The below includes some elements from my conversation with the founder Cephas Williams – you can listen to the fulll conversation HERE.
In it we don’t just discuss Cephas’ journey with 56 Black Men, but we also talk about his experience with depression, some of the other challenges he’s been through along the way and the things that kept him going.
Imagine walking down the street on a rainy afternoon. It’s about 6pm, it is already getting dark. The street lights are on and you can hardly see a thing through the mist, the rain and the fog. You don’t really pay any of this much attention because you’re on the phone to a friend.
You talk life in general and your weekend plans.
Suddenly, you see a dark figure walking towards you on the same side of the road. You can’t see much but you do make out that it’s a guy. He wears his hood up and from what you can see from this distance, the guy is black. Now you freak out.
Your tone of voice changes and you start sounding panicky: “There’s a dangerous looking guy walking towards me, I think I’m freaking out a little, what do I do?” “Oh no,” your friend exclaims: “What does he look like?” Without hesitation you reply: “It’s a black dude in a hoodie!”
That does it. Your friend tells you to immediately cross the street and stay on the phone with them until you’re in safety. After walking a little further, you realise that he’s walking past you, seemingly not paying you any mind.
“Man that was close! For a second there I thought this dude was going to rob me!”
You walk on and don’t think about the incident again. You might tell the story to your colleagues at work over coffee in the morning, slightly embellished of course, to make it sound a little more exciting than it was. That sounds about right doesn’t it?
What if I told you the guy in the hood was a twenty something year old med-student on his way to a late shift at the hospital where he’s doing an internship?
Or what if I told you he was a nurse working in care for the elderly home around the corner?
What if he was on his way to the grocery store that he’s recently made manager at, even though noone in his family thought he’d ever amount to anything?
Or what if he was a young entrepreneur whose successful start up business isn’t just making him and his family a lot of money, but he was actually on his way to meet with the board of the charity he is looking to donate a high percentage of his profits to – a charity that seeks to get young people from his neighbourhood off the streets and keep them in education?
What if that was who the young man in a hoodie was, whom you so quickly passed off as a thug, a criminal and a danger to you?
Now hold up, don’t stop reading.
I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not even assuming you are white or black. Truth be told, we’ve all had those thoughts before. And why wouldn’t we? Wherever we live, that’s the narrative we are fed. Whether here in the UK or really anywhere else in the world, the image the news portrays about black men is clear:
Young black boys and men involved in gangs, knife crime, robberies, drugs…pick whichever crime you like, it’s likely the news reported a black man committing it and made sure to paint that black man in the worst possible light, not asking questions or seeking context, let alone digging deeper to get to the root of the issue…anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So why can’t this young black man just do a better job in making himself known as ’safe’ you might think. Why is he wearing a hoodie in the first place? He should know that his image projects a certain message…
Or should he?
Since the beginning of racism as we know it today, the image of the black man has been warped and dare I say dramatically misconstrued. During slavery and Jim Crow in the US, as well as in many other colonialist societies, the black man was portrayed as violent, a rapist, a dangerous predator who has to be feared and can never be allowed close to anyone, specifically white women.
In the 80’s and 90’s he became the drug dealing, gun slinging hood rat…
You get the picture.
As hip hop, basketball and other ‘black’ entertainment fields (whatever that means) started gaining more traction, we jumped on it as quickly as we could (understandably so!) as for the first time in the history of our diaspora there was a somewhat ‘positive’ image a black boy could look to. If he didn’t want to end up in prison or dead, he could become a rapper, a dancer, a basketball player or even a football legend. Today, even after the US had a black male president for the first time, that’s still about as high as we allow black boys to aspire to in general.
The narrative about black men in western society has been horrific over centuries now and I don’t know about you, but something has to be done.
Those and others were some of my thoughts when I wrote ‘Young King’ (read the poem HERE). I was on my way back from meeting some of my family for the first time (you can read the story about how that happened HERE) and among incredible sisters, I met my dad, my older brothers and nephews. While I was over there in the US, Botham Shem Jean got murdered in his own apartment; simply because to the female police officer and, to so many in the discussion after, he was of course perceived as a threat.
Why? Because he was black.
So on that journey home that was all I could think of: What kind of world were my nephews growing up in? What kind of world would my own sons grow up in one day?
I knew it wasn’t too different in the UK: you only have to turn on the news to see the way we portray and talk about the black man.
So when I heard about what Cephas Williams was doing with ’56 Black Men’, I instantly knew that I somehow had to lend my voice.
I started by tweeting in support of the movement and to help raise awareness.
From there I contacted Cephas to see if he was up for sitting down and having a conversation with me – and to my surprise he said yes! We arranged a time and a place and sat down to talk about the birth of the movement and what we could all do to change the narrative about black men in our society.
You can listen to the full and very inspiring conversation Cephas and I had HERE.
We met and honestly I hope it wasn’t the last time!
I got a lot from the conversation even for myself personally, but most of all, I left it even more inspired than before to contribute to this growing movement.
Of course there are things to be done about the narrative and the equality of black women, and don’t be fooled, my support for ’56′ doesn’t diminish my passion for any of that. I do however believe that as we mutually support each other in healing, rediscovering our worth, value and purpose and raise our voices on behalf of each other, we will find strength and unity on the other side of the struggle.
In the following, I tried my best to draw out the essence of our conversation in regards to Cephas journey and ’56 Black Men’, but like I said, if you want all the gold, listen to the full conversation 🙂
Though he was born in South London into a very much black community, Cephas spent many years of his childhood in a very white environment. From living in Essex to attending primarily white schools, he often found himself as the only black kid and experienced all the prejudice and challenge that come with that.
In his late teens, Cephas struggled with depression and even went fully mute for a year. One of – if not the thing – that helped him through and out of that deep darkness, was his revelation of the importance of purpose and what that purpose is.
“[During that period of deep depression] I used to talk to the walls, and with that was kind of talking to myself. At one point I imagined my world – the world – and all the people in it. I started to imagine the world disappearing one by one, took everyone out of my world: my parents, my family, my community. I imagined the globe with just me and no other human being and that’s when I came to the realisation that without people there is no purpose. As I came to that realisation, I started adding everyone back in, one by one, which led me to the stand point that we are here for everyone else, meaning that without people there would be no reason for my existence. So everything I did from that moment on was and has been for people.”
He didn’t wait long to put his new found purpose and revelation into practice.
At the age of 17, he founded ‘Drummer Boy’ as a clothing brand (no, not actual drum studios, I wondered the same thing!), with the heart of the brand being the message that every individual is valuable and priceless – no matter what value the world around you wants to take from or attribute to you, you are unique and have innate value.
10 years down the line, he then took that same heart, that same spirit and looked for ways to amplify the voices of the same people he sought to reach and inspire through the clothing brand, by creating studios and physical space.
He started looking for spaces in south London to hire and base himself and the program out of.
His vision was clear: Creating a space for young people in the community that would give them access to things that would otherwise be far from available to them. He wanted to bring hope and create programs that did that. From recording studios, to photography space as well as community areas, Cephas was convinced that creating such an environment would help other black young kids accomplish things. He knew the stats of the closing down of youth clubs, children’s and community centres and the obvious impact that had on the communities and wanted to contribute to reversing that story.
(In 2018 the Guardian reported that over 500 children’s centres had shut down in the UK since 2010* and, in London alone, over 81 youth clubs have been closed down since 2011*)
It didn’t take long for him to find and hire a space, engage support, find funding opportunities and such, but the path to fulfilling his vision wouldn’t be that easy.
“We were receiving issues from our landlord and the council at the time. Some didn’t want to see Drummer Boy Studios exist. The Landlord put it around rent, which was a lie [there was one month where we mentioned to him we would pay two months rent in a months time] – he saw that as an opportunity to get rid of us.
However, the mistake he made was that he gave us 7 days instead of 30 days notice. Even leading up to this point he was aggressive and rude to me and my staff, we had invested a lot of money to develop the space and he put roadblocks in our way. Because he only gave us 7 days [notice] I contacted the council about an extension to 30 days. When I did that the council informed us that the building was not even registered as available to lease! That is commercial fraud at the end of the day!
He, however, wasn’t swayed: He said things like the building would be taken down in August to get us out, but the building is still there now! He clearly didn’t want us in there.
In that period there was one day where he changed the locks on the building – we got there and had to call the police who confirmed that he had no right to even do that. For a while I even had to sleep in the studio, not being able to trade even though we have contacts with creatives who were ready to come into our communities and start to support the work we had started doing.
I confirmed BDP Architects* last year in October saying anything you touch will be developed for you.
That should be headline news!!
That was unheard of, especially connected to a 27-year old black man in the community and it is something the media should be talking about!
One of those nights at the studio I woke up from a dream – the dream in which 56 was pretty much established. I had the idea for years, but that dream confirmed it for me.”
That’s when it hit him.
Every time we look at the news, there is another story about a black man either presented as victim or as perpetrator of violence. And here he was, trying to do something good for the community and all he got was roadblocks put in his way and the good they did achieve – like getting BDP support – was not covered by the media at all. He wanted to show images, tell stories of black men who didn’t die young committing crimes or victims of violence, but the black men he knew. The ones who owned businesses, were doctors, politicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, barbers, postmen and so on.
Towards the end of 2018, Cephas then came across a report, which stated that over the course of the year 56 black men had died as a consequence of violence in the UK.
He knew what he had to do: He was going to engage 56 black men – men he knew and men he didn’t yet know – in a campaign dedicated to changing the narrative.
He put word out to his own contacts and soon enough had various people agree to be photographed.
What he had in mind was more than controversial: He asked them to take their picture dressed in a black hoodie.
The caption of the image was going to be ‘I am Not My Stereotype’ and would be followed by short descriptions of the men’s vocation and background.
That was the first bold move:
Taking pictures of black men in black hoodies rather than forcing them into a more whitewashed, more palatable dress code. According to Cephas, there were even some black men who didn’t feel comfortable to take part in the campaign because they didn’t want to be seen in a hoodie as they feared what consequence it could have on their reputation.
The second was the name of the campaign itself:
“Nowadays, everything that is not white is referred to as BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) which is fair enough, but sometimes just not clear enough in its message. BAME people don’t all have the same story and experience. The experience of the black man is unique. So I wasn’t about to call this the 56 BAME men. People told me it was too much, but I knew we had to call it what it is.”, Cephas says.
So 56 Black Men it was. And so far both these moves seem to have paid off.
Since the campaign has gone live, it gained an incredible amount of media attention. Supported by the Labour politician David Lammy who wrote an article for ‘The Guardian’ in support of the movement, everything kicked off pretty quickly.
The BBC heard about them, Victoria Derbyshire invited 20-something of the 56 men to her morning show for a conversation, Cephas has done countless radio interviews and even wrote an article for the Metro.
This is only the beginning.
When I asked Cephas what the future of the organisation looked like, he passionately and quickly responded that he didn’t like it being called an organisation, he prefers referring to it as a movement, a movement everyone can get behind.
The movement is indeed kicking off – and not just in the UK. He’s been contacted by people in France and other places in the world.
Cephas is convinced that this movement will go global in no time.
And I would agree that this is necessary.
Just today I came across a news article stating that 56 unarmed black men* have been shot dead by police since 2012. And they’re only the ones reported…
The GLOBAL narrative about black men needs to change, and one blockbuster celebrating a black man as king isn’t going to be enough (as much as I LOVE Black Panther, trust me I’ve seen it countless times…).
So this is what the guys have set out to do and Cephas says that everyone can play a part:
From contributing to their GoFundMe which will enable them to put more infrastructure in place, set up conferences, the filming of some of the black men’s stories, setting up workshops within the community and outside, to raising awareness, speaking up about false or misconstrued narratives in our immediate world – everyone can do something.
The dream is that the day will come where the hoodie no longer serves as an image for danger, but becomes the picture of the changing narrative.
One of my last questions to Cephas is what we, the women, can do.
He smiles at me and says: “I should ask you what we can do to get the sisters behind the movement, what we can do to engage you?”
I love that. As a black woman, as is obvious, I can see the importance of this movement so clearly. But I also know that little leaven can ruin the whole dough. So the way Cephas as the founder views women and their engagement was important to me.
I go on to tell him that I think there’s a few things he can do: From engaging black women on a key level of the organisation to simply listening. Inviting us into conversations, getting us on panels and showing appreciation for our support. At the end of the day we are the ones raising the next lot of black men.
Our time is up and Cephas has to head to another appointment.
As he leaves I can’t help but think that he will most likely be crossing paths with someone later that day who will cross the street when they see him coming up the road with his hat and du-rag showing…
The narrative must change.
It has to change among our own black communities: we have to continue to tell our sons, nephews, boyfriends, husbands, brothers and fathers that they are kings, that they are worthy to be treated with honour and dignity (even when they make mistakes) and that we have their backs.
That we don’t buy into the lies that the media want to make us believe and that we will ever lend our voices to making a difference.
The narrative does have to change across all of society also. If we as humanity want to move forward, we MUST stop depersonalising any people group. We have to take responsibility for our thinking and our racial and gender bias (which like I said, we all have) and do our best to change. On an individual and societal level.
So here’s my advice to you (and me):
If you are a black woman, check yourself and how you think and talk about our brothers (I know I had to).
If you are a white woman or man CHECK YOURSELF.
I don’t have to be a prophet to know that you have racial bias toward me and my brothers, and I don’t even blame you for it, because growing up in a white world, I had some of them too.
The days of blaming our environment have to be over though: there comes a point where we have to reflect and make changes.
How do you talk to and about your black male co-workers? Do you have black friends? Does your company promote true racial equality? Can you lend your voice? Are you educating yourself on the reality of racism?
Most of all – and that counts for all of us – we need to start showing love when we’re out there.
Check our response when we’re about to cross the street, or when our judgement about the kids piling on the bus kicks in. WE can all say hi, smile and engage…If we all did that, I am convinced we would see change sooner than we think. But that takes courage…A courage I want to explore more as time goes on, but for now, I’ll finish here.
All that to say that we can all become a part of the movement, we can all contribute to changing the narrative about black men in society.
I hope you feel challenged and inspired – I know talking to Cephas, writing this piece and thinking about all these things most certainly did that for me.
I would LOVE it if we all supported the movement in whichever way we can.
You can go to www.56blackmen.com for an introductory video of Cephas explaining what it’s all about and sign up to be a part of the conversation.
You can follow them on instagram, twitter and facebook @56blackmen and engage with their message.
As always, thank you so much for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below and would appreciate any shares – more awareness, more momentum.
I for one will keep exploring how I can contribute to this movement.
And if you’re a black guy wearing a hood – be prepared for me to come up and randomly give you a hug 😉
Love and Peace