Two years ago, Ben Jealous and Trabian Shorters had an idea: Young black men needed to hear from other black men about their struggle, their triumphs, their pain and their successes.
"Our young men might imitate what they do see, but they definitely won't imitate what they don't see," Jealous, 42, and the former head of the NAACP, says in an interview with The Root. "Too often they don't see us, black men who are spending their lives to uplift their community."
The idea was this: Get black men, all kinds of black men—gay, straight, famous, ex-cons, college-educated, athletes, actors, community organizers, businessmen, educators, and the like—to open up and expose themselves without masks.
The result is the powerful Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading and Succeeding, co-edited by Jealous and Shorters—founder and CEO of BMe. Reach explores what it means to be a success despite conditions, obstacles and tragedies, and sometimes because of them.
"Most people in this country, because of the way the story is told about black people, can only speak the negative story," Shorters says.
They aren't aware that 11 out of 12 black males graduate from high school, or that 1 of 4 black men in America is already a military veteran … that's a higher percentage than any other population."
Shorters adds: "A third of black men over the age of 18 are in college now. Black men, when they are custodial, tend to be more engaged with their children. These are all true stories, and these are all real facts, too. Yet most people, if you challenged them to answer which male in the country is most likely to start a business, to give to charity or to have shown their patriotism through military service … enterprising, generous and patriotic are not what people tend to think about when they think of black men."
What the book does best is break the idea of monolithic, male blackness and transforms the stereotypical stories of black men using 40 vulnerable, personal narratives to explain how this guy became that guy.
There's Mel Mason, 72, a psychotherapist and executive director of the Village Project Inc. in California, talking freely about his battle with drugs, his love for basketball, his struggles in the Air Force, his temper, his work with the Black Panther Party and ultimately his work with the community. A full-life explored, redeemed and retold in eight pages. Micro-biographies are what Jealous and Shorter call them, and in the wake of the tragic deaths of unarmed teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and on the heels of the Black Lives Matter social media movement, the tear-gas-filled air of protest could use an oxygen tank hit of positivity.
"It is always a good time for the truth," Shorters says regarding the timing of the book's release in this heightened racial climate.
The paperback is sparsely done on purpose; the authors' images are black-and-white portraits, not color photos, to keep costs low, since Jealous and Shorters see this as a textbook to achieving greatness in a country that tends not to value black life. Not to mention, the proceeds from sales of the book go to BMe, a nonprofit that is focused on building and creating solid communities inspired by black men.
Among the many voices included are singer John Legend, actor Louis Gossett Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton, alongside D'Wayne Edwards, 45, founder of Pensole Footwear Academy; Barrington Irving, 30, a pilot; and Yusef Shakur, 42, CEO of YBS Consulting.
Jealous and Shorters both included their own stories, too.
"I think if you are going to ask men to be vulnerable, you have to be willing to be vulnerable yourself," Jealous says.
"The hardest part about the book was giving ourselves permission not to make it 1,000 pages," Jealous adds. "We know that there are millions of brothers that could be in this book, but at the end of the day, we decided that it was important to have a diversity of men. We had brothers who had been to prison and redeemed themselves and frankly, brothers who had been to college and redeemed themselves."
In short, the hope for the book is that young men see the limitless potential of their lives through the stories of men who have lived long enough to have regrets and ultimately redemption.
"I'm really proud of all the men in the book because despite whatever challenges they may have, and we have all faced challenges to really step up and be role models," Jealous says, "this is a book of potential role models for our young boys and our young men. We went out there and we asked guys to step up, and they did in droves, and that is what young men need. Not just men that are doing the right thing, but those that are also willing to share their stories."
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.