Kevin Powell’s first claim to fame was a star on one of TV’s first reality shows, but decades later, he’s proven to be much more than just a pop culture icon.
He’s one of the Black community’s most consistent activists whose 12 books dive deep into the culture and subculture that’s so often misrepresented. His latest book, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood, is an autobiography, years in the making.
It chronicles the life of the Alpha Phi Alpha man who doesn’t hold back when speaking about what ails the African-American community and how to fix it.
Join us as we converse with Kevin:
Tell me about A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood.
It’s the hardest, the most important thing I’ve ever written in my life. I’ve been carrying the book around in my head for 20 years. It was the last three or four years when it finally got written.
In that time, you’ve authored several other books. Why did this one take so long?
Since it’s an autobiography, it’s very personal. You have to revisit a lot of things that weren’t really comfortable in your life. There were a lot of painful experiences that I had to re-examine.
I really believe in honesty, so that made it difficult. It’s like doing therapy on yourself. That’s why people don’t do it.
You can write without sharing. Why did you decide to share these difficult life experiences with readers?
I know how Malcolm X’s autobiography affected me as a youth. If you’re an artist of any type: writer, dancer, filmmaker… you create art for people.
I don’t care how personal something may be; I’m going to get it off my chest, first and foremost, and I want to share it with people. I think only an elitist artist would create and keep it to himself or herself.
You talk about your journey to manhood in the book. What is your definition of “manhood”?
My definition of human hood is rooted in love, peace, family, community, personal accountability and self-reflection.
Someone who’s self-critical and someone who practices what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called a dangerous kind of selflessness. That could apply to people who identify as men or women.
I do a lot of stuff with men of all ages. A man is someone who’s strong and a leader, but that also describes my mother. For people who identify as men, that means respecting women and girls.
You experienced struggles in your life. How did you remain positive and not let negativity distract you?
I’m always distracted. The world we live in now, there are a lot of distractions. I just believe in hard work. My mother raised me to work hard. I don’t take that for granted. I have no reason to complain about anything because I know what other folks have to deal with.
Is there a motto, scripture or phrase that you turn to when you need that motivation to stay positive and stay focused?
“Forward.” I always say “forward.” Folks will see when they read the memoir, there were a lot of moments in my life when I was stuck in the ghetto, homelessness, poverty, violence, abuse, bad business dealings.
Now, I believe more than ever in self-love and self-care. I am not being stuck for nobody. Forward. We gotta keep it moving. I think when we look at the conditions in our communities, it demands action and not just saying the same old stuff over and over again and expecting a different result.
What would you say is the biggest issue facing the Black community today?
Self love. If you don’t have self-love, you’re not going to have love for your community or family. It all comes back to love. Where do you get self-love? You have to know who you are. I’ve been with all-Black audiences, and I’ll ask, “Who here is from Africa?” Two people will raise their hands, and they’re usually actual Africans.
That’s part of the problem. Everyone here is African. Your ancestors come from Africa. You’ve been taught to hate yourself by the school system and culture, religious institutions that still have the White Jesus all over the place. People say color doesn’t matter. If color doesn’t matter, take the White Jesus down.
We still have folks completely clueless about where we come from and how valuable our cultural traditions are. I’ve seen it in poor, Black communities. I’ve seen it with Black professionals. It’s the same mindset across the board. I love Black people. I wouldn’t want to be anything but Black, but it’s like going to the doctor and him telling me everything is okay without any diagnosis.
We’ve been stuck since the 1960s. There’s something wrong with that in my opinion. I see this lack of love and vision and action permeating so many aspects of our community.
When you travel as extensively as I do and speak and listen to as many people, you start to see a pattern. There’s something really profound about this pattern. LA is just like New Orleans or Prince George’s County in Maryland or Harlem. There are certain things that you hear throughout Black communities everywhere.
We need to have a plan and economic power. We need holistic development of our community.
There are six areas that need attention: (1) spiritual (2) political [not just voting] (3) culture [pride] (4) financial literacy (5) physical health and (6) mental wellness.
That’s part of the challenge. I feel like we’re not talking about our holistic development. We’re not talking about solutions.
What can we do to address these six things?
I’ll offer an example. I’m a very imperfect human being. I have a lot of problems, but I saw that my family had issues with Diabetes and high blood pressure. We always react to the illness after the fact.
I’m a vegan. I exercise. I just ran a marathon yesterday. I take exercise really seriously. I don’t drink; I don’t smoke. I’ve done those things in my lifetime. I enjoyed it, but I value my body in a different kind of way.
Value yourself enough not to poison your body over and over again.
Is a lack of Black leadership part of the problem? We no longer have a Dr. King to focus the movement and unite the community.
The power structure and the Black elite reinvented what actually happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s to make it seem like there was this singular thing happening, and that’s actually not true. There was Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their whole thing was non-violence and creative tension, protests, marches, boycotts, etc.
Their strategy was highly effective, but they also had some failures. Dr. King also evolved. He became more radicalized and started talking about economic justice.
We also needed Ella Baker who operated in a different way then Dr. King. She was teaching people to be leaders. Look what she represented and the threat she became to the power structure.
Fannie Lou Hamer had a different approach. Malcolm X was totally different. Look at what he represented and having to build the Nation of Islam. They all compliment each other. We do need multiple approaches. What they have in common is integrity.
They were not about themselves. Many of today’s leaders are not about the people. They ain’t about God. They’re about their titles. That’s why you see younger folks saying, “I don’t want nothing to do with these people.” There is so much division. A lot of us are so jaded with Black leadership. A lot of us see them as hustlers.
My criteria for leadership now is, “Are you building anything that’s concrete and serving the community you claim to represent?”
The problem is the people with no vision, who just want to put out sound bytes. The folks who are really doing the work… That’s what I’m talking about. They just don’t talk. They do it. As long as we get excited about a march, a rally, a protest…that’s not good enough. That’s unacceptable.
At the same time, we don’t need another Dr. King or Malcolm. We need you. Them dudes are dead. They’re not coming back. How long are we going to wait for them to come back? What are you gong to do with your time here?
It belittles who we are if we think that we can’t be great. We’ve turned our past civil rights leaders into mythological superhero figures. Dr. King was a human being. He also listened to his calling.
We gotta step up, sisters and brothers. I just do what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not exceptional.
Just do your work.
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