• >"You’ll Be A Man" doc: Interview with Producer Shawn Wallace


    Shawn Wallace is a musician and producer of the upcoming documentary You’ll Be A Man. The documentary explores masculinity and identity. The title is taken from the last line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

    YLW: How did you develop the concept for You Will Be A Man?

    SW: It’s really the brainchild of Robert Goodwin (producer.) He said his deceased grandfather came to him in a dream and told him to tell it like it is. Originally, we wanted to talk about how men feel about themselves on the 20th anniversary of our pledge line. We’re both in Alpha Phi Alpha.

    Then a friend suggested we do it on black men in general. We interviewed men from all walks of life, teenagers, grandfathers. We talked to Dr. Lee Butler, from the Chicago Theological Seminary. A lot of the focus of his work helped us to find our view. We interviewed both men and women. We asked both what do men do and what is a man. Most immediately identified what a man does, but most had problems saying what a man is. It was very illuminating.

    YLW: What did they say men do?

    SW: Most say a man is a provider, nurtures his family, takes care of his family, his community. He works. That sort of thing. Usual traditional roles. He’s a father, brother, husband, son.

    YLW: Why couldn’t they explain what a man is?

    SW: Most people found it difficult to answer that question. The more we dug into it, the more I realized that it’s a question of identity. I think it’s the question of our generation. Identity. Who are we? Our issues are much more psycho spiritual and I don’t know if we have the language to talk about it yet.

    The questions that we are faced with in this day and age are slightly different from previous generations. Other generations dealt more with survival. So there was more of a focus on function. I don’t know if by answering those questions in terms of duty that we’ve found the sense of fulfillment we expected. We’re asking who are we. What does it mean to be a human being, a man, a black man?

    YLW: I agree. I think many people are rethinking the terms they use to describe themselves because definitions are changing.

    SW: One woman who was with her husband said a man is a soldier of God. We found that to be interesting. Both sets of people, men and women, they could zero in on what a man does, but what is he is a question that needs to be asked more often so we can begin to be that answer. It brings up issues of self determination.

    YLW: Why is male identity a big issue today?

    SW: The conditions in our community have changed. We have more female headed households. I think we ask the identity question because it may be the way we affect the changes we want to see in our lives. Just doing certain things has not brought us the fulfillment that we thought it would. Knowing your true purpose on earth is key. I remember so many in our generation were taught to go to college to get a good job.

    SW: So there was less of an emphasis on going to college and studying something you love or are interested in. It was study this because you will make money. So you identified yourself based on what you do, your educational marker. But I saw my contemporaries question why are we doing what we’re doing. A lot of my friends got degrees in one field and completely went back to school and said I don’t want to do this. Others felt trapped. There’s more to life than having nice things and buying nice stuff. We’re challenged to have a good job, but a good job alone is not just fulfilling. The ideas that you can’t love what you do and make money from it is something that people are starting to challenge and I think as a result starting to question our identity.

    I’ve seen some interesting attitudes. I’ve seen an attitude in our community in which women feel they are stronger, smarter and better than men.

    YLW: Really? What do you mean?

    SW: There is this idea that the condition of being a woman fundamentally means that you are emotionally stronger and better than a man just because you are a woman. I had a conversation with a security guard, a woman, and she said well, we’re stronger than men anyway. I’ve heard it from teenage girls that I’ve taught. I just try to observe it. I think it’s born out of the conditions in which our community exists. Black women have had to lead our communities.

    YLW: Do you think that’s a burgeoning attitude among women in general?

    SW: Yes. I don’t think it’s just a black paradigm, I’ve just observed it on our community.

    It may be a reflection for a need for mens and womens long house. This is where the men go, this is where the woman go. Men initiate men into manhood, women initiate women. It doesn’t mean that interdependence isn’t present, but femininity and masculinity are defined in that subgroup as a whole.

    YLW: What else did you discover?

    SW: One of the things we talk about in the film are rights of passage and we compare fraternities and street gangs. Both are fulfilling a need of rights of passage for men to demarcate certain steps toward manhood. We found similarities in terms of what the group gave them, various intangibles like a sense of family and belonging. It was really illuminating. Not that that study hasn’t been done before, but there’s probably more of a need for it now. And that’s not a black phenomenon, either.

    YLW: Is the definition of manhood changing?

    SW: It’s definitely changing because we’ve had to deal with certain dark secrets including homosexuality, bisexuality, and our sexual identity as men. Masculinity is evident in men regardless of their sexual orientation. Men have testosterone in their body. A gay man is still a man. A gay man is a man first who just has a certain sexual orientation, so that doesn’t take away from his masculinity. While some gay men may have an air of what they think femininity is, or acting the way they think a woman acts, even that isn’t how a woman acts. I don’t know a lot of women who act like gay men. I think some of the ways we act as men and women aren’t just how we’re groomed, but just hormone differences so we react to things differently.

    I’ve had the same debate with women in certain situations, I don’t care if a woman is gay straight, whatever, she’s a woman. She’s going to react in the way that a woman reacts.

    YLW: How has the definition of manhood changed?

    SW: Rob and I were talking earlier and we were saying that the role men played early on, their primary role was to bring home money. It’s changed drastically and for the better. We’re moving more toward a balance for both men and women. The feminine and masculine sides of ourselves are moving towards the center and we’re being an individual. Everyone can express their masculine and feminine sides in a balanced way. Men are being asked to parent and nurture in ways they weren’t asked of them 30 or 40 years ago. Some things that we associate with masculinity and femininity are expressed in both sexes. We’re moving towards a balance of masculine and femininity within individuals in terms of roles.

    YLW: In Post Black, I talk about how I don’t know the difference between a male and female activity. When you’re taught at a young age that you can do anything, those traditional roles don’t hold any weight.

    SW: I have that, too. What do women do that I can’t do? I can’t come up with anything other than they’re not me.

    YLW: What are your hopes with the documentary?

    SW: We hope that it will be a primer for young men to help shape their identity. It’s more about identity than a where are black men and this is what they’re dealing with piece. Hopefully, it’s interesting enough to the audience so that they like it.

    We’ve been working on it for three years. We’re done with photography and now we’re in the editing process.

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    Featured interview with Post Black author, Ytasha L. Womack. Interviewer: Chris Chaney of NV Magazine. Chaney is featured in Post Black as well.

    CC: Post Black has been a term that has bounced around really since Obama has taken office. What does it mean to you?

    YLW: Post Black embraces the diversity within the African American community and includes those communities and lifestyles that don’t fit neatly into the “African American Identity Box.” This box includes a range of assumptions, beliefs and ways of life that all African Americans are assumed to ascribe to. So I start the book off really knocking all the assumptions as to what the book is about before I go deep into the subject matter.

    In the book itself, I take a look at communities in the Gen X and Y world including professionals, artists, entrepreneurs, spiritualist, as well as identity issues involving young women, immigrants, biculturalism, the President, The Talented 10th concept and more.

    CC: Why did you decide to write this book now? What about the America we now live in or the generation that we are a part of made this the time?

    YLW: There have been incredible innovations in the past decade or so. Social constructs have changed and managing or embracing this diversity is forcing many people to reevaluate their beliefs. For some people this is a very fluid process and for others it is extremely difficult. It’s actually a global occurrence. But there wasn’t much of a context for the discussion within our community and I hoped that this book would provide one. I include conversations with family, friends and people of all walks of life. I include anecdotes. I also include some personal experiences because it’s not fair to talk about African American identity and not talk about myself.

    CC: You cover a lot of topics in your book that are all integral to this generation’s identity. What portion of the book do you see as the most significant? What interview responses to what topics were the most surprising?

    YLW: I thought it was very profound that everyone I interviewed either consciously or subconsciously made life decisions based around the notion of African American or black identity. In many cases the careers and schools they chose, the interests they pursued, the decision to be an entrepreneur, their commitments to service, etc were all extensions of defining themselves culturally. All decisions were seen as either a reflection of, responsibility to, or some way of advancing African American culture. Even spiritual pursuits. That’s major. So whether someone was a salsa musician or an African immigrant opening a restaurant, a minister, or a homeowner in a gentrified area, each felt this need to make decisions out of a larger sense of cultural awareness.

    I was surprised when an African immigrant shared that she felt she was at a crossroads of sorts having to defend native born African Americans to other African immigrants and vice versa. She also said that for African Americans to know their history wasn’t enough. We needed to take a DNA test to learn our African lineage. I found myself thinking about that. For the blog, I interviewed an immigrant who was raised in Europe and talked at length about how he was influenced greatly by African American culture and the civil rights struggle before he came to the U.S. I interviewed a woman who was told “you’re from slave” when she was in Europe and introduced herself as African American. In some countries to identify yourself as African American causes confusion. No one knows what you’re talking about. I interviewed black gay men who couldn’t relate to gay identified culture. But I was also surprised to learn that many people who had religious practices and weren’t traditional Christians initially felt very alone in their journey. This surprised me because the number of people who share these beliefs are significant.

    CC: You covered some subjects that are taboo in everyday conversations, specifically religion and sexuality. Why do you think it was necessary to write about how African Americans see themselves in this area?

    YLW: Probably some of the greatest change has taken place within the frameworks of how people view themselves both spiritually and sexually. They are both core subjects for this generation. To ignore them would be to ignore some of the leading changes within the African American social paradigm.

    CC: With regards to religion you go into detail about your personal beliefs and you highlight those who have broken from religions traditional to African Americans to embrace Buddhism, Yoruba, etc. What effect did you want to have on the reader?

    YLW: I’m hoping that the reader sees the diversity in the African American religious experience. There’s a growing interest within America at large in both spirituality, Eastern religions, indigenous spiritual beliefs as well as both New Age and New Thought. African Americans are a central part of that experience. In many cases we provided a number of pioneers in those areas and the beliefs have been in the making for several generations in this country.

    CC: There is a quote in your book where you are writing about misogyny in Hip Hop and this one young female college student you interviewed defends scantily clad women in a video by saying “Wearing no clothes is a part of our culture. People in Africa don’t wear clothes.” Did that really happen? And do you know where that young lady is now so she can be further educated?

    YLW: That’s a true story. I don’t know where she is. But hopefully the conversation gave her something to think about. The video in question was Nelly’s Tip Drill, which caused a protest amongst college women. The young lady couldn’t explain why she liked music and videos with misogynistic themes. Many young women can’t. But she got flustered trying to explain it all and defended it by saying it was a part of her heritage to do so.

    It was appalling to say the least. But the odd thing was she was trying to understand misogyny or sexuality in the context of African American identity. It was an attempt to make some connection between her decisions to listen to sexualized, misogynistic music and her ancestry. Her connections were totally off, inaccurate, and ignorant. But even that decision was an attempt to link her life to some greater sense of African American identity. It goes to show how powerful and misguided notions of black identity can be. She couldn’t just say I like the women in these videos or I like dressing that way and I feel guilty. She had to explain her guilt away by saying it was part of her distant lineage. Britney Spears can wear revealing outfits but I can’t imagine anyone defending her right to do so as a part of her European ancestry.

    CC: You spend time in your book discussing the new black populace and how they identify themselves with African Americans. What you reveal is a definite cultural gap. What do you think it will take to close that gap between Africans, Caribbeans and African Americans?

    YLW: I don’t think the gap is that wide. However, increased social interaction is the key. Frequenting cultural events and meeting people of other cultures so that other cultural groups aren’t viewed as “other” is a necessary step. This is happening in many arenas. In some cases it has happened for years, but in places where it is not [happening], some initiative has to be taken. I also think it’s important that there’s a recognition that being black in America embodies a variety of cultural backgrounds. There should be more dialog and education on that issue. That recognition alone will forge more inclusiveness within groups and organizations who may not realize their limited definition of “black in America” is repelling various segments of the black community.

    CC: When you take on the lofty goal of writing a book about a culture it definitely puts you in a position of being criticized. Immediately, people ask who are you to write this, especially African Americans. So how about you answer that now. What qualifies you to write this book?

    YLW: I quote Robert Kennedy. If not me, who? If not now, when? Well, that applies to any burning idea someone has. And this limited concept of African American identity has disturbed me for some time. The issue of identity kept popping up in my work and life experiences. And I’ve devoted a great deal of time to trying to be me in the midst of many assumptions as to who I should be and how I should operate. I’ve written for numerous publications targeting African Americans. I’ve interviewed a span of black people on a range of interests and issues. And personally, I’ve been involved in a wide spectrum of black life from the arts to business to media. My perspective is a valid one.

    One thing that became very clear as I explored these issues is that the notion of blackness wasn’t created by black people alone. It’s a definition we were boxed into and have been struggling to redefine ever since. Much of this effort to redefine took place in the midst of harsh and extreme resistance. However, with respect to identity, everyone has an invested view into whatever descriptions they use to identify themselves, whether that be racially, ethnically, sex, etc. In changing times, all of these labels come into question. What does it mean to be a man in 2010 is as complex a question as what does it mean to be African American, or Asian American, or bisexual or blonde.

    CC: If there could be one ideal African American identity what components would it have and is there anyone who represents it past or present?

    YLW: There is no ideal black identity . . . and that’s a good thing. At the same time, I do think it’s very important that people know the richness and diversity of culture, history and the role it plays on the world stage and in their own lives. I also think people should have a strong sense of responsibility to both educate and empower people around issues of culture and history. Moreover, cultivating a sense of purpose that includes a respect for humanity and a dedication to social good is important. But I would advise that to anyone.

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