The dominant perspective of young black men is not always favorable. In Oakland, California, this perspective is being challenged by a group of young men who’ve set out to re-think the prevailing myth that young Black men are inherently dangerous. The African American Oral History Project is a partnership between Story Bridges and African American Male Achievement (an office of the Oakland Unified School District) that has equipped a group of young African American men to document the multiple perspectives young black men in Oakland have of themselves and each other, using oral history. The result is a strong sense of cultural acknowledgement and positive self-identification while being honest that there are problems with violence in the black community of Oakland. This project shows that even if the media and outside world give young African American men a bad reputation, it is not being internalized by the youth participating in this project.
Our team consists of high school youth that have undergone training in oral history methodology, interview skills and videography. This project is unique because the ones documenting young African American males are of this very demographic. In many ways this creates a dynamic that records stories from both sides of the camera lens and gives voice to an often disempowered segment of society. What we are accomplishing is greater than a counter-narrative. We are letting the story be told unfiltered and with no preconceived notions; good or bad. This original approach shows that if given the chance, young black men will define themselves in a realistic and self affirming way that is in stark contrast to the stereotypical images propagated by consumer-driven popular media.
One instance I recall that demonstrates this is when we interviewed a group of students at Parker Elementary in deep East Oakland. This is an area that is known to be underserved and at times extremely dangerous. However, when asked to complete the sentence "Community is …" one child’s answer, to paraphrase, was, "The beautiful place were wonderful people live." This attitude goes to show that even in the face of systematic social drama, the outlook of a young black man in Oakland can be bright and hopeful. This sentiment was echoed by others of varying ages and was not an isolated answer.
From my own perspective, I have seen disinterested young men become change agents propagating helpful social dialogue while gaining useful skills that can serve them well in the future. I have witnessed these young men step out of their shells and engage with members of their community with respect and intentionality. There is great value in giving a historically neglected population the platform and means to tell their own story and believe me, they are telling it well. I am confident that if the world listens, the skewed view that all young African American men are a threat will be reconsidered and ultimately dispelled altogether.
Jesse Childs, facilitator of the African American Oral History Project, is a Development Instructor and Youth Advocate with 12 years experience working with urban culture, the arts and digital media. He holds a B.A. in African and African American Studies from the college at the University of Chicago. He is also an artist, musician and self published author working on his third novel.