I pretend I’m okay, Ronnie Jr. writes.
I feel stressed.
I try to be the best I can be, Miles writes.
I hope that I can.
I dream about being free, Dominic writes.
I try to be the best.
I hope to live the rest of 2021.
Thirty-one poems fill the pages, packed with reflections and curiosities. In I am… a Young Black Man they reveal their hopes and dreams, greatest triumphs and deepest fears.
The book features writing by youth who are a part of the Gentlemen’s Quest of Tampa Inc., an organization that mentors and supports Black teens through a variety of programs.
“This book is an act of defiance,” the introduction reads. “This is a testimony for every Black boy that your worth is not defined by your toughness or your tendons. This world is for you and you don’t have to be a martyr to receive love. You don’t have to be a casualty to leave your mark on this world.”
Each summer, the Gentlemen’s Quest runs a STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics camp. This past summer, executive director Tavis Myrick added a writing component. One of the exercises, called “I am,” was a 15-minute free write that the students would later present to the class.
As Myrick and another teacher listened to the presentation, they thought about how the teens’ words deserved more than one moment.
They’d capture them in a book, edited only for spelling, not grammar. “It was their words,” Myrick said. “The book really captures their stories.”
In it, they wonder about the future. They see where life’s joys interlace with its heartaches and hope tries to outpace angst.
I hear the sound of people crying for help, Jamari writes.
I see Black people being killed or murdered.
I want everyone to be kind and respectful to each other.
Still, they’re optimistic. They aspire to become entrepreneurs, pharmacists, husbands and role models. Some just want another year to live. Others, to make their parents proud. One wants better days.
When asked what the boys wanted to do with the revenue from the book, they decided to raise money for a trip to Washington, DC, where they could tour Howard University, explore the American Poetry Museum and walk the halls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Since I Am... A Young Black Man: A Collection of Poems Celebrating The Diversity of Black Adolescence debuted in early October, the teens have been asked to showcase their stories. Myrick sees the book and resulting attention as an opportunity to build their communication, presentation and leadership skills.
To date, more than 1,000 copies have been sold, raising enough to pay for 21 students to fly to the nation’s capital this February, Black History Month. For many, it will be their first time on a plane.
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With that fundraising goal complete, Myrick says, they plan on using additional funds to bolster Gentlemen’s Quest’s programming by adding more teachers to the weekly tutoring sessions and supporting their meals and transportation services for the youth.
Through the book, Myrick hopes to offer a glimpse into the lives of young Black men.
“Sometimes you try to shield kids from the terrors of the world,” Myrick said “But no matter how much you try to shield them, it’s the reality.”
I try to live right, Thomas writes.
I hope the darkness leaves.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.