Resources for Leaders

Who do they say I am?

How do leaders help young men of color see past the reality of the present to see their true selves?

This is an essential question that young men of color could easily pose. In the eyes of society, this question is often answered based solely on the outward appearance of Black and Brown boys and young men. That outward appearance may threaten the sensibilities of adults who too often believe the typecasting that the mainstream media has produced about young men of color.

Compounding this matter is the reality that some of our boys and young men have a warped perception of who they truly are or could become. Helping them to see their true identity must come from positive family members, fictive kin, mentors, elders, and community. Not being cared for and nurtured early in their formative years, boys and young men can easily become corrupted, lost, strayed, or stolen. Identity invisibility and identity trauma can have a devastating effect on Black and Brown males who are routinely viewed through a negative lens that heightens fears and stereotypes.

What happens to someone who does not know who they are? Answer: they struggle within and predictably seek to grab the most comfortable identity that comes their way. And, if it happens to represent a visage that society resents, the consequences are predictable and usually not productive. The reality of not knowing who you are must be one of the worst feelings that anyone could experience.

In Matthew 16, verse 13, Jesus asks his disciples a provocative essential question, “who do people say I am”? Some respond that he is John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and some say Jeremiah. Mistaken identity happens unless the one whose identity is misrepresented declares with confidence, positivity, and certainty who they really are.

As parents, educators, community leaders, and advocates for boys and young men of color who seek identity clarity, our work is critical. It is through our counsel and teaching about the rich history of people who have been traditionally undervalued, underappreciated, and marginalized that identity lost can become identity found. This must be daily work for the teacher, the mentor, and the cultural custodian. The time to break the cycle of our male youth feeling disconnected from their culture and from their identities is now.

By authentically enabling our boys and young men to see their true self, the opportunity to reach for success can be their reality and not a dream. When this happens, we will experience what Haki Madhubuti eloquently portrays in his classic poem “The Book of Life.”

You will recognize our brothers by the way they act and move throughout the world There will be a strange force about them,
There will be unspoken answers in them,
This will be obvious not only to you but to many.
The confidence they have in themselves and in their community will be evident in their quiet saneness.
They will be teachers, doctors, builders, designers, and more. And they will not betray you because they will know who they are.