Thirty years ago, seminal West Coast rap group N.W.A told the world, "The boyz in the hood are always hard / Come talking that trash we'll pull your card." Even though nowadays "Boyz-n-the-Hood" songwriter Ice Cube stars in family comedies, there's no denying the rep stuck. Negative images of black boys (and men) who are always ready to leave "one sucker dead" still dominate the media.
But it turns out black males know a little something about a topic society rarely associates with them: love. For the past four years, filmmakers Nicole Franklin and Jasmin Tiggett have visited communities across the United States, talking to 9- to 13-year-old black boys for their documentary film series and media project Little Brother. The project challenges typical media stereotypes by asking the kids "direct questions about future plans as responsible loving partners and family men."
The pervasiveness of stereotypes and negative news about black boys in films, on television, and in the newspaper matters. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that black boys are not perceived as being as innocent as their white peers. "Instead, they're considered to be much older than what they are, perceived to be guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime," according to the study.
"I've always wanted to present a different narrative when it comes to black people," Franklin told Colorlines.
The focus is on the tween and early teen years because despite being an emotionally fraught time for all kids, it's also when psychologists say that black boys begin to emotionally check out of school, said Franklin.
"And when it comes to black men," she said, "if we approach this idea of when and how they learn about love, you start a different conversation."
Every year, Franklin and Tiggett interview a group of boys in one city and create a short film clip from the conversations. In 2010, for the first short film, they headed to Camden, N.J., a place known more for its murder rate than for love. They moved on to gang-ridden Chicago in 2011, and visited St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2012 to talk to boys about their feelings after the slaying of Trayvon Martin. For the 2013 edition, they talked to boys of mixed black and Cherokee descent in Muskogee, Okla., about "love, tribe, family, and race."
The project doesn't avoid that hospitalization rates for gunshot wounds are highest for black boys and teens, or that, as President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative recently noted, black male student achievement in fourth grade is lower than that of every other racial or ethnic group. Instead, it's showing that although those problems exist, that's not all there is to a black boy's experience in America. And talking about love teaches these young men how to express themselves, which could provide a solution to many social struggles.