which party wins and whether we remove the disastrous and uniquely dangerous current occupant of the White House — the future of the nation demands that we do. For this pandemic has once again revealed the interconnected nature of our existence — the manner in which humanity is intertwined. The virus and the death it has reaped and the response to this scourge have respected no national borders. What will be our response? What is the human safety net we will choose? What are the priorities of this nation for its citizens, for its children? Will we choose a path that allows all to have sufficient food, to have a home, to have medical care that will protect and heal them when necessary, to have a livable wage, to face equal treatment under the law, to ensure all can vote, and to have truly equal access to information and education? It is upon us. It is movement time.
December 12, 2017
We Will Win
Published, Huffington Post
December 12, 2017
Intersectionality speaks to a world-view and perspective – a way to analyze overlapping forms of identity and varied experiences and also systems of oppression, a lens with which to view struggle and freedom that is inclusive and sees liberation as interconnected. It is how one person can see and experience the world through overlapping perspectives of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, documentation status, and so many more – two of these influences can affect one’s world view; all can affect one’s world view. It is often a deeply internal awakening to reach a perspective of intersectionality; it is also where we will find our solutions.
There is a war in America. It is a war of ideals, of information, of technology and media - and it is a war for the unrealized humanity of the nation. If we are to be honest, to end the charade of arguments framed in political deflection and evasive discourse, then both sides that are engaged in this battle would acknowledge this war. What will America be?
America has always been an aspirational concept. It is a nation founded on a declaration of independence and themes of democracy and freedom and opportunity – and yet, as we know well, the great sin, the foundational lie of the nation, is that the democracy and freedom and opportunity it has pontificated about, has not been for “we the people.” The truth is, American liberty and democracy has always been reserved for the precious few – originally land owning white men. Black people, indigenous people, women, and poor whites were not included in these original ideals.
And so, America has been in a state of war since its founding.
At times this war has been one of internecine battles – fought in corridors of power and influence, in court decisions issued quietly directing the nation’s course. At other times this war has broken into the open – the stark choice the nation faced clear to all: between indigenous people and those who sought to slaughter their numbers in a genocide; between Abolitionists and those who sought to enslave and own human beings; between America and the Southern forces who seceded, created their own treasonous nation, their chief stated goal to continue human bondage; between freedom fighters and white supremacist forces who fought to defeat the gains secured during Reconstruction; between the Women’s Suffrage movement as they fought to ensure full freedom and citizenship for women and others who fought to keep women as second class citizens. The American ideal has been betrayed many times in our history: when the United States Supreme Court forced Japanese Americans into internment camps and much of the nation responded with support or deafening silence; when fascist forces under the name of McCarthyism suppressed speech and political freedom, threatening imprisonment or deportation for ideals; when labor sought to create rights for workers and big businesses fought to continue child labor and grinding inhumane work conditions in the name of profit; when citizens took to the streets to stand for full citizenship for Black people, 100 years after the end of the Civil War, and in response, the power and violence of the state sought to continue Segregation; when college students sought to end a war in Vietnam and were responded to with massive arrests and police violence; when bigotry, social and legal oppression faced Gay and Lesbian people and their allies who believed in full and complete protection for all sexual orientations and identities; when widespread political forces sought to silence and defeat women who had once again created a movement seeking full freedom and opportunity as well as a radical revision of our idea of what makes a man or a woman; and when jingoistic forces of exclusion advocate inhumane policies in response to the undocumented and the dreamers. This has always been a nation of war engaged in battles of ideas. There have always been two sides.
And so, we are in a time, again, when this war has broken into the open. Trump did not create this war or these conditions, but his election opened many eyes to the battles being fought in shadows. It is a battle to determine whether America will live up to its ideals as a nation – will move beyond that aspirational concept to a lived reality, to what America can be. There are some who would call the use of “war” a hyperbolic word. They would be wrong. Today, on one side you have those who fight and struggle for a more humane and human America – one that protects the undocumented, seeks a path into the light and citizenship for those long here; one that believes in the absolute equality of women and women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive choices; one that believes that the present disparity of wealth and opportunity are untenable, exploitative and destructive; one that believes that the prison system is profoundly unjust, soiled to its core, and needs a foundational transformation, not mere reform; one that believes the environment is in danger, that global warming and climate change must be confronted as a national and international emergency; one that believes that in America, the wealthiest nation in the world, healthcare should be a right for all of its citizens; one that believes that structural racism and state violence must be confronted; one that believes in pluralism, diverse immigration and religious freedom; and one that knows that education creates opportunity, and therefore should not be afforded at a high level to the few but instead guaranteed as a right for all, that all children must have first rate educational access.
And then there are those who stand on the other side.
I co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a social justice organization, in 1995. We are committed to working to respond to inequality, to train young people to become empowered as social change agents, to work to expand a vision of equity, racial, gender and economic justice - opportunity and access for all. We are deeply rooted in teaching young people to form and hone a moral and ethical code and to undergo a political transformation that leads to understanding the inequity they face directly, as well as those around the world, so that through this education they can become social change makers. They confront issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, hyper masculinity/patriarchy and poverty – intersected social justice movements in this country that have created lasting political change: the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Anti-War Movements, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Equal Rights Movements, to name a few – all focused on the political education of young people, through consciousness raising and study, with increased understanding of and involvement in the democratic process - whether voting or working to change laws and legislation or marching and demonstrating in the streets of our country.
We will win, in the end, because humanity and justice are on our side – because young people are driving a change in ideals. Great damage will be done to many people during this war we find ourselves in – but we will win. These are not words of didactic puffery and frivolous hopefulness, it is not my nature, but instead I write them from a place of cold, calculated optimism. We, those who fight for a more humane world, must wrap ourselves in this optimism. We will win because 66 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and 63 million voted for Donald Trump and 100 million eligible voters, nearly 43%, did not vote – and we will win the minds of most of these 100 million though our vision and optimism and humanity grounded in unyielding, tough, focused solutions. We will win because demographics are with us - as the nation becomes increasingly people of color, younger, diverse, more inclusive. We will win because we will organize, agitate, push back on lies and misinformation, take to the streets, vote, litigate, create tough art and speak out. We will support one another, break down silos, define our national narrative and embrace common struggles of people everywhere – for their struggles are our own. We will win because the fate of this nation is in our hands.
Love does not defeat hate in a war of feelings. It does not always overcome. This adage is untrue. Hate has won many of such battles over time - and genocides that have been committed, and wars that have been fought in hate’s name, fill the world’s graveyards to overflowing. Generations have been lost to hate. But love, a righteous love for humanity, a love for inclusiveness of all people, will win. When this kind of love is combined with fierce, unyielding action, then hate does not stand a chance.
And so, yes, we will win.
An essay published in The Crisis of Connection
Edited by Niobe Way, Carol Gilligan, Pedro Noguera, Alisha Ali
A New World
An essay published in The Crisis of Connection
Edited by Niobe Way, Carol Gilligan, Pedro Noguera, Alisha Ali
What are the connections between art and activism, between creativity and social change? How is it that stories can heal and transform both the storyteller and the listener? How do art and activism, when interconnected and creatively woven together, inspire and transform the world? When art is inspired by action for social justice, when activism produces profound artistic commentary – connections are made, the “other” becomes understandable, a potentially foreign experience can be brought close, made real, even become your own. Often the experience is displayed through images: the photo of a boy pulled from the rubble in Syria; a migrant child drowned in the Mediterranean; a young girl running from the burning effects of Napalm in Vietnam; the face of Emmitt Till; dogs and water hoses unleashed on children in the American South, the video of the last moments of Eric Garner’s life – sometimes intensified by words: “I Can’t Breathe.”
We live in a time when so many crave connection – even with the onslaught of social media and access to communication around the world, too many of us feel unconnected, unmoored. For this reason, in part, an abundance of constructed or intentional communities are being created, formed around shared ideas, focused on exploration or solutions, music or art convenings, social change efforts, politics, or commonly desired destinations. People are seeking affiliation with people who seek similar experiences in a world of alienation and separation. For many reasons people long to connect.
The word “radical” means to "to grab something at its root." I am the co-founder and Executive Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), an organization where we are dedicated to providing comprehensive youth development, training educators on our model, and working to influence policies that affect our young people. We are a radical organization because we seek to bring a deep political analysis to our work, we organize for social justice, and we help our children grasp things at their root, and once they do – to develop their voices – voices for action and change.
A deep and profound disconnection is felt by many of our young people. They are disconnected, in many ways, isolated and dissociated, because they are still told, each and every day, with unnerving clarity, that they are not expected to fully participate in this nation, that this nation is not fully for them. The reminders and lessons are multiple – and repeated with numbing frequency. One often experiences exhaustion at the repetition, exhaustion at the cyclical nature of your mother’s story and your father’s story becoming your story, of having to continue a struggle as old as this nation.
To be born black in this country, to know the unique experience and reality associated with this identity, is often to feel disconnected and detached from the nation’s narratives, the false stories of origination, the fallacy of a meritocracy. It is to be dulled and enraged. One knows that equal opportunities have not only not been afforded – but instead that one faces a much more difficult path in life due to no other reason than the color of one’s skin, that we live not in a post racial time, but in a virulently racial time. It is to know that to be black and American is an inescapable conflict.
While the immigrant has been central to the development and expansion of this country, historically immigrants of all colors and nationalities, today’s immigrant experience is framed as one of brown people, the “other” - “other faiths” and “other languages.” To see the nation through the eyes of an immigrant, whether the immigrant is one’s self or one is the child of immigrants, and to live in a time when the national discourse is one of vitriol towards your people, your reality, your religion, your language and your very journey to becoming an American – all of this leaves you feeling isolated and unmoored. The policy of deporting millions of people – hard working and industrious people – of building walls and banning faiths – is an attack on you, for even if it is not your specific story, the policy will touch you and your community. Your people.
There is a national conversation around education – yet one that offers few solutions to the systemic issues which economically poor children, overwhelmingly black and brown, face in a failing public school system. If you are a child in such a school, if you know that you are not being prepared to compete in society, that you are not learning the necessary analytical and technological skills to participate fully, and that you have been sold a false map, one that depicts hard work as the inevitable path to success - what feeling could that provide but one of disconnection, a daily reminder of the educational caste system in which your are mired, that you are caught in an educational system of mediocrity? If your community is policed in a racially disparate manner, if you know jails are filled with people from your community, your family and friends, many of whom would not be incarcerated if they merely lived in a different zip code and had committed or been accused of the same crimes or misdemeanors, if they had not been born economically poor, black or brown, then one cannot help but feel disconnected from the platitudes of equality and equity.
For generations, such experiences have produced the simple question: Is this nation my nation? If you are an aware human being, this question is constant. And yet, paradoxically, the answer has always been, and must continue to be: Yes. It may be a conflicted, eyes wide open, steeled, yes, but a yes all the same. For it is a reality of history that black and brown people, the immigrants, those cast aside, the workers, the poorly educated, the expendable - these people have built this nation.
Bro/Sis has been an intentional, formed community since it was founded in 1995. It was created to connect young people to one another, to their historical legacy of the African diaspora, and to a community of elders who would guide and support them. The themes our community was founded on have been a part of our very logo since our creation – Positivity, Knowledge, Future and Community. These are aspirational goals – the connective tissue that binds us. To be a part of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol’s community, to find community with us – these too must be your guiding aspirations: to live positive lives, to always seek knowledge, to work towards a better future for all: to create community. The work to reach these aspirations may be hard; it involves self-exploration and discipline, self-awareness, and at times, profound change – but we know we will travel with others along the way.
As important as the adult guides are to the young people on this journey, the young people’s peers are equally essential – they form a community of children, young men and young women, who will walk together – often acting and believing differently from what society expects of our children in general, and especially of black and brown children from tough urban communities. The building of this community also takes work on the part of the adults - difficult, hard, steady work: to confront who we are – our natures and how we have been nurtured. During one of our many staff meetings, one filled with reflection and tough conversations, a long time staff member said he had never been in a work place before where he had been asked, as an adult, to grow so much, to work on his own issues and development so deeply. To guide our children to be more connected, more reflective, more moral and ethical in their behavior, more steadfast – we too, as the guiders, must do this difficult work.
Art has always been a central aspect of movements for social justice – art spurs creative thinking across disciplines, provides what has been named “imaginative identification,” by Chinua Achebe. Imaginative identification. It is a depth of identification that has the liberating and mighty power to allow us to truly connect to another – not merely to empathize or intellectually understand someone else’s experience, but the more expansive, deeper work of actually imagining the other’s experience as your own. Achebe writes: “Things are not merely happening before us; they are happening, by the force and power of imaginative identification, to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero and are branded with the same mark of ‘punishment and poverty’…” I know of no concept that can better respond to our current crisis of connection, the disparate and divided worlds that so many hide within. Rather, Achebe asks us to truly identify with the crisis, or pain or journey of someone else – someone different – younger, older, from an unfamiliar corner of the world of city, with a different skin color, gender or sexual identity, set of beliefs, or religion.
Richard Wright once said: “The blues were created on the pavements of the city, in saw mills, in lumber camps, in short, wherever the migrant Negro, fresh from the soil, wrestled with an alien reality.” These migrants, black folk from the South, left an old world, and entered a new world. Immigrants in experience if not in name, they used their experiences to create an artistic form that accomplished two things: they formed a common language that bound them to each other, an expression of their pain and lived reality that built community and belonging through music; and their voices expressed an experience that informed a wider world. Their creative expression made them less alien to others and created a sense of belonging for them. For decades – for a century – many of varied backgrounds heard this story, one that was new, even foreign, and yet somehow familiar, and it became their own.
Much of the work we do with young people is based on developing “voice.” By voice we mean the external, the effort that hopefully leads towards Wright’s concept of commenting on their world so that others might understand what they have experienced and seen; and also the internal process, an interior voice that allows them to heal from trauma and make sense of the world. At Bro/Sis we help young people to redefine manhood and womanhood, to confront outworn and sometimes destructive norms of masculinity and femininity, so they can imagine and act on being who they truly are, reclaiming personal identity, often in ways that counter the voices and images they hear and see, and are taught to obey. They learn the glorious and horrific history of their people in America, a history that helped to form them – and this knowledge is liberating as it connects them to a long shared struggle for freedom and equality: a place of belonging.
The educator, Maxine Green has written: "It is a conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them." We are trying to help young people comprehend and question concepts that have dominated them, to discover their own powers and their ability to transform themselves. Our theory of personal change is connected to a broader understanding of social and political change. One sphere is intimately connected to the other. We provide comprehensive guidance, love, support, and education. We teach our young people, from early childhood to high school age and beyond, to value discipline and form order in their lives; then we create access and opportunities within which they can develop and experience agency. We teach our young people to question the origins of poverty and oppression, the poor schooling they receive, the violence and trauma many are faced with on a daily basis, and then to work to counter these forces. We want them to open their eyes, or as one of our founding youth members expresses it, our work is to help youth to open a third eye. We want them to awaken.
We practice and believe in a holistic approach to supporting young people. Our members experience month-long international study in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Through community organizing training they learn to become social change makers. They learn the skills and use our platform to speak out against the poor schooling that has been deemed acceptable, the unconstitutional policing that has become a part of their lives; they speak out for access and opportunity and justice. Part of our work involves exposing our youth members to the wonders and diversity of the arts, to the possibilities of college and a life long love of learning, and in our community garden we teach environmental sustainability. Through single gendered rites of passage programming we work to help them hone a moral and ethical code of conduct. Our young people travel on this journey of defining for themselves who they will be in society - and then speaking of it, out loud, in their own creative and deepened voices.
Albert Camus: "A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But on the other hand, in a universe suddenly devoid of illusion and lights, a man feels an alien, a stranger."
There are many times when, as a staff, we debate the best methods and approaches for revealing the illusions and façades our youth are confronted with – we know from our own experience that illusions removed too callously can result in pain. Our children are called “the poor.” The word poor is defined as lacking in value or worth, without quality, inferior, deficient. Many of our children observing the conditions they were born into, initially believe there is something wrong with them, that they are the ones who are deficient or lacking in worth, that they have limited value due to being born black or brown, or undocumented, or with a lack of access, without financial resources. But there is also profound strength to be found in this awareness. This unsettling of a previously familiar world can be the beginning of struggle, the birthplace of great art, the earth from which social justice grows. Once such awareness occurs, a central part of our work is to guide our young people from feelings of strangeness, from this initially alien reality, to an understanding of their connection to generations who pushed back against these realities, and to those currently struggling around the world.
A young member once came to me seeming distracted. Clearly much was on his mind. While he was doing well in school and usually had a comedic and vibrant personality, this day he seemed on edge, and it was obvious he needed to talk. As is common with so many young people who have been traumatized in urban America by what they have seen – his story was slow to come out of him. As youth grow and pass through their developmental stages, it is not what they want from you as a caring adult that changes, or the substance of the conversations they need that alters, but instead, it is your approach as the adult that must change and the tone and rhythms of your questions and advice. They want the same guidance – they need a new language.
As we talked his words flowed. Over the past week he'd been exposed to a level of trauma that would have left well-formed adults needing medication, therapy, even potentially hospitalization. He had experienced this level of trauma because he was born poor and lives in one of the toughest housing projects in New York City – a place society explains away with bad reasons, an explanation based on making those in power and with access and resources feel comfortable, a desire to create a familiar world and order.
In the span of a week, his next door neighbor had been shot and killed, a woman had been burned and thrown off an adjoining building’s roof, and one hot evening the police had raided the housing projects’ collective courtyard and beaten up and arrested four of his friends – all on low level charges of smoking marijuana, “carrying open containers” and “resisting arrest.” He told me all this as if it were an ordinary occurrence. This had been his “familiar” world. Yet now, with growing consciousness, a part of him knew it was truly alien and needed processing. He had been a part of our organization for years, he had travelled with us to Ghana for a month, had seen college campuses and the art of New York City. The too often learned approach to manhood, to value dismissiveness and a tough shell, had morphed: he needed to express. This is one part of healing: understanding that this terror and such attacks on the spirit are not normal, but instead represent a crisis.
Still, part of him thought he should be able to process easily what he had experienced, to merely brush it off, to place the mask back on his face that enabled him to navigate this world, and then go about his daily activities. He came to us because he did not have support elsewhere that would help him through the process. His mother, while a loving and steady presence in his life, was also traumatized, and so when such incidents occurred, she simply prayed to god, turned up her music and continued making dinner. His underfunded school did not have the necessary social workers on staff to help him confront these assaults on his life and find a way forward. He found his necessary support, guidance and love with us – elders trained to help him, to explain that pain and rage and sadness and fear were healthy, that he should not hide these feelings away but do what had so often brought comfort in the past: write and talk. And so he did. He found words for his feelings, exploring what he had experienced in his life, describing the very trauma that had caused him to believe that this level of violence was his acceptable future and conditions. He was not burned and thrown off a roof; he was not brutalized by the police; he was not shot and killed – but part of him felt that this was to be his “ordinary” reality. If so, then such a world would make sense. It was simply what happened. But if not, such a world would need explaining, to be fought against and changed.
He found words to describe the poverty and violence of his world – his sense of deprivation. He said, "Why do I have to experience this? Why am I living in this kind of condition?" Those questions were a part of learning context, of transformation – a step toward an understanding of the world. He needed to hear and to express that it wasn't his fault that he faced this world as a mere boy, that there was nothing wrong with his family, that no child should be confronted with this kind of violence and that no child – none - should be expected to have the skills to navigate such a world. He had to know that in our society, grown and powerful adults allowed his current condition to continue and that he had been born into a world long established on premises of injustice and inequality.
Over 20% of New York residents are living in poverty. New York County has the greatest disparity of wealth of any county in America, with the top 5% earning $865,000 a year while the bottom 20% is allowed to live on less than $10,000. Our school system of 1.2 million children only graduates 35% of its students college ready and without need of remedial support. These are conditions that our society has allowed to continue. Such conditions speak not to this young man’s lack of worth or quality or value – but to ours. We allow children like him to be born into a world where such horrific occurrences are familiar and known. This is allowed by our society because some children’s lives are not deemed of sufficient value.
We often speak of the destruction that violence can reap – the murdered and injured, the families torn apart by gun violence in America. But what of the children born into those communities, neighborhoods rife with violence, where, even if they are never the victim of the bullet, even if they are never struck down, they live with a daily reality and awareness of the presence of violence, the danger that lurks around the corner, the specter that their lives are transient, lacking in security, can be snatched up at any moment? This too causes great violence to the human body, it is destructive of the psyche - it wounds terribly and causes so many children to become inured. They wrap themselves in protective layers, their faces so often become impassive – but the pain runs throughout them, and for some, the rage strikes out. In the end many cannot contain it - to do so would be to ask too much, to become inhuman. They seem to cry out with the poet Nizar Qabbani: “Love me... away from the lands of oppression and repression, away from our city which has had its fill of death.”
To be truly connected to the world it is often necessary to heal from our own trauma. But so many of our children born economically poor, don’t have the access to support systems that might allow them to heal, so they move through life not merely scarred, but actually carrying massive open wounds. What does it mean to be one of our undocumented young people? To be described in the news and popular culture as “illegal” or an “alien?” Imagine, for just one moment, being a child who is described with such words – to be told each and every day that you do not belong, are the other. Imagine being told that your very being, your existence is “illegal.” Use your imagination to identify with this reality. We have members who arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic or Jamaica or Ecuador when they were just 3 or 4 years old, brought by parents or aunts and uncles, and brought on a family member’s passport. They had no idea they had arrived without the proper paperwork, that their names did not match their social security numbers – that is, until they had already become American in identity, had lived here for over a decade, had, like many other American high school students, done their expected work and had begun, with us, their college preparation process. Suddenly the family whispers made sense - the averted eyes when they needed some form of paperwork began to become coldly clear. When they confronted family members, some of them undocumented themselves and thus also living in the shadows, often the adults struck out, and refused to help the children, afraid for their own status, of being uncovered and found. The children of Bro/Sis slowly learned that America was having a “national conversation” about sending them “back” to a “home” of which they had no memory, that this America had deemed them “illegal.” And they began to wonder: what is home? Can home be the only place you have ever known – if you are not wanted? A personal crisis, had begun, one that affected their entire worldview – for if a child cannot claim a home, she has no foundation. Who are her people? Where is her community? Again a poet’s words, this time Audre Lorde’s: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Self-definition becomes the process and the goal. It is often clarified by talking, reading, and collective conversation – and by the outlet of the arts. Their language, in their poetry and prose, personal oaths of commitment and collective definitions of who they are – all collected in Bro/Sis’ anthologies and performed on our stages; in drawings and paintings that hang from our walls; in the videos and documentaries we make that tell their and our stories – these fill our rooms and atmosphere - an unquestioned home.
“My job is making windows where there were once walls.” Michel Foucault’s words describe our work, the work of helping young people find grounding and community and opportunity. When society has told our children they do not belong, when laws are enforced to tear apart their families, we help them to form windows. We counsel and support them; we hold them and talk with them; we help them to advocate on their own behalf; and we secure legal representation so they can apply for documentation and come out of the shadows. One of our young women, having been supported in this way, was able to quit her job after five years as a nanny, and return to school. She now has a Masters in Social Work – and has dedicated her life to helping others. She wants to make sure that no child experiences what she has experienced – the feeling of being eaten alive.
Nicholas Peart is a name known, now, to many who have followed the news in recent years of police misconduct, harassment and violence. He has been stopped and frisked by the New York City Police six to eight times at gunpoint. He was stopped when going to the corner store to buy groceries for his siblings. He was put in the back of police cars for walking down his block. On his eighteenth birthday, while sitting on a bench on a New York City street, eating McDonald’s with his cousin, he was thrown down onto the sidewalk, a gun to his head, and searched. When the officer saw from his identification that it was his birthday, he laughed, dropped the ID on his prone back and wished him a happy birthday.
Nearly ten million stops occurred in New York City over a 12-year period beginning in 2002 – 84% of those stopped were Black or Latino. Of those stopped, only 6% were arrested, less than 2% were in possession of some form of contraband, almost always drugs, and less than .1% had a gun – the stated policy for the massive stops and infringement on the rights of the citizens of New York City. Though the police are required to have “reasonable” suspicion before stopping and frisking an individual - 90% were completely innocent.
This is a policy that is enforced only in some neighborhoods – and only on some citizens. Nicholas was one of many, but with our support he learned to process these experiences and the resulting rage and pain. He decided to struggle, to fight back, and to do this through the written word and then speaking out. He agreed to become a named witness in the lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights that sought to end the unconstitutional policy of “stop and frisk.” He wrote an Op Ed, printed in The New York Times, entitled “Why is the NYPD After Me?” It became the most definitive commentary on “stop and frisk,” the first-person story of what it felt like to have this experience. Generously, Nicholas allowed other people to identify with his story. Many were able to move beyond the abstractions, however gruesome, of these staggering statistics of over 10 million stops in 12 years, and to understand the personal impact of one story – one young man. He removed the illusions that comforted so many readers, exposing the alien reality New York City allowed its citizens to experience, only because they were black and brown and lived in economically bereft communities. This practice was allowed to continue for the “stranger,” the other. Nicholas provided an undeniable service, a gracious and benevolent offering to those who had been blind, opening their eyes, as they became personally connected to a festering crisis. At the same time, through telling his story, that of one courageous young man, he was able to do work that benefited himself as well, to “inquire into the forces that (sought) to dominate” him and to name them.
His article was read by millions. He has told his story at press conferences and high schools, on college campuses and law schools, for international and national television. Others might have become fearful of taking such a public stand, but he was empowered. One day a New York City elected official contacted us. At the time he was the relatively little-known New York City Public Advocate. He came to The Brotherhood/Sister Sol and met with our young organizers who were working to reform policing in New York City, and he told Nicholas that his own view of the issue had been transformed, he now understood the personal experience of what it felt like to be stopped and frisked, that Nicholas had moved the issue from a general policy to a powerful personal story. Nicholas had allowed him to connect. The little-known Public Advocate become the Mayor of the City of New York, and when he became Mayor, Bill de Blasio dropped the appeal of the previous administration to a Federal Court’s ruling that New York City had violated the constitutional rights of millions of New Yorkers. When the Mayor announced the dropping of the appeal he stood on the stage with the Police Commissioner, New York City’s chief lawyer and Nicholas Peart.
"When the victim is able to articulate the situation of the victim, he or she has ceased to be a victim but, instead, has become a threat." These are the words of James Baldwin - he too was born black and poor in Harlem, with only a high school level education, wrote words that altered national conversations. We want our young people to become this kind of threat – a threat to injustice, to victimhood, racism and sexism and homophobia, but, also, a threat to the destructive ideas that young people internalize into their own bodies and spirits, about who they should be, who they are, to question and change the future of their stories. There is a freedom that comes with imagining a different world. There's a freedom that comes with claiming one's own history.
When teaching history at Bro/Sis, working to remove the illusions in which so many wrap themselves, when helping young people to challenge and question the society in which they live – we often find inspiration from a West African proverb: “When lions have their own historians, hunters will cease being heroes." We all see through a particular personal lens. It takes hard work to see the world through the lens of another, but it can bring profound illumination. A great force is released when we empower young people to tell their own stories. It is destructive of our humanity as a people and as individuals when stories are told only through the lens of those in power, only from the oppressor’s point of view. When we teach the true history of America many children come to understand this proverb.
Who tells the story?
In most of the world there is no such thing as a woman’s name. Due to long- standing patriarchy and systems built on handing down property from man to man – original female names do not exist. A woman may choose not to take her husband’s name upon marriage, but in doing so she keeps her own father’s name. If she has her mother’s maiden name then she has the name of her mother’s father. Even if two women marry each other, and want to share a name, they must imagine a new name, or choose between the names of their fathers. A woman’s name must be created anew.
Who has told us our history? Who names us, literally and spiritually? Whose language do we use when navigating our lives?
The populations of Brazil and the Caribbean and the United States are filled with people of African descent due to the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” More black people live in Brazil than in any nation in Africa other than Nigeria. Tens of millions were taken from the African continent and brought to the Americas, and millions died on the way over during “The Middle Passage,” their bodies thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. The poet Amiri Baraka once said that one can walk back to Africa on the bones of Africans. And yet this most horrific atrocity - the very experience that allowed millions to claim Haitian, Jamaican, Cuban, Dominican, Brazilian and American nationality, among so many others – is described in language from the perspective of the traders in human beings, not of the enslaved. For “The Middle Passage” refers to the second leg in the “triangular trade.” Draw the lines on a map: number one, from Europe with goods to Africa; number two, from Africa with cargo of humans to the Americas, the middle one; and finally, the third one, from the Americas back to Europe with goods for trade. For the enslaved, for the Africans, the atrocity, the experience, was not “The Middle Passage” – it was simply The Passage – the only one.
A renaming of their world. This work of art and education with young people is the work of healing from trauma and achieving transformation: it is the work of forming connections that unite and liberate. It encompasses a journey that connects people to their own history, to understand their own realities, and allows them to retell their experiences to others, bringing the light of consciousness, and enabling them to rename their world. This is the work we should aspire to for our young people. This is the work we must aspire to for ourselves. This opening of doors, the effort to remove illusions and flawed stories, fighting back against incomplete or false narratives, this difficult but necessary inquiry allows for the creation of new connections and the space for new stories – stories that reject a world that tells its children that they are without worth, invisible, that their own language cannot be used, that they do not matter, are alien, and do not belong. All of us crave and require community and connection to each other. We can provide and create this reality if we have the courage and commitment to redefine, retell and rename the world
- Selected as a Practitioner Resident Fellow to the Bellagio Center, Rockefeller Foundation
- Featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and awarded Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network Use Your Life Award
- Robert W. Crawford Achievement Prize, National Recreation Foundation
- National Guild for Community Arts Education Leadership Award
- Brown University inaugural Alumni Association Young Public Service Award
- Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award
- Andrew Goodman Hidden Hero Award
- Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation Art for Life Award
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund/Shearman & Sterling National Law Scholarship Award
- Named to Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s 30 United States Leaders in the Fight for Black Men – activists, politicians and writers who are working to change the future for African American men
- Fund for the City of New York Union Square Award for Grassroots Organizing
- Union Square Award for Special Achievement
- Abyssinian Development Corporation Harlem Renaissance Award
- Black Girls Rock Soul Brother Award – one of only three men to received a award in BGR’s history