In Hollywood, even bad publicity is good publicity. But in the real world, the bad news about black men is overwhelming.
Actor Hill Harper of “CSI: NY” wants to help.
His first book, “Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny,” offers life guidance to black youngsters. It was written as e-mails sent between Harper and a young fan, and includes advice from the spiritual to the practical.
Woven throughout is empathy for the harsh realities faced by young black men, who are increasingly living on society’s fringes, new studies show. In 2000, more black men were in jail or prison than were in college or the military, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. And in 2004, 72 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were unemployed.
So Harper’s advice starts with how to choose good friends and make school less tedious, even fun. One chapter helps readers make sense of being raised by a single parent, true for two-thirds of black children. There’s advice on how to impress girls, recover from mistakes and not get caught up in today’s bling-bling culture.
Not typical topics of conversation for a young actor looking to elbow his way into leading man roles.
But Harper, 39, isn’t typical. He was studying economics and sociology at Brown University when he stumbled upon an acting class. He got a law degree and a master’s in public administration at Harvard University, graduating cum laude, while going on auditions.
Looking like a normal guy in button-down white shirt and scuffed black boots, he recently talked to The Associated Press at a hotel overlooking Central Park.
Highlights of the interview:
AP: You’ve mentored black boys for years, and you often visit schools. Is that where the book idea came from?
Harper: Yes. About a year-and-a-half ago, two young men at a middle school in New York pulled me aside after I gave a talk. They said they wanted to go to college, but no one in their family had done that and they didn’t have any money and they weren’t good at taking tests. “What can we do?” These were answerable questions, but I realized I can’t talk to every kid. I went home and started writing the book.
AP: The questions from your “young brother” are specific. “Hill, Why do girls change their minds a lot and act so complicated?” and “Hill, What if school is not for me?”
Harper: Those are all questions and issues that real young men have asked me personally. I write about my life lessons, but I bring other voices in, too. There are quotes from people like James Baldwin and Will Smith. I have an e-mail from the rapper Nas about being a man. I also have my professor from Harvard Law School, Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., write about how he succeeded even though his parents didn’t finish high school. I want to show that these people can exist in the same place. They’re not mutually exclusive.
AP: That’s tough for a lot of kids to accept, isn’t it? Many black kids feel like being good in school is not cool. So much of “cool” today starts and ends with hip hop.
Harper: My biggest problem with hip hop: It doesn’t explain the journey. Rappers say, “I went from standing on the corner to riding in a limo.” But they don’t talk about the work they did to get there. I mentor a little boy, and a few years ago he said, “Hill, I cannot be happy unless I have a platinum Rolex and a Bentley with 20-inch rims.” He was dead serious. Where does a 9-year-old get that? It’s from TV and music videos.
AP: You talk about the material culture and other heavy ideas, like AIDS and drugs, but this book is for youth.
Harper: Those are the problems they’re dealing with. The big challenge of the book was taking sophisticated ideas and making them understandable to even the most reluctant reader. I don’t talk down to them. The key was to NOT Bill Cosby it. He’s been looking down on people, talking down. That’s not inclusive.
AP: Cosby criticizes low-income blacks for buying trendy things and not speaking proper English.
Harper: Right, but come on, Bill, don’t have a double standard. You made money off of a character in your standup routine who talked like this: “Yabba, dabba, dooba, dabba.” Don’t forget that 40 years later.
AP: Some actors and musicians use fame to sell international causes — the war in Iraq or the Darfur crisis — but not many black celebrities talk about the problems in black America.
Harper: I think a lot want to, but they don’t feel like they’ve been given permission to. I’d like to try to change that paradigm and go back to the days of Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis, when black actors were some of the more intelligent and active members of the community, the beacons of positive change.
AP: Why didn’t you write a screenplay and make a film with these messages? Why a book?
Harper: People watch films with others around them, so boys in a theater with their friends would need to keep up a front and act cool. They won’t get the message. But reading a book is an experience they have with themselves. So I’m hoping black women will buy this book as a gift. Black boys probably won’t read it for a week or maybe months. But sooner or later, they’ll be alone one night and flip through and see the pictures. They just need to read half of one letter, and I got them.
AP: How can you be so sure?
Harper: A lot of these young men have nobody in their lives saying, “You’re brilliant. You can do anything you want.” So few have ever had a black male elder look them in the eye and say, “I love you.” In their whole life! This book is basically a series of love letters. It’s so needed.