Brandy Carter comes early to this north Omaha meeting. She and her teenage son, Dominique Glass, sit in the front row.
For about two hours, mother and son and 100 others listen to the stories, advice and warnings dispensed by seven accomplished men.
Brandy hopes the event, called “Growing Up Black in America,” will offer something useful, some way to keep Dominique safe and successful.
Brandy prays that 14-year-old Dominique, who will enter Burke High in a few short weeks, will see these black men with careers and soak up the wisdom of the words they share.
Words about education. Words about jobs. Words about friends and neighborhoods and statistics and police officers and guns.
Words that boil down to one word: choice.
The choice to study or not. The choice to hang out with good influences or not. The choice to keep your cool. Or not.
The idea that there is a choice, when you're young, black and male in America, is a positive one. It's empowering. It implies control. It says you can do something about your future.
Which, perhaps, is why no one at Love's Jazz & Arts Center on a Thursday night says these two words: Trayvon Martin.
Reaction spilled into city streets across America after the July 13 acquittal of George Zimmerman. Here, a small rally drew about 50 people to Central High School, where people carrying signs marched downtown to the Douglas County Courthouse.
Given the anger and confusion, the service group 100 Black Men of Omaha Inc. decided to open its monthly meeting to the public and invite a host of panelists who would address more generic issues pertaining to being young and black and male.
The panelists were Karlus Cozart, an engineer running one of the U.S. Strategic Command's construction projects, Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, Urban League of Nebraska President Tom Warren, UNO Black Studies Department Director Nikita Imani, attorney G. Dwight Artis and the Rev. Gregory Ashley.
The men draw from their own diverse backgrounds to say how they overcame challenges and made choices to get where they are today. They offer advice on a wide range of topics. All of them give credit to a strong male role model in their lives, whether it's Artis' father, who made him return a broken pop machine's 20 cans of pop, or Warren's old coach Gene Haynes, now the North High principal, who drove Warren to Morningside College for a college visit. Warren ended up getting his bachelor's degree from Morningside. He later went on to become Omaha's first black police chief.
The discussion is good. The audience seems riveted. A brief question-answer period opens the floor to questions about racism, shooting deaths and an admonishment that people should cooperate with police if they see someone shoot someone else.
Trayvon's name arises just once, when organizer James Mason argues that too many young black Omahans are dying and too little comes of it.
“We have a duality of what's right in our community,” Mason tells them. “We have a problem with Trayvon Martin — and I don't want to get into that — but we never protest or talk about the killings that go on every day and who didn't see what.”
This line draws applause. It's the only time we hear of what happened in Florida.
Later, I ask Mason about this. Why so little about Trayvon? Why no advice to parents on how Trayvon's death might alter the “talk” black parents already have with their sons. It's a talk white parents would never think of: how to keep your hands where police can see them, to keep your pants from sagging in public, to avoid conflict with people in positions of authority.
Black parents have this talk the way white parents tell their children to be careful crossing the street. It's a talk of necessity. It's a talk for safety. It's a talk that acknowledges the reality of race in America, where skin color still arouses suspicion and can make your child a target.
Mason tells me this: What can come of it?
“A child lost his life,” he said. “If we'd made that about Trayvon, we'd have been there for two hours and it wouldn't have been any better.”
So Mason decided to offer the audience at Love's Jazz something else. They heard from Karlus Cozart, who as a youth nearly grabbed his grandfather's shotgun to seek revenge on the teens who stabbed him. But he did not.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
And Nikita Imani, saying the black teens in the audience were children of God and had value.
And G. Dwight Artis, who graduated from two prestigious schools: the Citadel in South Carolina and the University of Wisconsin Law School.
And John Ewing, who as Douglas County treasurer manages the county's tax collections.
And Tom Warren, who says they can draw strength from all the others before them who overcame adversity.
And Gregory Ashley, who tells them: “We are men who love you.”
Afterward I catch up with Brandy and her son, Dominique.
She tells how police pulled over her husband after he had fetched some late-night Taco Bell. Nothing came of it, but it scared her.
She tells me how, when she sees Trayvon Martin, she sees Dominique. This also scares her.
“It's scary to think that because of his color or how he's perceived, that he could go to jail or be killed,” she says. “That really got to me.”
Brandy heard about the event through church and wanted to bring her son see role models and hear a message.
That it's OK to be smart. It's OK to be a leader. It's OK to make hard choices.
Bottom line, Brandy hopes Dominique absorbs the most important lesson: “I can make it.”