Ever notice how nearly everything we read about African American males isn't about how they're portrayed as people but what they represent as data?
Almost always cited as the highest dropout, unemployment, homicide, incarceration, baby-daddy, insert-negative-stereotype-here statistic. Hardly ever depicted as someone who feels or loves, who is respected as a son, pupil, spouse, or simply a kid with a dream.
Well, this week, newly minted authors Amir Isley, Cameron Pollard, Hasan Saunders-Prioleau, Tyhee Robinson, Vaughn Hines, Christian Hankerson, Isaiah Lee and Kyheim Little - middle schoolers at Gesu School in North Philly - blew those bleak images out of the water with the words of their new book, Listen to Our Voices, produced with longtime educator Christine S. Beck, the recently retired CEO and president at Gesu.
The concept of the 73-page, glossy-covered book, which covers a variety of topics and is illustrated with black-and-white portraits of the young authors, came from a simple declaration by the eight North Philly boys - that "they felt like they wanted to be listened to and that adults didn't listen enough," Beck said.
"These kids are stereotype-breakers," declares public relations executive A. Bruce Crawley, who hosted the signing and Q&A session. "They've already written a book. How are you going to tell them there's something they can't do?"
"I want to be a better student and a better dribbler and live happy." - Hasan, age 12.
"I want to be a pianist and composer - classical. My favorite to play now is Beethoven Minuet in G Major." - Christian, age 11.
"Cool guys get in trouble and I don't really like to get in trouble. I want to be my own person some . . . most of the time." - Tyhee, age 12.
The boys weren't selected for the yearlong project because they were necessarily the best and brightest. They're regular kids with different academic levels and economic backgrounds.
Kids who speak refreshing truths. Besides dealing with the universally weird preteen stuff - you know, like raging hormones, lack of confidence, peer pressure - some of the boys also spoke of harsh economic circumstances, violent environments, and shaky family situations.
Middle-school age "is the exact time that research shows we lose them," says Chuck Williams, professor of psychology and education at Drexel who has done extensive work with African American boys. "This is when they've decided whether or not they're going to stay in school, whether or not they're going to be hopeful about the future, when they start developing opinions and feelings about things.
"And if things aren't going well, those feelings aren't too good."
A bright future
Despite those challenges, from everything I saw the other night, these young authors have a bright future thanks in large part to their family support.
From the parents and guardian grandparents who proudly took photos and videoed their loved ones to the impressionable younger siblings who took it all in, it was a horizon-opening experience that nobody would soon forget.
Hasan's father, Hason Prioleau, 36, acknowledged he was one of those problem boys cited so often in the data. It wasn't until his younger brother was murdered on a Germantown street corner in 2001 that Prioleau changed his own life.
"As far as violence and drugs, Hasan has seen it," Prioleau says of the oldest of his four children. "But it's not in my life anymore and it's not in my family's life. I tell Hasan, 'Surround yourself with people who love you and won't put you in harm's way.'
Hasan, it seems, has taken his dad's words to heart. The aspiring lawyer says that overall, his neighborhood at 11th and Jefferson is "calm." But sometimes, when he and his dad go to the nearby park to play basketball, some people cause trouble.
"It makes me feel uncomfortable," he says. "It's not fair to our people, our neighborhood - and it's not fair to me."
Listen to Our Voices can be purchased online at Amazon.com.
Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.