If you had a problem in the Black community, and you brought in a group of White people to discuss how to solve it, almost nobody would take that panel seriously. In fact, there’d probably be a public outcry. It would be the same thing for women’s issues or gay issues. But every day, in local arenas all the way to the White House, adults sit around and decide what problems youth have and what youth need, without ever consulting us.
These are the words of 17-year-old Jason, a Bronx resident and member of the teen activist organization Youth Force. They are the words I chose to open my film Woke Up Black — because now more than ever, the voices of African-American youth need to be heard in conversations about the issues that shape their lives.
Recently in Florida, the nation witnessed a tragic reminder of how the lives of our youth can be shaped, and cut short, by forces beyond their control. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy in the Orlando suburb of Sanford with no criminal record, was shot and killed February 26 while running an errand by a neighborhood watch captain. The captain, George Zimmerman, had told the 911 dispatcher that Trayvon looked “like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” He also asserted that “[s]omething’s wrong with [Martin]… He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is.” Trayvon was carrying a cell phone, a bag of Skittles, and an iced tea. He was guilty of no crime other than being African American, and therefore suspicious.
I made Woke Up Black to document what Trayvon’s story tells us — how race can influence and override many other factors in determining the futures of African-American youth. I spent two years interviewing youth around Trayvon’s age. The five youth my film centers on all live in the Chicago area, and represent the incredible cultural, economic, and sexual diversity of African Americans. There is Rosalee, who was raised by her aunt and uncle and is about to become the first in her family to attend college; Carter, a football captain who was adopted by two gay men when he was 10; Ansheera, a self-identified genderqueer youth who has struggled to gain acceptance from her family and who has become an activist in response; Morgan, a middle-class suburban college student whose parents have both attained success in white-collar jobs; and Sheldon, an organizer at a South Side community organization who was incarcerated at age 17, and is attending college part-time while working to get his record expunged.
We initially thought that we would only have these youth speak in the film. But we soon realized we needed to include the adults in their lives — the parents and guardians whose involvement, or lack thereof, played a critical role in shaping their future.
A close friend said that he thought the youth were all exceptional, and that this was why the film has been so well received.
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