More than two years out, many of us still can’t stomach the sickening shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police. That senseless carnage, caught on video for all to see, sent millions reeling and many into action. Some marched, some knelt, some prayed, wept and/or raged on social media. Some, like NFL tight end Martellus Bennett, talked back.
The then eight-year league vet, who would win the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots that season (not coincidentally the very same year Colin Kaepernick began his silent protest), penned a poem to and for the young black boys forced to face their trauma on 24/7- loop.
“I just felt like I needed to write something for the black kids who had to see or are witnessing these things,” Bennett tells The Root. “I thought about myself as a kid and the things that [kids today] see because of the way media is consumed. We didn’t have access to as many things that were happening in the world. Now, you see all these things.”
The powerful open letter/poem, titled “Dear Black Boy,” was published in the Players Tribune in July 2016. It included lines like:
We must lace up our shoes to do more than run another sprint, dunk another ball, catch another pass or rap another lyric.
We must lace our shoes and run toward freedom — cheering on those who are training and running our same race, picking up those like us who get tired or distracted on their way to the finish line.
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Bennett spoke to young black men and boys directly, beckoning them to look past the physical realm and tap into their inner strength, resolve, and dedication to themselves and their communities.
Two years later, that missive has morphed into a book, published by Bennett’s multi-media creative house, the Imagination Agency. Steeped in sepia, cream and mahogany tones, Dear Black Boy encourages youngsters to dare, plan, work, and, most essentially, dream clear of dictates, expectations or stereotypes.
“That’s the whole idea; we have to give black boys the space to dream and allow them to dream the dreams that they want and not have society dream the dreams for them,” Bennett says. “The NFL is 65 percent black, the NBA is 75 percent black, the tech industry is seven percent black. Those numbers are so skewed that it’s just crazy.”
On a more mundane level, black boys not reading has dire, and far-reaching consequences.
“We don’t really have a lot of stories that are just for us, that are ours, that we can relate to,” he says. “It’s ridiculous because there’s an extremely high level of black boys who are not up to reading level by the time they’re in the 4th grade. And those kids are more likely to drop out of high school. And then when those kids are more likely to drop out of high school, then the prison rate goes up.”
As part of the book launch in March, Bennett and Imagination are launching a campaign called “Dear Black Boy, Now What?” in conjunction with the Players Tribune, which will feature letters of inspiration from prominent black voices, parents and kids, as well as kids’ artwork with their interpretation of the prompt, “Dear Black Boy…”
“So ‘Now What’ is like, OK, you played ball, the game is over, so now what? Now, what are you going to do? What else do you have to offer the world?” asks Bennett. “There isn’t anything wrong with sports, but I do feel like there’s much more to us than just sports.”
Bennett, 31, founded Imagination in 2014. The LA-based agency focuses on apps, books, film, animation, toys, graphic novels and education. The outfit has been championing and centering black children as a day one organizing principle. Not surprisingly, Bennett has faced some push back from those who take issue with addressing black children specifically (i.e., why not all children?), but Bennett is clearly unbothered.
“There’s no one to champion creativity for black youth as far as films and animation and there’s nothing wrong with focusing on it,” he says. “I feel like kids of color should have something that belongs to them. Black kids don’t get a lot of sci-fi, don’t get a lot of fiction, and the issue with that is that black kids don’t get escapism. All the stuff that we get is reality right outside our doors.”
He continued: “And that’s the great thing about escapism and fiction—when you visit other worlds, you come back and realize that your world doesn’t have to be the way that it is and that you can change it.”
The former tight-end says he looks at the big picture for true diversity.
“Only two percent of children’s books represent kids of color. Two percent,” he says. “That means out of every 100, I’m lucky to find two books for my daughter. So I don’t need to add diversity to my story. By me writing books focusing on black characters, I’m adding diversity to the library and the bookstores. That’s where the diversity happens.”
Like all great athletes—and creators—Bennett knows his strengths and his limitations. He knows he’s not going to reach his ultimate goal, but that’s OK because he already has skin in the game.
“To change the world for kids of color in story, that I’m not going to achieve,” Bennett says. “But the generations after me, if I can inspire them to become writers and creators, then they will be the ones who really change it for us all.”
To preorder Dear Black Boy, visit the Imagination Agency.