BLACK BOYS: Taking a Time Machine Back to My Childhood

Insights   21 October 2020
By Andrew Williams, Education Reimagined


I loved sports, and still do, but I never saw participation as “my ticket.” I came to see education as the gateway to breathing life into my dreams. That was my destiny.

Andrew Williams
Writer and Communications Manager, Education Reimagined

The story weaved together by Sonia Lowman’s documentary, BLACK BOYS, is both jarring and hopeful. It reveals how American society has diminished the humanity of generations of young men: many full of promise but never empowered to realize or even see their potential. Simultaneously, it implores society to evolve to support, honor, and authentically validate young Black boys. 

Ironically, some of the most powerful moments in the documentary were of men, well beyond their adolescence, confronting their past and what they intuitively knew (but could never fully articulate) to be true (as a child) about the complex and often painful lived-experiences of Black men in America. Though traumatizing, those reflections were an important awakening exercise through which they found healing.

This was what really sparked my deepest connection to the film. Experiencing many of the conversations felt like being in a time machine. I could relate so deeply and personally to many of the internalized struggles being interrogated that, as a Black man of 35, I was immediately transported back to my childhood, able to vividly recall the circumstances that shaped the trajectory of my life. This included coming to terms with the ways in which I was more protected than most from harm—even as the son of a single Black mother of four who, at the time, only had a high school degree. 

I had to work through the duality of experiencing what it means to be a Black boy and yet not having to suffer in all the ways one can suffer when one is undervalued and left behind by society. It makes me feel displaced in relation to the film in many ways. 

Freedom to Dream

Growing up, I knew we didn’t have a lot of resources, but I felt rich (and enriched) in so many other ways—even if only in my imagination. I was a bright kid who loved writing and had an unshakable yearning to see the world. One of my favorite activities was exploring my neighborhood (by foot and bicycle) because I enjoyed the challenge of finding a street I’d never been down. The newness of those moments was euphoric. It is likely why, to this day, I enjoy long walks. Being with myself feels natural and freeing.

As a child, my mother empowered me to dream. This empowerment not only instilled a belief that I would one day realize a future that was not yet available to me, but it also allowed me to access and express the full range of my emotions without fear of judgement or punishment. It’s that freedom and confidence to express myself that I know many Black boys are denied.

To this end, in many ways I felt it was my mother’s secret pursuit to prevent me from playing sports at a young age. In fact, the first time I played organized sports was as a teenager. This was, of course, sacrilege in my neighborhood. Playing sports was a rite of passage, and yet, I somehow circumvented tradition. I loved sports, and still do, but I never saw participation as “my ticket.” I came to see education as the gateway to breathing life into my dreams. That was my destiny.

The Plight of Feeling “Less Than”

The legacy of the destruction of the Black body, that’s so pervasive throughout our country’s history and that played so prominently as a theme in BLACK BOYS, never had a chance to manifest in my own life. It wasn’t until I enrolled in college that I came to understand how the commodification of the Black body continues to shape the way we are perceived and valued. It’s a truth that now adds an additional layer to how I engage with the world. I became more aware and conscious of the fact that many perceive me and other Black bodies as “less than.” 

Avoiding confrontation with this truth until my late teens and early twenties allowed me to grow and develop without this “less than” narrative dominating my sense of self. I was lucky. 

For millions of other Black boys, being aware of this “less than” perception leads them to engage in destructive behavior. As was said in the film, “When your body is the only thing of value to others, why would you focus on developing other parts of yourself?”

When people are broken, there are consequences—namely, the inability to develop an emotional intellect that cultivates good decision making skills. Instead, anger becomes the default state of mind.

James Baldwin’s words, as quoted in the film, noted that “to be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The more we understand the Black experience through this lens, the more we can understand why; when George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others become senseless victims of police brutality; Black men, women, and their allies react with rage across the country.

Honoring the Humanity of Black Boys

Growing up in South St. Petersburg, FL, there was violence around me, as there is in any densely populated city with pockets of concentrated poverty, but that violence wasn’t internalized. There was only one moment stitched in my memory: the day, in 1996, when Tyron Lewis, an unarmed Black man, was gunned down by a police officer. That fleeting glimpse of what it means to be Black in America felt like an anomaly. But, for many Black boys, including those in Lowman’s film, such violence is not an anomaly. Rather, it’s their daily lived reality. 

Once again, I was lucky that I didn’t have to live within a constant state of trauma during my childhood. But, luck shouldn’t be why I was able to see myself as more than a body built for destruction and violence. And, luck shouldn’t be why I felt fully unleashed to see my promise and know my value as a human being. Lowman’s film accomplishes something quite powerful by fiercely examining why Black boys who mature into thriving Black men are seen as “the lucky ones.” 

BLACK BOYS’ themes of body, mind/head, voice, and heart serve to simultaneously destroy and reconstruct this identity of Black men in America, by reimagining how the inherent power and possibility that young Black boys possess can be fully harnessed. 

Song, dance, poetry, spoken word, friendship, love (in many forms), and open displays of empathy and sadness are presented as vehicles through which Black boys can access and express their humanity, in the face of society’s intention to diminish them psychologically and physically, from an early age.

What the film beautifully articulates, even in the midst of its most heart-wrenching scenes, is the normalization of Black boys as fully realized, complex, emotional, and whole human beings—the very foundation on which we need to invent an education system that honors all young people equally.

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