A Plan to Change the Negative Narrative About Black Boys and Men

Julian Plowden
Julian Plowden

On Feb. 26, 2012, a 17-year-old boy wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of Skittles and some iced tea was profiled, targeted, stalked and killed for no other reason than “walking while black” in his own neighborhood. In the weeks and months following his death, the name “Trayvon Martin” would become synonymous with what had always been an unspoken reality for black men and women in America: being killed simply for being black.

It was at this defining moment that a new generation of leadership began to emerge. After the acquittal of Trayvon’s killer, Alicia Garza—co-founder of Black Lives Matter, along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—wrote a love letter to black people that captured what this burgeoning leadership was feeling. In the process, she spawned the now-ubiquitous #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, igniting a national and, now, global movement for black lives.

The death of Trayvon and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement also presented a critical opportunity for self-reflection and exploration around black male identity, especially against the backdrop of increased awareness and saturation of black death through broadcast and social media. The idea for Black Male Re-Imaginedborn in 2010 from a partnership between the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the Perception Institute—grew from what we felt was a strong need to shift away from existing negative perceptions of black men and boys, and to challenge both the explicit and implicit biases being perpetuated by mainstream media.


Parallel to the emergence of Black Lives Matter, we have also witnessed a resurgence of actors, entertainers, athletes and other influencers who, in the spirit of legendary figures like Harry Belafonte, Marian Anderson, Muhammad Ali and Paul Robeson, are using their fame to give voice to the movement and the moment. Filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, with her film Selma and Netflix documentary 13th; the creators of the new television series Queen Sugar; and Ryan Coogler, with Fruitvale Station, Creed and Black Panther, have each used their platforms to engage other artists to support actions through the Blackout for Human Rights Network.

As a funder and nonprofit organization that supports a range of projects reflecting the diversity of these issues, CBMA has always wrestled with the question, “What more can we do?” The reality is that there is a lot more we as black men can do and say to support black women and girls, as well as our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. In fact, the work of reimagining the black male identity must begin with an understanding of and empathy for how others in our community are marginalized, and with the intention of building commonality in our individual and collective struggles.

On Oct. 11 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., we will attempt to do just that at the third Black Male Re-Imagined event, bringing together a roster of celebrated black filmmakers, musicians, artists, activists, thought leaders and media-makers to help drive forward this essential conversation around black image, identity and intersectionality. (The event will be live-streamed beginning at 2 p.m. EDT, and those on Twitter can follow the hashtag #BlackMaleReimagined.)

That day, we will gather in memory of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, the Charleston Nine, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Korryn Gaines and, more recently, Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. We will gather in the spirit of those black male cultural figures and icons who have gone to join our ancestors: Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Prince, Muhammad Ali and Bill Nunn.


For the living—the future leaders; the current leaders; the students and teachers, community builders and activists; the dreamers and doers; the believers and healers—and the unborn, we will come together to lift up and thank those—like Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Paul Coates and Haki Madhubuti—who have given and sacrificed so much to ensure that we are able to have institutions to call our own.

The late filmmaker, documentarian and artist Marlon Riggs—whose own work is the foundation from which we can understand the power of film and media to shape images—once said, I think that all black people have to reconcile themselves to each other, to our differences … and we have to get over the notion that you can only be unified as a people as long as everybody agrees. We don’t achieve freedom by those means.”


By engaging committed leaders in the arts, entertainment, media, branding and advertising industries, as well as those in advocacy and philanthropy, around these issues, we can find solutions that will ensure more accurate portrayals of black men, women, children and all the various interconnected groups that make up the broader black community—even if we don’t always agree on the solutions or path forward. In this moment, in this space, let’s celebrate the love we have for our community, and continue to search for the resiliency, courage and strength to fight for our ensured freedom together.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.


Rashid Shabazz is vice president of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a national member-based organization committed to building beloved communities for black men and boys.

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