American Griot: Part II

Last month we began a conversation with writer and oral historian, Thelma Young.  We continue our conversation with Thelma and learn more about her ongoing project that brings Black men and boys together to share their stories.

The Recollective: What is Black Men in America? Describe how it works.

Thelma: I’m not sure how to define Black Men in America.  It’s a collage of life experiences from Black men–young and old–who find themselves in America.  Most of the oral histories are collected by teenage Black boys who interview older Black men.  They can talk about whatever they want to talk about for as long as they choose to talk.  I do have a small list of prescribed questions for them to ask, but most of the boys only use them as a guide for the conversation.  I also taught the boys how to conduct an interview, how to work the recording equipment, how to be a good listener, and how to ask good follow up questions.

Thelma and her son Franklin

The Recollective: How did the project come about?

Thelma: Everywhere I look I see a Black boy walking in circles or in the wrong direction.  In Duval County, Florida, where I live, a recent study showed that only 23% of Black boys in the county graduate from high school.  I have a fifteen year-old son, and I don’t want him to become part of that statistic.  Most of the boys I encounter don’t have a father in the home, so I am reaching out to older Black men, asking them to give back to their community, and to serve as mentors to the younger generation of Black boys and men.  I know I can’t point them all in a positive direction, but I can grab a handful at a time until I reach as many as I possibly can.  Hopefully more people will take time to do what I’m doing; not just Black people, but all people.

The Recollective: Describe the social, political and economic landscape of the country at the point that Black Men in America began to grow in your mind?  Were there specific events that inspired you to start recording the stories of African-American men?

Thelma: Several things came into play.  I visited a state prison for the first time and was astounded by the number of young Black men incarcerated there.  The murder rate in Duval County was very high, and every time I turned on the television, the news mentioned another Black on Black crime. What really motivated me to start this project was my visit to post Katrina New Orleans, a few months after the storm.  I went to New Orleans to interview children who witnessed Hurricane Katrina; but what I found was hundreds of teenage Black males abandoned by their city, and left to their own devices.  I met a kid named Buddy who had an electronic device around his ankle, and his other leg was badly mauled from a gunshot wound that hadn’t healed all the way.  He talked about his experience like he was talking about the weather, very casual, like this was the norm for him, what he expected to happen, what society thought was okay to let happen.  I still wonder what happened to Buddy; he took off on his bike before I could interview him.  I’m trying to reach young men like Buddy, and I’m trying to prevent my son and other young men from becoming Buddy.

The Recollective: What were some changes in that landscape as the project has progressed?

Thelma: I haven’t seen many changes in the landscape when it comes to Black men in America.  I think society (including a large part of the Black community), has a long, long way to go when it comes to an equal playing field for Black men in America.  In my opinion, American society has set a pretty low bar of expectation for its Black men, has limited opportunity for them, and stripped away a lot of their dignity and self respect.

The Recollective: To what degree, if any, has the election of Barack Obama influenced the stories you are hearing from African-American men?

Thelma: Most of the older Black men say just because we have a Black man in the White House does not mean we have “made it” or “arrived.”  Most believe there is still a giant mountain to climb when it comes to the way society treats Black men in America.

The Recollective: How are you finding men to participate in the project?

Thelma: I intentionally choose men from all walks of life:  business men, felons, addicts, doctors, attorneys, public servants, high school drop outs, PhDs, military personnel; all of their experiences, good or bad, are important and need to be heard.

The Recollective: How do you pitch the project to potential participants?

Thelma: I tell them:  Here is an opportunity for you to make a difference; it won’t cost you any money, just a couple of hours of your time, and all I am asking you to do is to tell your story, and teach a few life lessons to the next generation of Black men, so they might walk a less treacherous path than you did.

The Recollective: What are you are trying to learn from these stories?  What are they?

Thelma: I am not looking for specific things; each interview is different, and each time the young man conducting the interview learns at least one very valuable lesson.  I usually learn a lot too, and so does the older man being interviewed.  It’s a beautiful thing to witness when the tape recorder “disappears” and the interview transforms into a meaningful conversation between an older Black man and a younger Black man.  Everyone walks away feeling a sense of community and hope for the future.  I plan to examine the interviews as a whole at some point and look for common threads, but for now, I am just following the interviews where they lead me.

The Recollective: In what way is BMA different in terms of approach and outcome from previous projects like “The Stories My Foremothers Told Me?”

Thelma: BMA reminds me of my second book, “All You Could See Was the Water:  Hurricane Katrina through the Eyes of Children,” because the stories from that book and from BMA are pretty oppressive, but there is always a positive message in the end.  When I interviewed children who survived Katrina, it was very difficult to listen to such horrific stories, but I was empowered by each child’s story.  That’s how it is with BMA, except that with my first two books, I focused on a specific time period and with BMA the stories are from all different time periods, mostly post Civil Rights Movement.

The Recollective: In what way are the two projects similar to one another?

Thelma: My projects are similar because with each oral history project I am giving people a voice, an opportunity to express them selves and to validate their experiences.  Recording and archiving your life story is a way to live on forever.

The Recollective: How did you grow and change as a documentarian in between these projects?

Thelma: I grew in many ways.  I am a better listener.  I am more patient.  I am more grateful.  And I realize I have a gift that allows me to record history while trying to inspire and empower people.  I also realize that with my gift comes responsibility.

The Recollective: What has been most surprising to you about BMA?

Thelma: The low level of expectation that society places on the Black man, and even more surprising the low level of expectation a lot of young Black men have for themselves.

The Recollective: What has the project validated for you either personally, as a storyteller or in terms of learning about the experiences of Black men in this country?

Thelma: Black men in America are in crisis.  This project has made me realize that I’m not doing enough to address the crisis.


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