Nelson Mandela’s death put a positive black male image firmly in the news. That rarely happens. Knowing that black men are assets to communities across the world, it breaks my heart that positive portrayals are so few and far between.
But at a recent Miami retreat arranged by Black Male Engagement (BMe), an organization that recognizes, mobilizes and equips black men who do community-centered work, I saw many Mandelas.
They were men from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit—men you’d pass on the street without recognizing them for the leaders they are. These are men who’ve emerged from hellish backgrounds to work with adults and children, with organizations and companies, to do whatever they can to improve their own communities.
These are men whose work is based on heart, but you must look beyond their outward appearance to see those hearts for what they are.
Those hearts are broken and damaged, but strong enough to beat through the pain. They are bold and optimistic, even after the crush of disappointment. They are confident and triumphant, despite facing tremendous odds. They are capable of loving fiercely, even when confronted by hate.
I recognize what I see in those men’s hearts, because their hearts look very much like my own. I know this because I heard another man articulate what so many of us are reluctant to say. That man was Philadelphia-based poet Greg Corbin, whose poem, “Men Have Hearts,” included these lines:
“What would you do if you were placed on a pedestal for the paranoid? Crucified image. Always in the media. Calling you a monster. How would you feel?”
How do we feel, indeed? And how do we harness those feelings to accomplish the vision of BMe Executive Director Trabian Shorters, who rightly tells everyone that black men are not problems to be fixed, but assets to be built upon?
We must answer those questions if we are to build a national network of caring, prosperous communities inspired by the very black men who are often castigated in our society. And I’m confident we’ll reach that lofty goal.
In order to do so, however, we’ll have to do more than gain support from the mainstream. We’ll have to achieve the more difficult task of gaining support from each other, because even among black men who are working to make a positive difference in their communities, there is a lingering mistrust. There is a reluctance to go beyond polite conversation. There is resistance to working together.
I believe this hesitancy to trust one another can be traced to many factors, including this one: We have spent so much time divided that division is what we know best. That has to change, and Shorters knows this.
That’s why he’s asked us to put away that division, and to do something new. He’s asked us to trust each other, because we can’t reach our full potential by working alone.
Doing so will take heart. The same kind of heart that has allowed us to battle bureaucracy, grapple with gatekeepers, and fight through barriers in order to make a difference in our communities.
The same kind of heart that compels us to continue this work, no matter the obstacles, and no matter the pain.
It will take heart to build our communities up to their full potential, to move beyond our tendency to mistrust each other, and to lean on the one thing we have in common–heart.
Heart is what allowed Mandela to overcome hatred. Heart is what allowed him to emerge from a jail cell. Heart is what propelled him to become president of his nation. Heart is what predestined his impact on the world.
Heart. It’s what I saw in those men who I met in Miami. Those hearts are what will move our people forward.